With Image Comics pumping out so many successful books and a body of work as lengthy as J. Michael Straczynski’s (JMS), it surprises me that not many people are talking about Dream Police.
Dream Police, originally published as a one-shot by Straczynski and Mike Deodato in 2005, came out of retirement this past spring as an ongoing series through Image Comics. The art is being done by Sid Kotian, the colors of issue #1 by Bill Farmer. Dream Police blends fantasy and noir to give us a story that is familiar, yet distant. This sort of story opens itself up for JMS who is a master of world building and character creation to let his imagination run wild. Dream Police adheres to many tropes of the noir genre, but the fantasy element allows some wiggle room to explore unfamiliar territory.
We’re thrown into a world called the Dreamscape. The atmosphere feels natural for a place people from the waking world go when they dream. It’s dark, mysterious, but has the ability to change to fit the dreamers’ desires. At a glance, it’s a generic cityscape, but with further examination you’ll notice New York City-like skyscrapers, pagodas, Indian palace inspired buildings and even a European village penthouse suit. It’s a wonderful representation of how our conscious and subconscious fuses the familiar and foreign to create the architecture of our dreams.
The story begins with narration from our main character, Joe Thursday, giving us all of the information we need. He sets the stage by telling us we’re in the Dreamscape and that he carries a badge. He’s Dream Police. He protects the Dreamscape. That’s it. The tone of the narration is true to the noir genre and gives us an introspective look at Joe, a truth-seeking cop that doesn’t always show emotion.
A detective wouldn’t be a detective without a partner right?
That’s where Frank Stafford comes in. We meet him in the precinct talking to Joe, asking him how long they’ve been partners, to which Joe replies, “Since we started here” and leaves it at that. It’s the first bit of dialogue we see in the story and says a lot about Joe. He doesn’t question authority, because he is the authority. He accepts things the way they are. This back and forth lays the thematic foundation of the entire series so far – truth, questions, answers, mystery.
Joe and Frank take a call for a code 4-17 – a shifter resisting authority. Each issue is broken up by police calls that reveal more about the Dreamscape and the characters that inhabit it. This is where JMS’s writing shines brightest. He does a great job at creating an organized, thought-out world filled with characters that maintain a hierarchy – dreamers, wisps, changelings, terrifying nightmares, elders, architects, supervisors and of course, dream police. He’s created different parts of the Dreamscape as well. We have the dreaming world, areas called the darkness and the verge. Each character and territory within the Dreamscape has a place and purpose – there is order.
This is integral to the plot because as the story progresses we start to see things fall out of order. Of course, this is what the Dream Police are for, to put things back to the way they’re supposed to be. It wouldn’t be a detective comic without some mystery would it?
At the end of issue #1, Joe and Frank are eating at their favorite diner when Frank questions the purpose of the Dream Police, where they fit into it all. Joe replies that they’re Dream Police and claims that’s what they’ve always been just like Frank’s always been his partner. Frank soon admits uncertainty and thinks that things are going to go wrong soon. He gets up to use the restroom because he doesn’t feel well and then we’re clued into something going wrong. A woman comes back in his place and says, “Of course, I’m right, I’m your partner” and questions how long they’ve been partners to which Joe says, “You’ve always been my partner, Katie, ever since we started here” and they walk away, none the wiser.
Throughout the first two to three issues, Joe’s character is challenged by questions he’d rather not worry about. For instance, in the opening scene in issue #2 Katie asks Joe if he ever wonders, like, why don’t Dream Police ever sleep? He’s faced with these questions, but tends to shrug them off until things start to directly happen to him. As humans we tend to let a lot of things sit on the back burners of our minds until they become relevant, but there are moments where Joe flip-flops rather quickly. There is a turning point moment in issue #2 where Joe falls asleep and dreams of Frank. He’s reluctant at first, but it by the end of the issue he is the one posing questions to Katie. Throughout the next two issues, Joe starts to ask the questions he used to ignore. Frank starts to appear more and more as the series progresses and this becomes a vital plot point in issue #4.
The pacing of the story can be frustrating at times. Too slow in some parts, too fast in others. There are times that the police calls just get in the way of the main story and seem to only fill page space until the next plot point is hinted toward. They aren’t entirely pointless because they do help show the Dreamscape and display some wonderful art by Kotian, but the story seems very formulated at times. As I mentioned earlier, there are moments that go too quickly, like Joe’s dream and his sudden curiosity. Some of those moments could be drawn out longer to make Joe a rounder and sometimes, less boring of a character.
JMS does a good job with building relationships. Joe and Katie have great chemistry. The opening scene in issue #3 illustrates the playful, back-and-forth relationship that they share. We see that they do care for one another and trust each other, something that is monumental for a by-the-book, truth-seeking, truly good cop like Joe. He’s created interesting characters, like the Hawaiian shirt donning, but highly powerful supervisors, the mysterious elders, cheeky shifters and terrifying nightmares.
All of these are brought to life by Sid Kotian. The art is without a doubt true to the noir genre. The characters have very defined facial structures, square chins and high cheekbones. Kotian uses shadows to his advantage, often occupying chunks of panels at a time. There are a lot of upward angles and sharp edges that accentuate the city and its structures. That isn’t to say that you’ve wandered into Sin City. The Dreamscape has a lot of unique qualities that Kotian has done a fantastic job of drawing. I’ve mentioned the nightmares before. These are creatures that work with the Dream Police, but are often used as threats because once a dreamer is plagued by a nightmare they won’t be enjoying the Dreamscape for a while. Kotian created a sleek, slender bodied character to represent the nightmares. They are dark, but carry a mystery and weight to them. They often travel in groups and wear half-mask hat things that cover their true likeness. We actually haven’t seen what their faces look like, but Joe is the only person that will stare at them while their masks are off. Joe says he thinks that makes the nightmares respect him, that he doesn’t show fear.
The colors done by HiFi are effective and liven up the Dreamscape. It’s interesting because with a noir/detective story, we expect a lot of dark colors and shadows, which we get with Dream Police, but due to the fantastical nature of the story, we also spoiled with some beautifully colored images. There is a scene in issue #2 where a dreamer is on a drug trip in the Dreamscape. The color palette switches from blacks and deep purples to a blend of bright blues, whites, and softer purples. It’s magnificent. HiFI utilizes a great deal of soft, warm tones throughout the story as well. Most resonant is a heartfelt scene on the beach at the end of issue #4 where Kate and Joe are eating ice cream. Kate opens up to Joe that regardless of all that is happening, she is his friend, not just his partner and she’s sticking with him. There are sand-dolphins and a warm horizon that resembles a sunset – however that works in the Dreamscape.
I’m not sure why Dream Police isn’t getting more attention. It could be that JMS is absent on social media or that Sid Kotian is not a very well-known artist. It could be that with books like Saga, East of West, Black Science, Fatale, and now The Fade Out on the shelf, readers are already getting their fantasy and noir fix. All that aside, the typical noir elements ground it as a noir story, but the fantasy aspects allow us to escape and be surprised enough that it has everything a good noir/fantasy hybrid should have to keep readers interested – mystery, solid characters and a new take on the familiar.