Tue
Jul 11 2017 3:00pm

Review: Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians by Fred Van Lente is a brilliant debut that is both an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and a thoroughly contemporary show-business satire (available July 11, 2017).

When a comedian bombs on stage, it's said that “they're dying.” There's even a classic quote that states, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” So there's a natural connection between the worlds of comedy and murderous crime fiction. In his debut novel, Ten Dead ComediansFred Van Lente draws upon that connection to create a captivating, hilarious, and overall fun murder mystery/satire. What makes the novel truly engaging, however, is the superb character development of his cast.

Van Lente is a veteran comic book creator who's worked for companies like Marvel, Valiant, and Dark Horse. He's also self-published several books. He's written both fantastical tales and biographical ones about prominent philosophers and comic book creators. So he knows how to mesh genre details with grounded real-world issues.

He also knows how to mine them for humor. A clear example of this comes early on when he gives readers a fake IMDb page for one of the book’s prominent characters. That page includes movie titles and descriptions like the following, which in this world was the kickoff film to a blockbuster franchise:

Help! I Married a Cat (1995)
As Jerry Russell

Shallow ladies’ man learns the true meaning of love when his eccentric aunt's will stipulates that in order to inherit her fortune, he has to wed her ill-tempered calico, Miss Puffytail.

The fake IMDb page is just one of several sections designed to not only flesh out the setting of Van Lente's story but his characters as well. Over the course of the book, we not only get a fun and fantastically paced murder mystery but also little interstitial segments from a point in the career of the cast of Ten Dead Comedians. This allows the reader to see each of the characters at work and how what they do and say reflect their individual personalities.

The sheer number of different individual personalities is another area where Ten Dead Comedians shines. The characters all share the occupation of professional funny person, but they're all different types of comedians. You've got the failed comedian, a female comedian known for her jokes about sex and sexuality, a stand-up comedian who tours relentlessly, a childlike prop comic loved by his chosen audience but loathed by his peers, a comedian known for her affinity with insults, a comedian turned talk show host, a crusading social justice comedian who hosts her own podcast, and a “Blue Collar”-style comedian who is shopping for fine art when we first meet him.

The different characters and their styles help ground Van Lente's twisty murder mystery and give it an aspect of fun. We're given enough insight and detail into each comic that they feel like real people rather than archetypes. Sure, their acts and styles may be inspired by famous real-world comedians, but each of them has their own quirks and personal demons that make them feel like real people that we can identify with, root for, and even root against in some cases.

The eight comics are the reader's eyes and ears at different points in the story. We follow their perspectives as they travel to a private island and meet the two other comedians: a reclusive movie star and his aspiring personal assistant. The shifting points of view are a lot of fun and really add to the book's pacing. We get longer chapters with each of the comics, and we also get really funny and effective short ones too—like the following, which is from the perspective of the widely loathed prop comic:

Ollie lost his breath running up the hill to the cabana, but halfway there he looked around and saw that no one was following him.

“Eff me in the a-hole,” he said out loud, and then bounded down the hill to look for the others.

Being allowed to spend time with these characters and see how they view the world means the reader will come to care about them. So the sudden bursts of violence and death in Ten Dead Comedians will evoke emotional reactions, whether it's to laugh, cheer, or wince in pain:

She dropped onto her back on the stone path and felt a sharp pain in her throat, which, she began to realize, came from something she had run into while cutting through the bamboo. Placed exactly at the level of her Adam's apple, it dug into the flesh of her neck, practically cutting it in half...

All of those elements combine together to make Ten Dead Comedians an incredibly enjoyable debut novel. It's a book that proves Van Lente is just as good at spinning fun and funny prose stories as he is at scripting enjoyable and witty comics.

 

To learn more or order a copy, visit:

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Dave Richards covers all things Marvel Comics for the Eisner Award-winning website Comic Book Resources and his book reviews and other musings can be found at his blog Pop Culture Vulture.

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