The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle
Written by Jim Butcher; Illustrated by Ardian Syaf
Del Rey; $19.95
I’m a Dresden Files n00b. Probably because I got my fill of supernatural detectives a long time ago. I still love John Constantine and Hellboy and Cal McDonald and Goon, but those are the guys who introduced me to the concept. I don’t need Anita Blake and I didn’t think I needed Harry Dresden. Actually, I’m still not sure that I need Harry Dresden, but I found out that he’s a lot more fun than I expected.
It helps me and my compulsive need to start series at the beginning that Welcome to the Jungle takes place before the first novel in Butcher’s Dresden series. It introduces the characters in an easy, natural way. Of course, it also helps that most of the characters are clichés.
I’ll come back and talk about Dresden in a minute, but the most formulaic characters are the police. Lt. Karrin Murphy is Dresden’s contact at the police department. She’s strong, smart, blonde, wears pantsuits, and though she trusts Dresden enough to hire him for cases, she rides him pretty hard. She’s the tough lieutenant from every ‘80s cop show you ever saw.
Her partner, Sgt. Carmichael, is Harvey Bullock. Or maybe Sam from Sam and Twitch. Or any other fat, balding, cynical detective.
Fortunately, neither of them is in the graphic novel a whole lot. Carmichael’s especially annoying when he is; Murphy less so. And in the back-matter, Butcher hints that Murphy and Dresden may fall for each other eventually. There’s no clue of that in Welcome to the Jungle, but knowing it makes me curious to see it develop. I’m such a romance softie.
Dresden is our detective. He has some qualities that bring Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade to mind, but he’s more his own character than Murphy and Carmichael are. He narrates with a sense of humor, but there’s no trying to imitate Raymond Chandler in his voiceovers. Butcher has his own voice and he lets it show. The nice thing is that it’s a genuinely funny and charming voice and it makes Dresden genuinely funny and charming as well. He’s a nice guy (flawed, but nice) and I enjoyed spending time with him. He also happens to be a wizard.
This was the part I wasn’t sure I was going to dig. I like John Constantine’s “street-level” magic, but I like Cal McDonald’s lack of magic even more. Make your detective too powerful (or a vampire) and you’ve lost me. Fortunately – at least what I can tell from Welcome to the Jungle – Dresden’s magic is about as powerful as Harry Potter’s early in the series. He has a few spells that he leans on, but most of his power is in his wits and his knowledge of the supernatural world.
I haven’t mentioned the plot of Welcome to the Jungle yet. It has to do with a murder at the zoo that’s just weird enough that the cops call in Dresden. The victim was found outside the zoo, but there’s a blood trail leading from him to the gorilla house and his blood was found inside one of the cages. As Murphy says, unless “the gorilla escaped its enclosure, killed the guard, got back inside, locked itself back in, but managed only partially to clean up the evidence,” there’s something else going on here. I won’t spoil what it is, but Butcher builds a good mystery out of it with just enough misdirection to keep you from guessing the identity of the plausible villain before you’re supposed to. And there’s a cute girl named Will who works at the zoo and gets pulled into the case.
I say that Will is cute, but that’s mostly out of how she’s written. Butcher makes her likable by giving her some sweet quirks and a big enough heart that she wants to help Dresden even though she’s afraid of him and the case. Syaf draws her like a supermodel with glasses.
Syaf is an okay artist. His layouts are nice, his action is dynamic, and he draws a mean gorilla. He has a hard time with certain facial expressions though and he’s only got a few body types, especially for women, which hurts characters like Will. He conveys the story very nicely, but I can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been if it had been illustrated by someone more practiced.
Still, I enjoyed the hell out of Butcher’s story and there were some nice moments with the art (usually during the action sequences), so I’m curious enough about Dresden to want to know more. I don’t have time to wade into the novels anytime soon, but I did just add the TV show to my Netflix queue.