A Perfect Frame

blackDiamond80.jpgEarly in Eddie Campbell’s painterly “picture novel,” The
Black Diamond Detective Agency
, the main character, Jackie Hardin, says,
“We thought we had all the time in the world…. Tomorrow can take it all away”
(7).  And with the implied death of a
young daughter and a bucolic description of Lebanon, Missouri, prefaced with
the description, “The day it all went wrong started out fine” (11), the book
seems like a perfect frame for nostalgia.

But while loss is central in The Black Diamond Detective
Agency
, it’s not the loss of some perfect or simpler time or the loss of
innocence.  The book’s more complicated
than that—more mundane, though it involves murder and sabotage.  People lose their lives.  Jackie loses his wife.  The past is now.

So many comics set in the past almost ache themselves with
nostalgia.  Creators protect themselves
from the heartbreak of the world now by creating a lost Eden or a cynically
violent Armageddon with realism so gritty who can tell whether they’re crying
or just have something in their eyes. 
(Yeah, I’m looking at you, Frank Miller).  The Black Diamond Detective Agency is grounded in details
of everyday life at the end of the Nineteenth Century, including a reference to
The Yellow Kid, but it’s not escapist. 
Though there are both heartbreak and devastation portrayed with stunning
care, the book isn’t nostalgic or cynical. 

blackDiamond250.jpg

Beginning on September 3, 1899, The Black Diamond
Detective Agency
follows Jackie Hardin, a dead ringer for Steve McQueen, as
he tries to discover who framed him for bombing a train in the center of
Lebanon, Missouri.  The town had been
crowded with citizens blockading the train. Hardin had allegedly riled them up
against the railroads. The eponymous private detectives discover nitroglycerin
boxes with Hardin’s name on them and they begin to track him. 

It’s fitting that a graphic novel set on the cusp of the
Twentieth Century would balance between genres— gangster stories, Westerns,
Hardboiled detective fiction and Cold War thrillers.  The elements all cohere and eras turn out not to be inherent in
genre, or at least in The Black Diamond Detective Agency, which, if I
had to choose, I would call a Western. 
I won’t hold to that label too tight, though, since 1899 is a little
late for most Westerns and a little early for Chicago gangster stories.  Is it the end of gunslingers, bounty hunters
and desperadoes or the beginning of gangsters, private detectives and
spies?  The divisions between genres
make are convenient ways of framing material. 
But this story won’t be fixed in place so easily. 

While it’s based on “the manuscript of a Kinematographic
play by Mr. C. Gaby Mitchell,” I think that The Black Diamond Detective
Agency
is better as a graphic novel than it would be as a movie. Sometimes
cinema forces a feeling on an audience and loses sentiment in
sentimentality.   In a graphic novel,
there’s less risk orchestral swellings as the camera focuses on blasted Lebanon
or the glass embedded in Jackie Hardin’s face. 
Campbell’s art provides the perfect, silent frame with thick black lines
delineating some of the action, but not all of it.  And, in one crucial moment, a woman’s screaming mouth is
surrounded by a sudden red panel.

I particularly liked Campbell’s use of bright red for blood,
gunshots, explosions and anything violent. 
The red is startling against his largely muted palette—not nostalgic
sepia, but not drab either. FirstSecond publishing’s design for the book itself
is Old Timey—possibly more whimsical than the book—including multiple typefaces
and those little engraved gentleman’s hands pointing at objects of
interest.  Even in the promotion,
though, there are other times and media evoked.  Behold, The Black Diamond Detective Agency trailer. 

Ending on midnight, January 1, 1900, the book also
prefigures the Twentieth Century with two detectives foreshadowing the next 50
years.  “Electric taxis.  Flying buggies.  It’s all moving too fast for me, Bob.” 

Bob responds, “You’re a nineteenth century man, Billy.” 

Hearing Scott Joplin’s “The Great Crush Collision March”
performed in a bar, Billy says, “I don’t get it Bob—now they’re writing music
that sounds like a cornfield meet.  Next
it’ll be statues that don’t look like nobody and paintings with nothing in’em
but your nightmares.” 

They greet the New Year with a toast, “Up yours modern
times!” (137)

Despite all the irony in “paintings with nothing in’em but
your nightmares,”—and a reference to the closing scene of The GraduateThe
Black Diamond Detective Agency
presents the Nineteenth Century with a sense
of possibility and without the lines we draw now between now and then, us and
them.  Which is probably why I don’t
sense any nostalgic loss in the book. 
There would have to be a clear lines around then and now, a frame to fix
the past.

~~~

With the electric
taxis, flying buggies and the ragtime, these modern times might be moving too
fast for Carol Borden as well.  She does
like statues that don’t look like nobody.

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3 thoughts on “A Perfect Frame

  1. Something about the art shown reminds me of the Tarnished Angel story from Kurt Busiak’s Astro City. I see there’s a horse in the top panel, but even the dialogue you quote sounds pretty hard boiled to me.
    But maybe there isn’t as big a difference between hard-boiled/noir stories and lone-gunman westerns as the different eras might suggest. This certainly doesn’t seem like a Roy Rogers or Bonanza type western anyway – more like a Clint Eastwood or Sam Pekinpah western. Would you call those old ones Silver Age westerns? Or maybe White Hat westerns? What would we call the newer westerns? Anti-heroic westerns?

  2. tarnished angel is probably my favorite astro city storyline. i only say probably becasuse i love astro city so much.
    as i said, i’m not holding to the western too strongly. eddie campbell says his book is a thriller. one of the things i like most about the book is that shows that somehow those eras and their associated genres aren’t so rigid after all. it focuses on what we might dismiss as a transition rather than its own time.
    argh, i’m not sure that’s any clearer. as for the western genre question, iirc will wright calls them “anti-hero westerns” in six guns and society. you call them whatever you like.

  3. so i added a link for “the great crush collision march.” according to the internet, joplin’s piece commemorated a publicity stunt where two trains, one painted red and the other green, were rammed into each other. it was as spectacular as you’d expect, but 3 spectators were killed when the boilers exploded.

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