What a goofy-serious-’70s Scooby Doo-esque joy to be back with Wilder, Macy, Dot, Karma and Ed in Cannon Cove!
After having a scarily-fun time of it with the witty aspirant teenagers in Misfit City Vol. 1 in which treasure maps were found, villains appeared and boring small town life got a suitably adrenaline-pumped mystery-to-be-solved shot in the arm, we’re back for more searching and running and danger as everyone uses their head and hearts to try and find Black Mary’s hidden treasure.
Written by Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Kurt Lustgarten and illustrated by Naomi Franquiz, Misfit City is a thoroughly-delightful blend of the kind of convenient-clue finding silliness of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons – fall into the sea, climb up a jetty ladder and find a missing buoy? Nothing to it – close friends who enjoy clever banter (the kind I never managed as a teenager) and the kind of happy ending that sees the bad guys put in their place, justice served and treasure found.
Nope, none of that is a spoiler; you can see where Misfit City is heading pretty much from the word go, which is not in even the very slightest of ways a criticism since they take a good old rollicking teenagers in over their head mystery and pay gloriously-immersive homage to it.
There are only so many stories under the sun, or is that the gloomy weather of Cannon Cove whose 127th Annual Shuck Fair is a victim of squally rain in the cleverly-elegant recap that kicks off Vol. 2 of one of the freshest, most fun comics around at the moment, and Smith and Lustgarden make hay with it in a wholly original, highly-appealing way.
Front and centre is not as you might expect the treasure hunt, though that propels the narrative with hearty, tense momentum that is as much over-the-top sleuthing as it is clear and present danger, but the friendships that anchor this tight-knit, diverse group of friends.
Good old ’50s-cinematic serial fun as locating Black Mary’s treasure in the dank caves and mysterious islands of Cannon Cove is, what really keeps you invested in the storyline is how much the intrepid teens care about each other.
Like all close friends, their bonds are sometimes put to the test, and everyone is very, very different – that extends even down to their look and clothes that they wear which are winningly-consistent, allowing you to pick out each character, all the time, with ease – but when push comes to shove, usually emanating from the Denby siblings, avariciously distant relatives of the supposedly-dead Bertie Denby or the “dead” man’s “friend” Horace Shipp (who is more nuanced than you initially give him credit for, they are there for each other, even when Wilder’s mum ends up, well, a little different to her usual by-the-books Sheriff-ic personal thanks to Black Mary’s pretty but magical locket.
Wisely Smith and Lustgarden have put a great deal of effort into the characters first and the narrative second, giving us a rip-roaring story that is never less than beguilingly compelling (and is wrapped up perfectly), but which is fuelled always by the characters and their uniquely-interesting personalities, each of which plays a key role in solving the mystery.
So fascinatingly good are the characters that you want to keep spending time with them long after the mystery has been happily Scooby Doo-ed – not exactly with Misfit City its own wonderfully-original creation but there is a playful element at work here, as well as robust sense of oneliner-drenched humour – which is surely the best vote of confidence in any kind of story, no matter what kind of genre or medium in which it takes place.
Even the bad guys and gals come off as more complex than most stories of this ilk; Sure the Denby sister is your usual calculating villainness with the cool demeanour and the razor-sharp mind but her brother, though endlessly-loyal is more layered and prone to fan girl over his favourite male movie star who played a big part in the classic film The Gloomies which gave Cannon Cove its one and only claim to fame.
So too is Horace Shipp who could’ve been just another trope-heavy guy threatening and blustering his way to the treasure which he has no right to – technically neither do Wilder, Dot et al but there’s a neat twist in the story that bequeaths the treasure in a wholly-satisfying way to the right person – but who is given a whole new dimension in a gently-moving scene in a cemetery.
It’s not what you’d expect from a story like this normally but then neither would you expect a female-centric cast (from most comic books at least, sad to say) but then Misfit City is all about telling a classic tale in a winningly-subversive fashion, upending expectations and doing it brilliantly well.
For all the fun and adventuring, and there is happily plenty of both, there’s some lovely quiet moments where characters get a chance to talk openly and honestly with each other.
While none of these conversations advance the mystery-solving plot per se, that is fine since that narrative, while obviously important, is never the main drive in the series; relationships are, and Smith and Lustgarden don’t forget that for a second, seamlessly weaving in character moments into an oft-times full speed ahead story while never once missing a beat.
It’s an added layer of richness to Misfit City which ramps up the enjoyment factor, and which helps you to better understand why these characters mean so much to each other, come what may, and why, in the face of a host of reasons not to, that they’re compelled to see the mystery right through to its end, stalled fishing boats and rickety 200-year-old rope bridges included.
Take the fact that Wilder, the one most anxious at the start of the story to escape the stultifying surrounds of Cannon Cove at the first available opportunity, may have feelings for sweet, handsome Todd, the brother of her best friend Macy.
Macy isn’t happy first but out on the fishing boat heading towards the island where the long-lost treasure of Black Mary, who is not all she’s been portrayed to be either, the two close friends talk it through and harmony is found once again, just like real friends who may clash but usually come out the other side as close as before.
It’s that attention to character and relational level, bolstered by Franquiz’s beautiful artwork which is never less than worldbuilding-ly impressive and evocative, which powers Misfit City, a comic book series which refreshingly puts female characters wholly front-and-centre, which values a cracklingly-good story but prizes its characters even more, and which takes us on an escapist journey (at Halloween no less!) that is goofy and fun but emotionally meaningful too, proof you can have your ’70s mystery narrative and people you care about too.
Onward to the next adventure I say because as we all know, “The End” in these types of serial stories always comes with an ellipsis and a question mark, just like life itself which in the hands of Smith and Lustgarden is quite wonderful indeed.