Thursday, January 7, 2010

Noir: Eh, it could be darker

One link: I liked this one-page comic by Kevin Huizenga.  He's good.

By David Lapham, Jeff Lemire, Dean Motter, Chris Offutt, Kano & Stephano Gaudiano, Alex De Campi, Hugo Petrus, M.K. Perker, Paul Grist, Rick Geary, Ken Lizzi, Joelle Jones, Gary Phillips, Eduardo Barreto, Matthew & Shawn Fillbach, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Brian Azzarello, and Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba.

There's a difference between noir as a genre and "just" plain old crime fiction.  Noir, mostly stemming from film noir and hardboiled detective fiction, deals in morally dubious situations, femmes fatale, tough guys, twisty plots, and usually bleak outcomes for all.  One could discuss and debate what exactly constitutes noir, but if you went by this collection of short comics, you might just think it involved crime stories presented monochromatically.  Sure, some of these tales do conceivably fall within the boundaries of noir, but most of them really don't, just being straightforward tales of law-breaking, rather than complex examinations of morality, motivation, or character.

David Lapham's "Open the Goddamn Box", which fits within his long-running Stray Bullets series, is an example, and being the first story in the book, it doesn't really set a good example for others to follow.  It's an ugly story about two boys who kidnap a girl with the intent to rape her, and how she tries to manipulate them into allowing her to escape.  It's thoroughly unpleasant (although the way she desperately tries to talk her way out of the situation is interesting, and might have worked better given more space to develop) and just not very noirish.  Neither is M.K. Perker's "The Albanian", in which a man stumbles into a murder scene without understanding what is going on.  It's a striking presentation of violence, but it's not noir.  Alex De Campi and Hugo Petrus' "Fracture" is another interesting story, seeing a flurry of emotions and imaginary situations fly through a woman's mind as she considers what it would be like to push someone in front of a subway train.  These are presented as several pages of disconnected panels, zoomed-in pictures, and surreal imagery, and it's kind of fascinating, but it's not really even a crime story, much less noir.

Some of the tales teeter on the edge, like "The Last Hit", written by Chris Offutt and illustrated by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano, which sees an aging assassin take a strange assignment and realize that he might have outlived his usefulness to his bosses.  Or there's the Fillbach brothers' "Lady's Choice", in which the bored girlfriend of a crime boss becomes enthralled by a rival who confronts him and decides to change loyalties.  Jeff Lemire's "The Old Silo" is another, seeing a financially-struggling farmer seizing an opportunity when a wounded bank robber takes refuge in his barn.  These all make use of noirish elements (the hitman, the femme fatale, the bank robber), but don't necessarily tell a noir story (even if they do see some interesting moments, especially in Lemire's use of facial expression to convey desperation and resignation).

Odder still, a few stories mix in elements from other genres, like Dean Motter's Mister X tale "Yacht on the Styx", in which the titular character reveals to a reporter the answer to a decades-old mystery in which a dead man apparently killed a bunch of people.  It does come close to noir, but the sci-fi settings and plot points kind of come to the fore, obscuring the crime elements.  The same could be said for "The New Me", by Gary Phillips and Eduardo Barreto, in which a woman targets a handsome gigolo of a fitness instructor for a plan involving her invalid husband, ending with a pretty unbelievable twist.  And "The Bad Night", written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, works pretty well as the noir story of a thief tasked to commit a robbery that will probably not end well, but it relies on a punchline that references the history of a character from another comics company, which is a kind of strange choice.

Luckily, there are a few true noir stories here, such as Paul Grist's "The Card Player", which sees his detective character Kane investigate and pursue a prolific burglar, only for both him and his target to be outsmarted by more powerful underworld figures.  It's a good example of a nicely-constructed plot and an emphasis on being controlled by shadowy forces, one that invites the reader to search out more Kane stories.  Rick Geary's "Blood on My Hands" is another good one, seeing a not-necessarily-sane man deciding to have his wife killed for cheating on him.  It's presented in Geary's perfectly-constructed style of deadpan narration and somewhat creepy imagery, and it might be the best story in the book.  "21st Century Noir", a Criminal story by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips does certainly compete with it though, with a man falling in love with a woman and determining to free her from an abusive husband, switching perspectives between characters every couple pages and peeling layers away like an onion before reaching a dark joke of an ending.  If anybody knows noir, it's Brubaker, and this is a great example of the kind of stories he and Phillips regularly tell in their series.  And finally, Ken Lizzi's text piece "Trustworthy", which is accompanied by some nice illustrations by Joelle Jones, is a pretty classic bit about a femme fatale recruiting a guy to help her get away with stealing from a drug lord, and it works well enough, even if its presence in a comics anthology is questionable.

Of course, much quibbling could be done about these definitions and genre restrictions, but does it really matter if the stories are good?  About half of the ones here are pretty good, and most all of them have something to recommend, whether it's nicely moody art or an interesting idea, so depending on one's tolerance for the blurring of genre lines, it could be a rather enjoyable read or a frustrating one.  It's certainly not the perfect little batch of noir storytelling hoped for, but it works for what it is.  Half a good anthology is better than none, I suppose.