When a story opens with a struggling comic telling unfunny jokes in the world’s sleaziest comedy club, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s going to be depressing. And disgusting. And possibly—just possibly—poignant.
As far as subverting expectations go, two out of three isn’t so bad. Dying Is Easy, written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Martin Simmonds, is far from poignant and pretty clean by today’s standards, but it is, to some degree, depressing.
It’s also a book that seems like it can be funny, but is content to just try to be funny.
It is the 1990s. Leno is big, Friends is on the air, and retired police detective Syd Homes spends his evenings trying to make it big in stand-up. It isn’t going very well, and Syd ends his set by giving way for the younger, more attractive, more successful Carl Dixon. Carl steals jokes, sleeps with older executives to gain favors, and is generally hated by the rest of the comedy club regulars. In fact, Carl is found dead in an alley right outside the club before the night is done.
Syd becomes the prime suspect for the murder, and it is made clear from the start that the police quiet literally hates him and would like nothing more than to throw him behind bars. On the run and at the same time frantically trying to solve the mystery of who actually killed Carl Dixon, Syd begins a wild adventure that is, well, perhaps not as zany as it thinks it is.
There’s wackiness to be found here, no doubt, but the action moves at such a brisk and compressed pace that none of it feels very real. The 90s setting does little to set the setting apart, and really isn’t good for much other than a few throwaway references. There are rooftop chases, car chases, and underwater brawls, but it’s all a bit forgettable.
What’s most enjoyable about Dying Is Easy is the mystery itself. Syd proves to be sharp and observant from the opening beats of the story, and the clues he gathers can always be seen on the page. Readers will probably find themselves flipping back and forth to confirm something that Syd had noticed earlier—and it’s really there. Mystery-solving types will enjoy this immensely.
The art is done in a scratchy ink-pen style that manages to be just a bit hazy, but totally legible. The big action setpieces may be ultimately uninteresting, but they are definitely easy to follow. Faces are also drawn well, with the many offbeat characters Syd runs into being immediately recognizable. The art serves both the action and the dialogue well, and as mentioned earlier, hides clues that a reader might not notice right away.
The mystery is well-plotted and concludes in a satisfying manner, and in the grand tradition of comic-book origin stories and television show pilots, Syd “Sh*t-Talk” Homes is born, presumably to tackle more mysteries even as he continues to pursue his dream of being a funny man. Whether this actually happens remains to be seen.
Dying Is Easy squanders its sleazy 1990s comedy club aesthetic for what turns out to be a perfectly good mystery. It’s enjoyable, but also a bit of a shame. For mystery fans who love the act of trying to solve the case as the story progresses, this is a worthy read.