Crime noir has been seeing something of a revival in the last couple of years, not necessarily in film, the medium which spawned the genre, but in pop culture in general, with the most recent example being the enormous buzz surrounding the release of the L.A. Noire video game from the makers of the popular Grand Theft Auto series. And in comics too, there seems to be a renewed interest in the genre not seen since the glory days of EC Comics some sixty years ago.
Considering that comics seem to be the perfect medium in which to combine the visual styling of German Expressionism and the narrative tropes of old pulp magazines, both of which had initially informed much of the genre, it seems a little surprising that it was ever absent at all. Except that isn’t entirely true: in Europe, crime, like the western, has always been one of the seemingly ubiquitous genres, as exemplified by the popular Italian series Commissario Spada (1970-1982) and Nick Raider (1988-2005), Spain’s great Torpedo 1936 (1982-2004), and the works of legendary French cartoonist Jacques Tardi (1969 and still going strong).
For a long time, however, American crime comics were few and far between.
They finally experienced a renaissance in the mid-Nineties, following a cultural shift which included the mainstream success of postmodernist neo-noirs like Pulp Fiction and Frank Miller’s Sin City, during which a number of current DC and Marvel writers (from superstars like Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker to their less illustrious, but no less talented colleagues like David Lapham) kicked off their careers writing (and often illustrating) their own crime stories, and drawing heavily from classic films and genre tropes established decades ago (Bendis even had a character named Lauren Bacall in his 1994 series A.K.A. Goldfish, which, in this reviewer's opinion, remains the best thing he has ever written).
Since then, the playing field has steadily expanded. Ed Brubaker, who has become a sort of a torch-bearer for the genre, now publishes Criminal, a creator-owned series co-created with old pal Sean Phillips under Marvel’s Icon imprint, and often features essays and reviews of many of the genre’s highlights and under-appreciated gems in the comic's must-read back pages. For my money, his interlinked stories of down-on-their-luck men and women and the depraved things they do for sex, money and revenge, are the best comic book Marvel is currently publishing.
There are others too: Darwyn Cooke is currently adapting writer Donald Westlake’s Parker novels to comics, to great commercial and critical acclaim. Other crime novelists, like Denise Mina and Ian Rankin, have started writing their own comic books. Tardi is finally being released in the States, courtesy of alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics. The list goes on.
Leading the charge is DC’s Vertigo imprint. Having dabbled in crime on multiple occasions in the past (most notably with Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s underrated Scene of the Crime mini-series from 1999), the imprint struck gold in 2000 with the multiple Eisner and Harvey award winning series 100 Bullets, created by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, which remained their anchor throughout the decade, as they struggled to regain their footing in the absence of a crossover success like Preacher or Sandman.This eventually led to the creation of the Vertigo Crime line (fittingly kicked off by Azzarello's dark noir tale Filthy Rich), focused entirely on publishing black-and-white graphic novels.
Liar’s Kiss (Top Shelf, $14.95), by Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano, sees another alternative comics publisher throwing their fedora into the mix, and they immediately manage to improve on the Vertigo Crime publishing model by actually mirroring the pricing to the old pulp paperbacks these books were designed to emulate. Call me cheap, but affordability will play a large role in whether graphic novels of this type are able to find, let alone maintain, an audience in the current economy, regardless of the quality of material.
And in this case, the quality is there. The set-up, in which a private detective becomes involved with the wrong dame, is classic noir, and the storytelling techniques on display here, from the hard-boiled dialogue to the narrated flashbacks, are all par for the course. But what’s different is that the characters are actually familiar with detective stories, and get to discuss their clichés, even as they are falling prey to them. Like the leads in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, they know the roles that they are stuck in, and they perform them anyway.
But despite the occasional knowing wink, there is little ironic detachment here, which helps keep up the suspense over the hundred-or-so pages of briskly-paced twists and turns, all culminating in a final revelation which I honestly did not see coming. Skillman, for whom this is a graphic novel debut, walks a fine line between convention and self-awareness, and he does it with grace unbefitting his level of writing experience.
He is aided by a barely more experienced artist in Soriano, whose style here is sometimes uncomfortably reminiscent of Eduardo Risso, but whose storytelling is sound, and helps propel the action in a very cinematic fashion. The gray-scale ink wash technique he employs for flashbacks is much more to my liking, giving past events the softer focus of a memory, while seamlessly integrating them within the stark blacks and whites of the main story.
Noir is the most American film genre, according to Roger Ebert, because no other society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, and I believe we have a rich enough history of it to back that up. I hope this book does well, not only because it’s a great addition to any crime lover’s library, but also because Hollywood has largely abandoned the genre, and I believe our cultural landscape would be a lot poorer if we were to stop trying to find new ways to tell these stories, in whatever form possible.