The great cruise ship Leviathan launched from England in 1928. The mile-long luxury liner is a floating city, complete with tall concrete buildings (in the Art Deco style of the Chrysler Building), parks, a railway, a zoo, and 28,000 passengers.
Its intended destination was New York, but at some point in the the journey the ship got lost at sea. For the last 20 years, Leviathan has floated silently in curiously lifeless water "with no sign of land, nor even sun or stars. By day, the sky is a sick, bilious yellow. At night, a black suffocating blanket. Even the ocean is wrong here. Stale... stagnant."
The passengers haven't exactly gotten comfortable with the situation, but they have adapted into a micro-society that allows them to survive. Some, of course, are better off than others. The first class passengers have become the ruling class, and get their choice of exotic cuts of meat from animals bred in the zoo. When second-class passengers are ordered to come to the first-class section, they are required to hang "2nd Class" signs around their neck. The hero of the story is second-classer Detective Sergeant Lament, formerly of Scottland Yard. The middle-aged officer has been ordered by the Leviathan's captain and the cold-hearted owner of the cruise line to track down and apprehend a murderer who has been killing first class passengers by flaying them alive. Rumors are that the killer is a "stoker," a mythological boogeyman believed to have be concocted by the Leviathan's lower class passengers to frighten their children into obedience.
To find the killer, Detective Sergeant Lament has to go below deck, where the steerage passengers are imprisoned. The dank below-deck world of steerage is a dangerous place for strangers such as Lament, but fortunately he gets assistance from the daughter of the quasi-sheriff of the steerage population and she guides Lament through the crime-ridden corridors. What they discover in the depths of the Leviathan is much more horrible than a stoker.
The creative duo behind this graphic novel are writer Ian Edginton and artist D'Israeli. The story was originally serialized in the British comic magazine 2000 AD in 2003 and 2004. The world of Leviathan, and its complex social structure, could have provided fodder for a dozen graphic novels of the same length, but the conclusion of the main story reveals the mystery of the Leviathan. Edginton and D'Israeli did create a couple of shorter "prequel" stories about Leviathan (which are included in this book, along with a nice gallery of D'israeli's concept sketches).
I was sorry main story wasn't longer than it is, because it hints at a many possibilities for other avenues to explore. But that's also a testament to the skill of the comic's creators, who were able to render an impressive sense of dimensionality and atmosphere in a 56-page story. Maybe someone will make it into a movie -- it could be terrific as long as it was faithful to the comic book.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects