‘Artful’ demonstrates how classics can be made better with vampires
A review by Osvaldo Padilla
I can take or leave Charles Dickens. But Peter David’s work is another matter altogether.
For decades now, David’s name on a comic book meant that you could rest assured that the title in your hands was worth giving up your hard-earned dollars. He’s expertly taken characters considered secondary, such as the Hulk, Supergirl and Aquaman and turned them into hot properties. His run on X-Factor since 2005 still manages to produce one of the most consistently excellent books month after month. But with David’s latest book “Artful,” the question for this reader was whether or not I cared to read a period piece written as a novel instead of a graphic work. (Never mind that David has about 50 novels under his belt. Until now, I had come to know him strictly for the comic books.)
When I met David at Supercon in Miami this July, he was promoting the book and enjoying explaining the clever premise and its inspiration to anyone and everyone who would listen. Despite the fact that I had never read Oliver Twist (yeah, I need to read more novels and fewer comics) his fascination with the subject proved contagious. He was, after all, Peter David — I could rest assured, couldn’t I?
“I was reading ‘Oliver Twist’ and I started to notice some interesting things about Fagin,” said David. “He tended to only come out at night. When he came out during the daytime, he stuck to the shadows. His clothing was rather all concealing. He never eats anything. He never drinks anything. He is at one point physically described as having no teeth except for a pair of dog-like fangs. And I read all this and I said, ‘Oh my God, Fagin’s a vampire. It’s the only thing that makes sense.’ I thought, I should have somebody hunt him. Oliver Twist wasn’t gonna do that, because he just usually whines. And one thing led to another and I ended up writing ‘Artful,’ the previously untold story of the Artful Dodger — hunter of vampires, among other things.”
“Artful” spends a good amount of time filling us in on the Dickens back-story as well as the “front story” if you will — the means by which Fagin and the Artful Dodger end up in “Artful” after having been convicted of crimes at the end of Dickens’s classic. In anybody else’s hands, this kind of exposition could kill the story before it begins. Maybe it’s that we trust David, or maybe he tears into the setup with such wit and relish that we can’t help but keep moving along with him.
Whether we’re getting to know Jack Dawkins, aka: The Artful Dodger, for the first time or probing deeper into the character, he’s a sympathetic and engaging protagonist — and to hear David tell it, a much more compelling hero than the weepy Oliver Twist. Interesting too is how David uses the matter of Fagin’s Jewishness. In the original story, “the Jew” as he was often referred to, appears to have been something of a miserly, hateful caricature. David remedies that, having Fagin draw strength from his heritage while simultaneously maintaining the character’s loathsomeness. In this 19th century romp, David draws in literary and historical characters from outside Dickens’s universe as well, all of them caught up in a plot where the very future of Britain lies in the balance.
Once David is done with his setup, the story moves briskly. There are the twists that we’ve come to expect from the master storyteller. London is a dark and dreadful place, particularly for the poor, for whom justice is meted out by a distressingly unjust magistrate. Of course, the magistrate is also leader of a band of bloodsuckers in a rush to catch prey that will promote their dark agenda. Dodger, a quick-footed pickpocket who nevertheless lives by a code, inevitably gets wrapped up in the plot when he moves in to defend a mysterious wide-eyed girl. There’s plenty of cat-and-mouse, the ticking clock, the fate of the kingdom and impossible odds. And yes, there are bites to necks, frenzied carriage rides, bludgeoning with blunt instruments, stakes to the heart and gruesome vampire decompositions. As usual, David gives us enough warmth and complexity to make us care beyond the action sequences.
“Artful” is fun, funny and exciting stuff. Perhaps if Dickens had revealed his characters as vampires, I would have stuck around past the first few pages of “Oliver Twist.” With “Artful,” getting through to page 276 was sheer pulpy pleasure.
Peter David, what’cha reading?
“Right now I’m getting current with reading Stephen King. I’m reading ‘Doctor Sleep.’ And then I’ll probably go straight in to ‘Mr. Mercedes.’”
“Artful: A Novel”
By Peter David
Published by 47North
Available on Amazon.com
Osvaldo Padilla is a 25-year veteran of the mainstream media conspiracy. He’s a professional journalist who currently works as a managing editor at Florida Weekly where he does his part to obfuscate the Illuminati’s grand scheme. He has won several Florida Press Association awards for his coverage of health care reform, drug addiction and other serious matters. He also writes a comic book called Amanda and the Big Giant Eyeball. @waddyisosvaldo