Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Noir: a collection of crime comics

October the 14th saw the release of "Noir: a collection of crime comics" antholoy from Dark Horse. The publisher has a long tradition of providing high quality genre work, particularly horror, done in the way so as to echo the pulps of yesteryear. With their newest effort, they revive the format of the short story collection, while billing the top crime fiction creators in comics. The industry's greats were given the space of eight pages each, to construct black and white morality plays, with a harder edge, and it's interesting how they responded to it.

Surprisingly, for all the diversity in the lineup, some similarities still appear, as most of the stories end up presenting an ordinary man forced to turn to crime because of his financial difficulties. Perhaps it was the limited space that forced the creators to opt for the generally more realistic approach, instead of featuring a traditional noir PI in the lead role. The writers and artists more or less stick to the familiar locale of urban 21st century America, but the tension and violence at their heart keep the stories from becoming too much like their independent comics cousins.

Universally, the shorts are at least visually innovative, presenting solid storytelling, which is more often than not, very appealing stylistically. There are almost an even number of pieces both written and drawn by the same person, as those that are not, but still a general air of cooperation permeates the book. Simply, due to the brevity of the vignettes, the stories are made to be highly atmospheric and distinctive, leaving the artist to get the point across. Not surprisingly, this leaves the anthology as something of an art showcase first, no matter the quality of writing involved.

Generally speaking, "Noir" features two types of stories - the more numerous ones feature new setting and situations, while the others tell of an episode set in the fully realized worlds of it's authors' previously published creator owned comics. It is the latter ones that will probably drive most of the readers to try the book.

On the whole, all of the creators providing side stories to their original work suceed in featuring their established projects in a way that is accessible to the new uninitiated, while functioning as episodes in their own right. The anthology actually opens with a "Stray bullets" short, featuring a very violent incident in the life of David Lapham's protagonist. It is disturbing on several different levels, while maintaining the series' tone of analyzing the criminal behavior from the point of the victim. The effective tale concludes much more organically than most of the others in anthology, leaving the fans to hope that Lapham's involvement might mean that more "Stray bullets" work awaits him in the future.

On the other hand, Paul Grist's story relies on cliffhanger to put the events in their proper context. The writer/artist uses the chance to tell perhaps the most traditional comic-book crime story of all the creators, by having his "Kane" character tackle a gimmick crime. Utilizing traditional cartooning, Grist manages to get across a complete case, pacing it so well, so as to even include a long and climatic chase scene in the end.

Still, no doubt the most attractive story in the book is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" short. The duo are without a question the highest profile crime comics creators in the industry at the moment, and it's intriguing to see their work appear in a black and white format. At only five pages, theirs is also the shortest of the stories in the anthology, but nevertheless switches the point of view no less than three times, as the reader gets the picture of a whole criminal operation. "21st century noir" is Brubaker and Phillips' definitely most contemporary outing to date, which even goes a bit too far in using the Internet slang. Still, the sheer mean-spiritedness and wicked irony that reveal themselves once the scheme is completed, stand out as traditionally black-hearted and perverse as some of their darkest moments so far in "Criminal".

On the other hand, Dean Motter presents a much more stylish tale, and his depictions of the art deco-inspired Radiant city definitely stand out among the generally more realistic stories. The "Mister X" story deals with a part of the past of the writer/artist's retro-future comic book series, and is perhaps the densest of the shorts involved, as it directly references several of the trappings of the cult series. Still, a discerning reader will recognize that the various oblique terms are merely there to give background to the proceedings, which remain engaging on their own. Once again, it takes a seasoned comics veteran to get across so much information and plot using a limited amount of space, which Motter manages to pull off very convincingly, still delivering a complex narrative. "Yacht on the Styx" might not be to everyone's liking, but it remains a strong and very distinctive entry on it's own.

Having discussed the hyphenated entries, the anthology surprisingly offers several more pieces whose creators' voice is so familiar, that it renders them a part of their existing work, in all but the name. Jeff Lemire, the creator of "Essex triology" thus offers nothing less than a spin-off of his most famous work, albeit not titled as such. "the Old silo" once again focuses on human drama strewn between the country life as defined by the borders made up of barns and farm houses. The only difference lies in sheer malice exhibited by a familiar Lemire figure, that somehow rings contrary to the honesty inherent in the writer/artist's sketchy and emotional approach. The desperation of an infirm relative sitting in front of the window reminds of "the Country nurse", but it somehow seems much more artificial, a mere prop to explain the main character's motivation. Using a whole page to depict "Essex County"'s unmistakable wind vane as the sign of the passage of time is perhaps the best reminder that Lemire's a creator used to utilizing long form to set up his own sense of pacing, and create the sort of melancholy that defined his most famous work.

Rick Geary is another creator who utilizes a similar story mechanic in his contribution to "Noir". Perhaps it's a little unfair to consider "Blood on my hands", a story clearly defined as fiction, as some of his more famous work, but it's easy to see why the creator would see it as a compliment. In many ways, "Blood on my hands" is the most controlled of the stories, as it features no dialogue balloons, and sticks to using the six panel grid format throughout, using the captions to speak of the events in first-person. It is through sheer banality and frankness that the little details making up the story of a horrible crime sneak up on the reader as the closest thing to the truth. This was no doubt Geary's intention, the veteran illustrator that has gone far to legitimize the comics medium with his adaptations of non-fictional court cases. Considering the talent that's brought forward "the Treasury of Victorian murder", it's best to look at his contribution to the anthology as a counter point to his most famous work, which still manages to be one of the strongest entries in the book.

The last work that offers direct reference to the previously created characters and situations is perhaps the most problematic. Featuring the celebrated "100 bullets" creator Brian Azzarello on writing and the art team of brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon on art, it will no doubt be the story that most of the readers will want to get to first. And, by and large, it is a typical period piece showing a heist being planned in a crowded 1930s bar. Azzarello's dialogue makes both of the main characters distinctive and their plan very clear, while Moon and Ba proceed to masterfully illustrate a very complicated set piece. Starting with wide shots, they slowly start breaking the story in smaller and smaller panels, gradually focusing on the relevant pair of con men, while still keeping rotating the view so as to keep up with the dynamic expressed in the writing. Still, all of that work feels somewhat shortchanged with a twist ending that provides a sinister context, going so far as to tie in with a very popular superhero's origin. This kind of unauthorized tongue in cheek approach costs the story of all of it's previously established momentum, as the characters so individualized through Azzarello's speech patterns, and distinctively built by Moon and Ba's artwork break down to become ciphers in order for the punchline. This is made all the more controversial considering "the Bad night" is the last short in the anthology, and will no doubt leave some of the readers with a bitter taste in their mouth regarding the whole enterprise.

As far as the pieces that are presented in "Noir" without the previous publishing history, "the Last hit" is probably the most typical of what could have been expected to be found between the book's covers. A collaboration through and through, it still manages to remind the reader of a "cold" movie opening, serving to quickly introduce the players in the most action packed way possible. Chris Offutt still caps off writing the very moody genre piece into a morality play, thus culminating the philosophy of the practical gangster that is at the heart of the short. It's expertly realized by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano, into a tense and exciting story that manages to work with the intended realism.

On the other hand, M. K. Perker's contribution is perhaps the most ill-constructed, seemingly failing to make use of all the set pieces it introduces. This is particularly puzzling, as the Turkish artist's previous "Heavy metal" magazine work exhibited a firm command of both the quirky atmosphere and pulpy narrative structure at work here. "the Albanian" is certainly meant as more of a straight forward work though, but it seems strangely disconnected from the traditional form of short story makeup. For example, the person introducing us to the title character in the opening is never seen later on, no matter how logical his appearance in the next several pages would be. Similarly, after the tense culmination, the plot goes on for two more pages that each convey very little information, and seem somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. The pacing problems are unfortunate because Perker's protagonist is certainly among the most memorable in the book, as it seems somewhat unfair to leave him after a very anti climatic finale. The story achieves it's goal of being off-putting and featuring strange, uncommon characters, but it remains slightly ambiguous as to what the reader is to make out of their encounter.

Following "the Criminal", several other stories seem to draw upon the same idea of featuring a femme fatal character in the lead role. Without a doubt, "the Fracture" is the most innovative, experimenting with the comics form to achieve a very unusual effect. Alex de Campi starts out narrating a seemingly mundane slice of life piece, that quickly turns into a silent postmodern daydream, featuring multiple points of view, and a very unorthodox use of a double page spread. Hugo Petris tries his best to keep up with her script, adding a somewhat Adam Hughes-like polished sheen, trying as clear as he can to make sense of the confusing proceedings. Still, despite the creators' best efforts, this seems like the only story that would have actively benefited from the use of color, as the differences in the panel borders fail to truly distinct between various events running through the girl's head. Even though the enigmatic ending mirrors the opening page and effectively forces the reader to return to the story over and over again, it remains a highlight due to sheer ambition involved in the presentation.

As is the case with all their anthologies, Dark Horse has felt obliged to include an illustrated prose story in "Noir", that stands out only in contrast to the comics that surround it. "Trustworthy" is a plot-heavy episode, that probably wouldn't work as an eight page vignette, but could perhaps have functioned given the space of a standard American comic book pamphlet. In any event, Ken Lizzy writes a very visual story, featuring an ordinary man that has found himself in a situation with a femme fatal, forcing him to make a choice that could alter his whole life. Strangely, the writer opts to describe the locale where the pivotal moment happens first, along with the protagonists, before beginning the plot in earnest. Otherwise, the prose is grounded in urban slang and moves quickly, centered on flashing out each of the characters' psyches as deep as possible. All this makes Joelle Jones' illustrations largely unnecessary, as they not only erode the reader's imagination, but actively spoil several key plot points. Still, this is nothing compared to the ending which features a controversial MacGuffin that manages to challenge the realism that makes the already very unlikely criminal scenario work in the first place.

Truthfully, the unlikely elements were set up in a deliberately careless way from the beginning, but unlike the "Mister X" vignette, the unorthodox resolution still actively clashes with the tone of the piece. This is illustrated even better in the finale of another short, that embraces the strange, but going much further with the campy elements. Gary Phillips starts writing his story as a slice of life drama of a woman enlisting the personal trainer to help her achieve better results in the gym, although he does hint to a deeper conflict from the start. Eduardo Barreto picks up on it, trying to keep the working out equipment as detailed as he can, while concentrating on the idealized bodies with sleazy facial expressions. In many ways, in "the New me" their collaboration seems like a porn comic, with the female protagonist exhibiting wholly unrealistic physical makeover in mere five weeks, just in time to get ready for the big finish with her fitness instructor. The story ends up being by far the most disposable in the book, which is made even worse considering that it was no doubt intended as a satire on some level.

Finally, "the Lady's choice" rounds out the last of the original stories, once again focusing on a woman under very peculiar circumstances. Fillabach brothers' contribution doesn't center on a femme fatal per se, as she is merely an observer that doesn't affect the plot. This is deliberate, as the creators set out to bring across the point of view of a particular part of a criminal's entourage. Her spontaneous narration does help guide the plot along, but it's the art that finally seems to label the whole presentation slightly amateurish. Still, it remains a thoroughly readable affair, albeit somewhat superfluous in setting the expectations so low that the creators seem content at having presented any kind of functional story that carries across the simple premise.

Taken as a whole, "Noir" leaves a very strange impression. Perhaps it's the lack of the really strong, groundbreaking stories that would have made up for the blandness of others. But truthfully, it seems like the format has defeated the creators across the board, as they more or less end up with knowingly creating pulpy yarns, no doubt smirking at the thought of the twist ending. In effect, the shorts feel a bit patronizing, as if a cheap bit of campy fun is all the reader can expect from a single eight page installment. In not taking the task seriously, most of the authors in turn give in to presenting underdeveloped stories of femme fatals, botched crimes and some random swearing, seemingly oblivious to their own shortcomings.

Once part and parcel of comic book form, and indeed the original format of a Golden age story, the shorts are treated here as an experimental venue the writers and artists have little experience in. In turn, they seemingly submitting their most solid craftsmanship, largely devoted to what becomes almost a pointless exercise in this day of decompressed storytelling. But the readers willing to pay for the collection certainly deserve more care, and this is not a case where a new "Sin city" or "Hellboy" vignette might have smoothed out the overall package. Dark Horse should have taken note that they aren't publishing a print version of a web comics anthology, but a collection of original content that deserves all of the creators' strength and talent.

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