One of my favorite webcomics is Deep Dive Daredevils.
It’s set in 1938, on an American submarine that seems to be contemporary, but is equipped with some futuristic 21st century style technology.
It’s a great webcomic, because it features, among other things:
- a unique combination of adventure, (retro) sci-fi, drama, and humour
- its own distinctive visual style, easy on the eyes, with details to dwell upon
- its own distinctive narrative style, easy to read, with hidden depth to muse about
- good use of tropes – following, avoiding, inverting, transcending them as appropriate
- the courage to go to dark places (stretching the limits of its proclaimed family friendliness)
- great pacing, both when read in weekly updates and in an archive binge
- excellent plotting – diving immediately into action, and descending deeper and deeper into the thick of it
The archive contains several different Deep Dive Daredevil stories, all of them wonderfully written and drawn, and I have the highest hopes for the ongoing story and the future.
In terms of plotting, Pitch Black Day is the masterpiece.
It’s also the story that goes to the darkest places, not because of mere bloodlust, but because the creators have a ruthless, Breaking Bad level determination to follow the story where it goes. There is also, in fine Breaking Bad style, a surprising amount of humour, of the kind that never breaks tension or drama.
Before I discuss the excellent plotting of that story, please go and check out the archive.
It will be worth your time. If you want to focus on the story Pitch Black Day, you only need to read 63 pages (chances are you will want to read more, though).
Now, if you are back, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss (that’s what the comments are for, duh).
Pitch Black Day literally starts by diving immediately into action:
- On the first page, we see the Deep Dive Daredevils’ submarine Custer at “4100 feet and diving”. There’s also the cute lady explorer who has chartered the sub for a secret mission, and tells the “boy mascot” first mate, and also the readers, that they will go after some dark and dangerous evil.
- The second page shows us how the unflinching lady handles an all-male crew, and when she enters her private chamber to
provide some (decent) fanservice“change into something more comfortable”, she opens a suitcase with an arsenal of widely different weapons. Later on we can notice that she changed, indeed, into something “more comfortable”, or rather something “better suited to fight in hand-to-hand combat”.
- The third page provides a stark contrast between the captions where we hear the captain explaining how their mission will make them “easy money”, and the splash picture showing some strange fish-men creatures approaching the submarine from below.
On the next couple pages the submarine is cracked open and boarded by hostiles, and on page nine the lady, Abigail, appears among the men in her combat gear and informs the crew – and us – that they are vampires, “obviously”. That last word is a brilliant way to give away that she is an undaunted fighter against the forces of evil, and that their sudden appearance is not at all surprising. We then see that one of the sailors, Deveraux, has been “turned” , and that he abducts the ship’s Spock character, the noble scientist Dr. McCarver. On page twelve, at the end of chapter one, we see that his captor is the timeless vampire master himself, Dracula.
So, at the end of chapter one, we are not only set up, but set taut.
How many storytellers dare to fire off so many arrows so early?
The second chapter combines two elements that are most unlikely to be combined:
- The briefing scene, in the submarine’s war room, where Abigail explains how she is after Dracula and how she wanted to surprise him (alas, that didn’t work too well). What better way to start a briefing scene than with “What I don’t understand is where you get off leading us blind straight into the gates of hell”?
- The the-villain-gloats-about-his-victory-and-explains-his-plan scene, which comes this early because Dracula already managed to take one of the main protagonists. That the villains explains his evil master plan actually makes sense here, because, as we learn on the last page of the chapter, Dracula has managed to “turn” Dr. McCarver into his top henchman, who will help him to darken the earth and destroy human civilisation with a rocket that spreads dust into the upper atmosphere.
The direct contrast between these two scenes is fascinating, and the interplay – the switches between the two plot strands – is masterfully executed, with each reveal in one strand being emphasized by the follow-up in the other.
How many storytellers dare to give away so many secrets before even the midpoint is reached?
In the middle chapter, the action turns on its head:
After cleaning up the submarine from its “vampire infection” by an exorcism done by the ship’s chaplain Father O’ Flaherty, the Deep Dive Daredevils start a mission to fight back, and to rescue Doc McCarver. Joe, the boy frist mate, his three-legged dog Cup, and McGinty, friend of the missing – turned – sailor Deveraux, take a small craft and crash into Dracula’s underwater castle. Together with Abigail, who had joined them as a hidden stowaway and brought a lot of weapons to the party, they fight the vampires. There is much to say about the visual and narrative style, the dialog and the many carefully crafted small details, but in this post I focus on plotting. The hopefully begun counterstrike comes to a dead end when, after McGinty leaves the team to follow and rescue his comrade, Abigial surrenders, if quite obviously as a tactical measure, and, with Joe and Cup, is taken to Dracula.
How many storytellers dare to present “the jaws of defeat” long before it’s time “to snatch victory from them”?
Bonus question: How many bloggers dare to use hanging prepositions?
The plot becomes more complex, but never convoluted, in the fourth chapter:
After Abigail kills off all of the other vampires with her ultimate secret weapon – weaponized garlic – there are three one-on-one fights advancing in parallel:
- Dracula, injured but still powerful, wants to destroy Abigail, who has by now been revealed to be his arch-nemesis’ granddaughter as well as a secret agent
- Docula – the brave Dr. McCarver turned vampire – wants to torture Joe, his shipmate, friend, trustee and protegé, because his has turned evil really hard
- On Draculas submarine that is about to surface and launch the rocket of devastation, Deveraux wants to kill McGinty lest he would interfere with the evil undertaking
In a fourth plot strand, the Custer supports the “away team” by attacking Draculas underwater lair with depth charges, and then chases Draculas submarine to destroy it stop the rocket launch.
Once again, the context switches are all done masterfully, whether between pages or within a page, to establish perfect pacing.
One great example is how between the two pages that show the Custer deep down searching for the enemy submarine, and on the surface ready to attack it with torpedoes respectively, there are two pages inserted, one that is set on the enemy sub with McGinty and Deveraux, and the other showing the fights in Dracula’s castle, thus giving the submarine time enough to surface and get into attack position.
At the end of the chapter the enemy submarine is sunk, but the rocket is on its way, with McGinty clinging on, still trying to disable it.
All four chapter breaks are cliffhangers, either dramatic reveal, dark foreboding, high tension or stupefying suspense.
After each chapter break, there is a short interlude:
They contain the back matter: Several stunningly beautiful drawn facsimile books, letters, notes, and documents, explaining backstory of both Dracula and Abigail.
The last page of the final interlude contains a surprising twist: Abigail is a rogue agent, disowned by the secret agency that trained and controlled her, enraged by the death of her mentor (by the hands of Jack The Ripper), and on a personal feud against Dracula. This also finally explains why she lead the Deep Dive Daredevils so recklessly into danger without sufficient information or back-up arangements: Full disclosure was never an option.
The fifth and final chapter starts with Dracula seemingly finishing off Abigail.
Joe, on the other hand, bound and helpless, physically, before Docula, manages to enrage him against his master, by pointing out that he is now even more “second banana” than he was as the submarine’s science officer. McGinty manages to fend off Deveraux, and dismante the electronics of the rocket, causing it to crash into the sea.
The big surprise and (semi-) final twist is that Doc frees Abigail and helps her to kill Dracula, which he could not do himself, so that he can be free of his influence and become an even worse evil overlord than Dracula ever was.
Then comes the darkest page of all, at the end of which Docula is only seconds away from severely harming and torturing Joe. How many storytellers …
But, surprising yet inevitable, after Dracula’s body falls to dust, the good doctor turns back into a human, because Draculas particular strain of vampirism was supernatural rather than biological.
Closing out with a short denouement, which also sets up the Deep Dive Daredevils to fight, ultimately, against Dracula’s evil allies.
But first, they will have to regroup, reconcile, restore, regret …
It may come as a disappointment, but the answer to all the questions above is: Surprisingly many. All those people who create the comics, movies, TV shows and novels that we love so much. But my goal with this post was not to convince you that the creators of the Deep Dive Daredevils are unmatched, but that they are en par with the best.
By the way, for me, the most intriguing thought is that I never expected to love the comic that much, before I dared to dive deep into it. It’s described as golden-age adventure, with a boy hero and his three-legged dog, an all-knowing scientists, magic and other supernatural stuff, etc. etc.
And if that list will appeal to fans of the genre, for me, it’s more a list of “all the ingredients of failure”.
But that’s a topic for another blog post:
Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure will be published next Friday.
Hear from you today, see you next week.