Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Graphically Speaking: Dark Horse Goes Noir

Words by Miles Archer

Few storytelling genres can leave me as completely gripped as a great crime story can. I’ll never turn down a chance to read a hardboiled detective novel by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler or to check out a film noir like Chinatown or Double Indemnity. But my affection for this genre runs deeper than the classic, even clichéd devices it employs to sell books and movie tickets – the tough guys, the femme fatales, the cynically-related narrative, the twisting plots, the sex and violence. What is most compelling about these stories is that beneath the grim and gritty surface, every good crime story forces us to ask ourselves how far we would go for personal gain, or to protect ourselves and those we love. Answering that question allows authors to plumb the very deepest fathoms of the human soul while escalating the stakes for their characters to life and death levels. When crafted by a true master, the potential for sublime tragedy in such tales is, dare I say it, Shakespearean in magnitude – indeed, if the Bard were alive and working today, the Montague and Capulet families might have resembled the Corleones and Barzinis; Hamlet might have seemed a lot more like Sam Spade or Jake Giddes, and a lot less like an existential pussy.

While Shakespeare never had the opportunity to pen a noir tale, crime fiction maestros like Hammett and Chandler left their own legacy which today is carried on most proudly in comics. Creators like Frank Miller (Sin City), Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets), Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Criminal), Jason Aaron (Scalped) and others have won critical and fan acclaim for their work in this paradigm over the last twenty years, giving comic sales a much-needed shot in the arm in the process. Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics is a moodily-shadowed celebration of these recent successes, and a nod to the genre that helped to launch comics as a viable commercial enterprise more than seventy-five years ago.

Published by Dark Horse, Noir is a 116-page digest-sized crime comic anthology, with each story fittingly illustrated in black and white, and the entire volume bound by a cover as black as the tales contained within. The writing and artwork were contributed by a host of creators who bring a full clip’s worth of experience in crime fiction to the table, and who approach the genre using a variety of different visual and narrative styles. The good folks at Dark Horse crammed thirteen stories into this volume, so economy in storytelling was crucial to achieving any level of depth in the eight-to-ten pages allotted to each.

That depth was most difficult to attain in stories featuring characters that exist in their own ongoing series, such as the Mister X story “Yacht on the Styx” by Dean Motter and the Kane one-shot “The Card Player” by Paul Grist. As someone who had never read a Mister X or Kane story prior to picking up Noir, I needed to come away from these stories with an understanding of who those main characters are. These particular stories selected by Motter and Grist were not able to convey that, nor did they seek to explore of the dark or dangerous aspects of human existence as I would expect a crime or noir tale to do. However, it should be noted that Motter’s artwork for “Yacht on the Styx” was stunning, and the variety of tones and textures he was able to achieve in a black and white format is reason alone to read the story.

Two of the more successful stories from Noir came from Stray Bullets creator David Lapham and the writer/artist team of Gary Philips and Eduardo Barreto. In “Open the Goddamn Box,” Lapham’s heroine protagonist expounds upon the destructive side of the male adolescent psyche from the inside of a locked steamer trunk, then cleverly uses that knowledge to turn the tables on her captors and would-be rapists to ironically horrific effect.

Phillips’ married and overweight female protagonist in “The New Me” works with her philandering physical trainer to drop some extra pounds. Once she’s become trim and fit enough for the trainer to turn his amorous charms on her, she lures him back to her place and strips him of literally all that he has. This one gets a bit sci-fi for a noir story, but it works in this case and allows Phillips to explore what could happen when the desire to stay fit and young-looking is taken to extremes.

But the true dramatic power of the genre is best demonstrated in two stories contributed by the noir masters who put crime comics back on the map this decade. “21st Century Noir,” a Criminal short story by series creators Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, is a fatalistic take on the world of Internet dating. Brubaker’s shifting of perspective in the course of the story from the young single male to the older married woman he meets online and again to her cuckolded husband, brilliantly illustrates how difficult it is for a person to understand the true motives of someone he or she meets anonymously via the Internet. Phillips’ shadowy yet realistic visuals pair perfectly with Brubaker’s trademark hard-boiled narrative to carry the story to its chilling conclusion.

In the anthology’s final story, 100 Bullets creator Brian Azzarello teams with Brazilian artists Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá for “The Bad Night,” a noir retelling of a classic comic origin story. That’s really the extent of what I can divulge about the story itself without giving too much away, though I can comment that it is concisely told, and the dialogue is as gritty and realistic as you would expect from an Azzarello yarn. Moon and Bá’s style is less realistic and more iconic, and the dramatic profiles cast by their characters’ angular faces are well-suited for a noir tale.

As a whole, I enjoyed the stories in Noir and feel that they are a good overall representation of the crime comic genre. Like most short story anthologies this one was a somewhat mixed bag, but there are some real gems here that make it worth picking up, especially if you like your comics short on sentiment and long on depravity and black India ink. However, I do hope that if Dark Horse sees fit to publish a second Noir anthology at some point in the future, that they will include some kind of take on the hardboiled detective story, and possibly an introductory essay on noir and crime comics written by a luminary like Frank Miller. But until then, this is still an anthology which Miller would almost certainly have fun reading.
Somewhere, Hammett and Chandler are smiling.

Miles Archer loves crime comics, old school hip-hop and The Super-Friends. He has profiled some very interesting artists in film, music, fashion and comics for publications such as Mixer, Mass Appeal, YRB and Big Shot. He doesn’t have his own website yet, but hopes you won’t think any less of him as a person because of it. He lives in Harlem with his wife and what must be the last standard-definition television on the eastern seaboard.

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