Dexter: Early Cuts: A Slice of (Comic) Life
by Douglas L. Howard — Suffolk County Community College
November 05, 2009 – 13:45
Throughout its four season run, Dexter has effectively “staked” its place as a quality television thriller through its incorporation of other genres and other forms of media. (Considering its connections to art, film noir, comedy, the Gothic, and detective fiction, a number of authors in the anthology refer to this aspect of the show.) One genre in particular that the series has relied on is comic books, both in terms of theme and tone. In Season Two’s “The Dark Defender,” as he investigates the murder of a comic shop employee, Dexter specifically sees how his narrative fits within the superhero tradition: “tragic beginnings, secret identities, part human, part mutant, archenemies” (2.5). Not only does FBI Special Agent Frank Lundy worry that people have “found their own personal Batman (2.6) in the Bay Harbor Butcher murders, but, as his crimes “elevat[e] Dexter,” in the words of J. M. Tyree, “ to the status of … comic-book anti-hero” (85), the killer is even inclined to fantasize about himself within that role. He imagines that he comes to his mother’s aid in the metal storage container where she was murdered (and he was, essentially, “born”) and dispatches her killers with the Dark Defender’s “blade of vengeance [that] turns wrong into right” (2.5). (As Stan Beeler points out in his essay “From Silver Bullets to Duct Tape,” Dexter is a masked hero with very special problems” (229).) What was comic and what appeared in the episode as a budding comic artist’s vision thus takes on a darker tone and a deeper meaning through this human reenactment and through its reference to the more realistic looking murders that we have seen on the show, notably including the brutal death of his mother as he and his brother looked on.In an interview with Film and Video, Dexter cinematographer Romeo Tirone modifies the show’s comic connection ever so slightly (and reaffirms Dexter’s mixing of genres) when he describes it as “a film noir graphic novel” that draws on its graphic novel roots through the controversial perpetuation of its “hero myth” (Frazer). In an attempt to align Dexter (both the series and the character) more concretely with this world, Showtime has now developed a new animated web series, Dexter: Early Cuts, that considers the killer’s back story and his maturation as a “monster” raised on the code of Harry. Commenting on this reversal from live action to comic art, writer Lauren Gussis notes, in this clip about Early Cuts, that, while she would not “want to see a child getting shot” on the show, this disturbing image can now be used to great effect as part of a comic webisode, working more perhaps as an artistic representation for the audience than as the physical portrayal of violence toward children. Inasmuch as the terms of the storytelling have changed, then, so dramatically, how does this change the way that we view Dexter? Regardless of how directly the writers compare the character to the graphic novel tradition on the live action series, the larger ethical issues about justice, murder, public safety, and personal morality, as well as the ongoing debate surrounding the very existence of Dexter itself as a cable offering, continue to feel surprisingly real and to carry the show beyond the comic context at its origin. By literally transforming the premise of the series into an animated comic or graphic novel, have the makers of Early Cuts placed it within the more “highbrow” tradition of graphic novels like Maus, Watchmen, or The Dark Knight Returns, that dared to take on such weighty political, historical, and philosophical issues and demonstrated exactly how the medium could be used to make these statements? Or, while we might be inclined to see it as an extension of the show’s core mythology, does this change instead more explicitly turn Dexter into a comic book justice fantasy, not unlike “the Dark Defender,” and dilute the “real” impact of what we have been watching? (Here’s a link to the Early Cuts webpage and the latest webisodes: http://www.sho.com/site/dexter/earlycuts/home.do.) Works Cited: Beeler, Stan. “From Silver Bullets to Duct Tape: Dexter versus the Traditional Vigilante Hero.” Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television. Ed. Douglas L. Howard. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010. 221-230. Frazer, Bryant. “HD Cinematography on Showtime’s Dexter.” Film and Video. Access Intelligence, 26 October 2006. Web. 22 October 2009. Tyree, J.M.“Spatter Pattern.” Film Quarterly 67.1 (2008): 82-85.