It seems like when people think of comics, they think of superheroes, but there was a long time when crime and comics were synonymous. And now it seems like some of the best comics around are crime books. There’s a new golden age, a new crimewave in comics.
I’ve been meaning to write about it, but I’ve been stuck because of my desire to do right by it. Fortunately, Furious Cinema’s Scenes of the Crime Blog-a-thon, gives me an excuse. I’m participating on the sly, writing about comics instead of film and recommending some good books to people with a criminal mentality.
Comics are a visual medium and, like almost every medium right now, comics are dominated by cinematic style, technique and visual language. One of my favorite crime graphic novels adapts a screenplay for a never-made film, Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency (FirstSecond, 2007). It would’ve made a middling film about private detectives and a man framed for a train wreck. But it’s a good—and gorgeous—comic, because comics set a mood very well. And elements that might be tricky in live action film work effortlessly in comics. A femme fatale afflicted with a Lovecraftian curse? No problem in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Fatale (Image, 2012–ongoing).
In fact, Brubaker and Phillips are repeat offenders in the current crimewave. They collaborated on Batman: Gotham Noir (DC, 2001) and with Greg Rucka, another influential recidivist, on Gotham Central (DC, 2003-6), a comic about Gotham City’s police force cleaning up messes that Batman doesn’t and even, sometimes, Batman’s messes. It’s nearly straight-up crime.
Criminal (Icon, 2006—ongoing). Ed Brubaker, writer; Sean Phillips, artist.
Criminal is straight-up crime. No superheroes, nothing supernatural, there’s just petty criminals, guys with a grudge, boxers who didn’t quite make it and femmes not quite fatale–all haunted by the past. Criminal is sad noir, more like Out of the Past (1947) than anything else. It’s also one of the best comics of the last decade. The most recent volume, Last of the Innocent was one of the best comics of 2011. Criminal runs in self-contained miniseries that alternate with Brubaker and Phillips’ other projects, including weird noirs like, Incognito (Icon, 2008-2010), the story of a supervillain who goes into witness protection and, the previously mentioned, Fatale, a monthly series mixing femmes who are quite fatale and sinister Lovecraftian cultists with corrupt cops, sad writers and film star wannabes. There are six collections, but Criminal is best bought issue by issue, not only for the serial feel, but to get the essays on, and art inspired by, crime fiction from, Out of the Past to Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) to Johnnie To’s The Mission (1999) and Exiled (2006), all among my favorite films.*
Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (IDW Publishing, 2009); Parker: The Outfit (2010); Parker: The Score (2012). Darwyn Cooke, writer and artist.
Darwyn Cooke is adapting Richard Stark (aka, Donald Westlake)’s Parker books into graphic novels. The books are 1960’s hardboiled pulp fiction about a thief named Parker who plans heists with shady, unreliable partners, sleeps with often deceitful dames, and watches everything go to hell. Stark’s stories are probably best known from a fully-loaded chamber of film adaptations, including Point Blank (1967); Payback (1999); The Outfit (1973); and Mise à Sac/ Pillaged (1967). Point Blank‘s Lee Marvin is a strong design influence on Cooke’s Parker, at least until The Outfit. Cooke’s stylized, 1960s-infused, duochrome, cocktail cartoon style smoothes the sting—and often ugly sexism—of Parker’s world. And, from what I’ve read, Cooke’s adaptations are the first to use “Parker” as the character’s name. Even Lee Marvin can’t say that.
Black Sad (Dark Horse, 2010) and Black Sad: A Silent Hell (2012). Juan Díaz Canales, writer; Juanjo Guarnido, artist.
In an afterword to Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, Brubaker mention his love of “weird European crime comics.” Black Sad was probably on his mind. Written in French by Spanish creators and set in a hardboiled America, Black Sad follows John Blacksad, private detective, World War II vet, and anthropomorphic cat in a trench coat who’s unlucky in love. Black Sad riffs on classic film, including, Laura (1944), Young Man With A Horn (1950) and Imitation of Life (1934/1959). It also hearkens back to the tradition of funny animal stories and animal folklore to explore racism, Segregation, political corruption and addiction. I think the first volume’s stronger than the second, but Guarnido’s art is always riveting.
The Killer: The Long Fire (Archaia, 2007); The Debt (2009) and Modus Vivendi (2011).** Matz, writer; Luc Jacamon, artist.
The Killer is a beautifully drawn, intriguing take on a hitman story. Fictional guns-for-hire, whether the Man With No Name, Shane, Léon in The Professional or the The Killer‘s unnamed hitman,often serve as a focal point for examining moral situations, conflicting loyalties, and ideas of honor and righteousness. The Killer makes all this explicit and, sometimes, pedantic. We have full access to the hitman’s internal monolog and he is chatty. Is the hitman’s cynicism an honest appraisal of human cruelty? Or is it just self-serving psychopathy? Is he Existentialist or nihilistic? And could there be a more French preoccupation in a crime comic? In the third volume, Modus Vivendi, the nameless hitman’s assassinations destabilize a country and the hitman is caught in a morass of international relations and repercussions. He condemns the very misery he empowers, but his rationalizations are becoming less assured.
While The Killer is nothing but well-done, I prefer a less chatty hitman. In Near Death, Markham, a contract killer, has a near death experience, in which he visits hell. When he recovers, Markham decides to give up killing and to save a life for each one he has taken. It’s not because he feels what he’s done is wrong. He’s terrified of returning to hell. Like Criminal, Near Death has an essay in each issue, including a touching one on writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell, one of Faerber’s influences. Near Death‘s reminiscent of Cannell’s tv shows, but it also reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s work. Unfortunately, Near Death is on hiatus, but there are two collections available. I hope Faerber and Guglielmini find a way of keeping the book going.
Stumptown (Oni, 2010) and Stumptown: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case (2012).** Greg Rucka, writer; Matthew Southworth, artist.
Stephen J. Cannell also influenced Greg Rucka. In a 2009 interview with Blair Butler, Rucka calls Stumptown, “My love letter to The Rockford Files.” (about 8:00). Dexadrine “Dex” Parios runs Stumptown Investigations, far from Portland’s finest PI firm. She has a gambling problem, or, maybe more accurately, a losing problem. Like Jim Rockford, she gets railroaded into favors that are only trouble. And like Rockford, Dex gets roughed up, fights dirty and can’t help cracking wise. She has a pretty sweet ride. She’s also bisexual, Native American and has a brother with special needs to care for. It’s a great series and I especially love Southworth’s covers. It’s a good time to start reading Stumptown. The first arc is available in a collection and the second storyline has just started. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong with Rucka.
*The essays and extra art are collected in Criminal: The Deluxe Edition, vols. 1 & 2.
**Received review copies for these books.
When in doubt, Carol Borden has a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.
(This piece was originally published on The Cultural Gutter).