Not Your Television’s Dexter:

On Dexter #1, from Marvel Comics

Dexter #1Dexter #1

Writer: Jeff Lindsay. Art: Dalibor Talajic. Cover: Michael del Mundo. Variant cover #1: Dalibor Talajic. Variant cover #2: Ive Svorcina. Publisher: Marvel Comics.

I’m a sucker for serial killers. They’re my guilty pleasure. I successfully avoid crummy action movies. I haven’t read James Patterson, the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, or anything of the sort. But I’ll read anything with Hannibal Lecter.

Maybe it’s that I’m fascinated by the darkness in people, often barely acknowledged but visible squirming just beneath the skin of all those polite family men. I’m a writer, and writers are supposed to be fascinated by such darkness.

Maybe I’m just very comfortable with my own darkness and that of others. The idea that normal people fantasize about murder and other horrible things (or that this is part of Dexter’s appeal) doesn’t exactly shock me.

Maybe as someone who’s driven, I also understand what it’s like to feel compelled.

But for whatever reasons, I’m a sucker for an inventive murder. That the killer is doing something radical, illegal, inventive, even artistic… it’s all the narrative justification I need.

So it’s no surprise that I like Dexter.

Oh, I resisted it. And I know it’s a guilty pleasure. The Showtime TV show can be stylish and occasionally gets at deep issues. It can also be B-movie material. But it’s fun, and it pushes my serial killer button.

So you know I had to review when Dexter came to comics, with this week’s Dexter #1, from Marvel Comics.

The issue is the first of five, and it’s written — in an impressive coup for Marvel — by Dexter creator Jeff Lindsay. Marvel doesn’t do many licensed properties, and it’s a testament to Dexter’s popularity, in both novels and on TV, that Marvel’s done so with this one.

For those who don’t know, Dexter debuted in Lindsay’s 2004 novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Five sequels have followed, with a sixth (Dexter’s Final Cut) scheduled for 17 September of this year.

Meanwhile, the Showtime series debuted in 2004, and its first season adapted Darkly Dreaming Dexter. From then onward, the TV show has deviated from the novels. The show’s eighth and final season just began airing on 30 June.

So it’s a remarkably good time to launch a Dexter comic book. The comic is able to take advantage of the marketing for the final season of the TV show. And the comic will still be running when Lindsay’s new novel drops and when the TV show wraps just a few days later, on 22 September.

It’s important to note, however, that the comic book is part of the novels’ continuity, not that of the TV show. Thus, you’ll note that the characters in the comic bear at best a passing resemblance to the actors on the show.

Marvel hasn’t hidden this fact in its press releases. But there’s still a bit of bait and switch going on here. First, the comic’s called Dexter, like the TV show, and not one of the alliterative titles typically used by the novels. The comic’s logo is deliberately not the one used by Showtime, although it’s quite close, with the “T” stylized in such a way as to recall dripping blood (with fingerprint smudges in it — a nice touch). Finally, Dexter’s face is cropped on the cover, which prevents readers from noticing that the comic can’t use Michael C. Hall’s likeness. This even manages to work thematically, because Dexter’s a sociopath, only feigning to be normal, and the cropped face on the cover suggests that he doesn’t have a true identity.

While I don’t know all the legalities involved (obviously, the contract that allows the Showtime series doesn’t prohibit a comic based on the novels), this all smacks of a a rather textbook example of walking right up to the line of infringement without going over that line. Of course, it’s hard to blame Lindsay or Marvel for wanting to cash in on the show’s popularity, as is also suggested by the comic’s scheduling, and they’re apparently within their legal rights to do so.

However, viewers of the immensely popular show who are unfamiliar with the novels will doubtlessly be surprised when, on page four of the comic, Dexter’s wife Rita shows up without an editorial note in sight.

from Dexter #1, page 5

In both continuities, Rita starts out as Dexter’s girlfriend, whom he uses to appear normal despite his murderous instincts and sociopathic lack of feelings. She has two children, Cody and Astor, from a previous marriage.

In the TV show, the couple got married at the end of the third season and had a child named Harrison. She was killed off in the fourth-season finale, and her previous two children were quickly written out of the show, while Dexter continues to parent Harrison.

But while Rita’s been gone for three seasons on the TV show, she’s still very much alive in the novels. The couple marry at the end of the third novel (2007′s Dexter in the Dark). By this point, Dexter has identified her two children, Cody and Astor, as budding sociopaths, due to the abuse they suffered at the hands of their father; in fact, Cody kills for the first time in the same novel in which Dexter and Rita wed. Dexter and Rita have their own child, Lily Anne, in the fifth novel (2010′s Dexter is Delicious). Rita’s yet to be killed off.

Readers unfamiliar with the novels might guess that Rita’s presence means the comic is set before her death. Perhaps that’s intended, since discontinuities with the TV show seem to have been minimized. For example, there’s no sign of Cody and Astor in Dexter #1.

Dexter’s sister Deborah shows up in the comic’s final scene. And yes, she’s called Deborah in the novels, not Debra as she is in the TV show. She’s still a cop, and she knows that Dexter’s a serial killer — although that realization occurred at the end of the very first novel, rather than being a major plot point of the seventh season.

from Dexter #1, page 22

The plot of the first issue revolves around Dexter attending a high-school reunion. This might sound familiar. It was used in the sixth-season debut episode. But hey, the TV show’s borrowed a lot from the novels, so a little turnabout’s fair, I suppose.

Still, readers unfamiliar with the novels shouldn’t be too lost. Despite everything mentioned above, the similarities between the two continuities outweigh the differences. For example, both series have humanized Dexter and given him emotions, even if the novels haven’t abandoned the concept of his “Dark Passenger” as severely as the TV show’s seventh season has.

And while this first issue, by itself, isn’t a stunning Dexter story (in any medium), it’s a promising one. Dexter doesn’t understand the stupid partying at his high-school reunion, which with plenty of readers can surely identify. Of course, in us, it’s probably caused by over-intelligence or social awkwardness rather than sociopathy, but it’s still a good example of how good serial killer literature can get readers to identify with such characters or use them to illuminate more general issues.

At that same high-school reunion, Dexter meets Steve Gonzales, whom Dexter hasn’t seen since. Steve, we learn through flashback, was a bit of a bully to young Dexter — until Dexter put Steve on a table and held a knife over him. If Dexter intended to follow through, he was interrupted by an African-American janitor (with a gap in his teeth, no less). All these years later, Steve is known as “the Condo King,” to whom Rita’s obviously attracted. Steve thanks Dexter for stopping him from further bullying and credits Dexter with his success. But Steve’s ambiguous about what actually happened (suggesting he knows there’s something more to the event, something worth keeping secret), and Dexter senses that Steve hasn’t truly changed.

from Dexter #1, page 13

Since this is being published by Marvel Comics, it’s hard not to see Steve as Dexter’s Flash Thompson. Except that one suspects that Steve is likely to have grown up to be more like Harry Osborn — a villainous opposite of the protagonist. And comics are filled with such opposites, including some who grew up alongside their heroic opponent.

It’s not impossible that Lindsay intended such parallels. If Marvel’s press releases are to be believed, Lindsay’s a Marvel Comics fan.

Here’s hoping that Lindsay can tease Steve Gonzales into a real opposite number for Dexter, however short-lived an antagonist he may be.

And here’s hoping that, while some readers might pick up Dexter #1 thinking it’s tied into the TV show’s continuity and not the novels, some of those readers will migrate over into those novels (particularly with a new one coming out this September) to see what this “other” Dexter continuity is all about.

And finally, here’s hoping we’ll get more serial killer comics. Dexter included.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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