Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom
Out later this month is Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom, a terrific concept that unfortunately disappoints in the execution. This camp-based murder mystery is the debut graphic novel of co-writers Terry Blas and Molly Muldoon as well as artist Matthew Seely.
Seely has an animation background, which shows in the expressive and slightly exaggerated character design. It felt like I was watching a cartoon, in both good — clear emotion, colorful settings, outsized facial features — and bad ways — shortcut characterization, and a plot that didn’t really come together as tightly as a mystery should.
Jesse has been sent to “fat camp” for the summer instead of the fashion program she wanted. Tony is a returning camper, a shy black kid with glasses who loves technology. Noah is also returning and wants some special attention. Ben is gay and wants to transcend gender norms and spend more time with the girls. Kate is also gay and would rather be alone in the woods than hang with other people.
Jesse and Noah sneak out one night and witness a murder in the woods that’s quickly covered up. The victim is Counselor Cory, who’s lost enough weight to be considered buff. The other staffers all have their secrets. The chef responsible for healthy meals sells candy bars out the back door. The head nurse is a smoker. The camp leader is herself overweight, which is damaging her business.
My biggest problem with the story was that I never got a fully developed sense of these characters. I was told their quirk or motivation, but as the story played out, they felt like paper dolls being moved around instead of people. Their voices are all the same, which is particularly strange, given that the writers talk in an end note about it being “important for us to have the characters sound and be distinct from one another.” With such a large cast, the problem might be just not enough space for everyone to get the kind of development they needed.
The publicity points out their diversity — Latina, black, queer — and that’s great to see in a graphic novel, but they didn’t become much more. Noah, in particular, as default white boy, is a nothing in terms of personality. I wanted to find out more about why they’re there, how they feel about it, and their opinions on their own size. Jesse and Tony get brief monologues on the subject, but because the subject is raised so abruptly and handled so bluntly, it feels pasted in.
Additionally, there’s not much mystery here. The kids bumble around, spending too much time on deciding to investigate and talking each other into believing there was a death. We know going in this is a genre work, so we expect a dead body and amateur detectives; we don’t need so much stage-setting. More time should have been spent on establishing the conclusion, which comes out of nowhere without any clues for the reader to discover or notice.
Young readers who aren’t used to seeing characters like themselves, if they fit one of the many categories portrayed here, will likely be more forgiving than I was. (The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)