Deus ex machina – it's a great phrase. Although it's Latin, we can trace its origins as a concept back to Greek theater where its creation is generally attributed to the Athenian playwright Euripides, in the fifth century B.C. It means "god from a machine", and refers to a particular trick that many playwrights used when their plots got stuck or just to clean up the end of the story. They would put an actor dressed as one of the gods into some rigging and lower him onto the stage, as though he were descending from the heavens. This appearance of the god could bring a swift and fortuitous resolution to any problem. The Romans picked up the habit from the Greeks and we got the phrase from them.
Nowadays deus ex machina is considered a shortcut or a cheat, but it can still be a fun device. Especially when the god is the machine, or at least a robot with seemingly infinite powers descending from the sky to free the good guys and help end the first story of John Troutman's Basil Flint, P.I.
Flint's a Private Investigator and a drunk with a hanger-on female sidekick named Amanda Noname who's looking for some adventure. He quickly picks up another female sidekick, the ever-horny Andie, and has recently added another woman to the posse in the form of Felicity, one of his sisters. The one who's a spy. Thank goodness her name doesn't start with an "A."
The main problem with Basil Flint, P.I. is that it can't decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It appears to be the continuation of a previous comic (Sporkman), or at least a follow-on to the lives of a couple of characters from that comic (and definitely minus the superhero). The universe is the same, with the Secret Evil Organization (S.E.O.) and a history of previous encounters between Andie and Amanda. Sporkman ran from January 2000 to October 2001. The Basil Flint, P.I. archives can be navigated from strip to strip, from The Massive Calendar, or through individual stories on the pull-down menu. There's also a short Keenspot Mini-Series starring Flint that ran in December 2000.
But Basil Flint, P.I. the comic wavers back and forth between trying to be a mystery comic and a spoof of the Private Investigator genre. In between, it periodically nosedives into extremely bad taste and obscure humor. Rude sexual jokes and references are rampant.
Overall, Basil Flint, P.I. gives the impression of a creator experimenting with plotting, with character development, with humor, and most especially with art. And that's ok, but it would be good to know this going into the comic so as to set/prepare the reader's expectations.
Troutman has changed art styles at least three times over the course of the comic. He started with a highly cartoony and unrealistic style where two-thirds of each character's face was dominated by giant eyes – a continuation of his trademark Sporkman-style art. He experimented with a looser, sketchier but more realistic style ("small eyes") for a few months in 2002 before switching back to the big-eye style.
Most recently, he's switched again, this time at the beginning of August 2003. This latest change presents a more proportional style, although throughout the month of August the eye size has increased. Per Troutman's message board, this is due to his playing around with the new style – the slightly larger eyes will be standard without a return to his original big-eye style. The new style is probably the most aesthetically pleasing, with clean, sharp lines, bright colors, and a look that's still unique without being quite so extreme as previous incarnations.
However, the writing is experimental too, with the first storyline, "A Right Jolly Dead Elf," ending with the previously discussed deus ex machina. The second story, "The 18th Green Conspiracy" has a better, more consistent plot – an actual mystery, complete with a pretty logical conclusion. But the story that follows – "Road Bingo and Small Eyes/The Legend of Boozefoot" – just ends, without actually wrapping up the plot or providing any explanation. All of the stories from "Year One: Going Nowhere Fast" have motivation plot holes and technical plot problems. There's no real explanation as to why any of these women would stay with Flint given the abuse he doles out. There are lots of references early on to a tragedy in Flint's past, about five years ago, that could just be when his dog died or it could be something more. Are the women attracted to this secret sorrow? Even if we imagine that these women get something out of the relationship, why would clients put up with it? It all seems to be in service of moving things forward just to get it done, rather then to actually tell a story.
The storylines that follow and close out "Year One" are shorter and more self-contained, but still full of bad jokes, puerile humor, and an obsession with alcohol.
However, once Troutman moves into "Year Two: Islands of Sanity" there's consistent plot! There's action! There's background explanations and character development! The lettering is more consistent and readable! There are still plot holes, like when Andie randomly wins a sweepstakes in which she gets a beach house fifty miles north of Hawaii and the whole cast leaves Phoenix, AZ to move there. There's still an obsession with sex, booze, and rudeness. In general, though, there's solid progress.
One place where the reader can best see Troutman's fantastic improvement is in a comparison between an interview with an information source (and of course, possible suspect) in Troutman's first storyline, and a similar interview in his current story. Less screaming, less random insanity, less push for the big funny and more interest in advancing the plot and scoring a little humor on the side. That's a good summary of the general changes in the comic.
Overall, Basil Flint, P.I. is not an intellectual exercise. It's a rude, crude, lewd, and lascivious experiment in creating sustainable plots and believable characters while still staying within reach of its humorous roots. The characters grow on you, kind of like a difficult-to-see layer of mold grows on the surface of an open beer, unnoticed until it is accidentally confused with a fresh beer and gulped down. KRAK! (Lightning strikes) And they're in your system.