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Borderland Speakeasy #18: "Do you have fish swimming in your forehead?"

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Monday, Jan 10, 2011
Indie auteur's return to crime showcases taut storytelling and moments of film-influenced, surreal suspense.

Mia Fleming doesn’t like her stepmother, Suzanne. More importantly, Mia doesn’t trust her. One fateful weekend, when Mia’s dad takes his new wife with him on a cabin retreat with some friends, Mia seizes the opportunity for some heavy duty snooping.


With a handful of clues and the help of some friends, a few prank phone calls ensue, and before you can say “psycho killer,” Suzanne seems significantly more mysterious, paranoid and capable of violence. Even worse, Mia and her friends have drawn the attention of a man named Daniel, who takes his orders from a school of demonic fish living in his brain.


“Now the damn fish are swimming!” When Daniel starts talking like that, it’s time to hide the sharp objects and leave the area.


Writer-artist David Lapham created a modern crime classic in the mid-90s with Stray Bullets (a still-unfinished, 40-issue series that told an interwoven collection of stories spanning dozens of characters and two decades). After garnering critical acclaim (and Eisner awards) for his work, Lapham spent a few years working on mainstream projects. In 2007, he returned to crime comics with the astounding Silverfish, published by Vertigo.


Where Stray Bullets covered epic territory, Silverfish presents a taut, concise and masterfully-constructed one-shot tale that feels like a cinematic fever dream collaboration between Lapham, John Carpenter and David Lynch, with one other film auteur exerting more influence than any other: Alfred Hitchcock.
  
“I describe it as a Hitchcockian teen horror coming-of-age story,” Lapham said in a 2007 interview (newsarama.com). “The unique aspect of it is that it’s one story, 155 pages. No fitting chapters into 22-page bits. Just one, big 155-page thrill ride.”


Set in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, Silverfish takes place over a few suspenseful and terror-filled days in December, 1988. It’s an evocative time and place, and it’s a wonder to consider how Lapham captures the feel of it so effortlessly. One key element seems to be his effective dialogue, which manages to feel suitably teenage and 80s-ish, with references to era-specific music, clothes and slang, without sounding forced.


In comparison to Stray Bullets, his mainstream superhero work and recent projects like Young Liars, Silverfish almost seems to have slipped under the radar, in terms of the attention it received, and it could even be considered an under-appreciated modern classic. Along with its crisp storytelling and blending of noir elements (Suzanne and Daniel’s relationship alone seems like a James M. Cain story on acid), there’s an amazing set of resonances with film in this work.


The teens-terrorized-at-home motif recalls John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the hallucinatory sequences depicting the swarm of monster-fish in Daniel’s brain brings to mind the surreal aspects of David Lynch’s work in films like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks—in fact the opening page is an isolated image of an ear, recalling the famous opening of Blue Velvet. The fish also bear resemblances to the giant bug that Ginny hallucinates in an early issue of Stray Bullets.


But above all else, the spectre of Hitchcock stands tall (and wide) over Silverfish, and there are a number of fascinating motifs that seem to resonate between this work and various films of the master filmmaker.


For example, the element of voyeurism represented by Mia’s snooping and prank calls bring to mind similar plot devices in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. There’s an intense mid-story interlude involving Suzanne, a shotgun and a staircase that recalls the infamous staircase scenes in Psycho. The climactic chase scene has a hallucinatory moment that recalls James Stewart’s surreal visions in Vertigo, and the chase through the Seaside Heights amusement park seems to echo the climactic chase scene from Strangers on a Train.


Lapham’s signature style—his expressive faces, pitch-perfect dialogue, bold lines and marvellous action sequences—seems even more developed and evocative here than in Stray Bullets, and there’s a strong sense of foreboding and dread precipitated by the jet black galleys on every page.


The cinematic qualities of Silverfish seem to have caught the attention of more than a few comic book readers. According to an MTV report, a film adaptation is in the works with Joel Schumacher attached as director.


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Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.


#1: Echoes of Vengeance


#2: “They Found The Car”—Gipi’s Inverted Noir


#3: Needle in the Eye


#4: In Praise of Modesty Blaise


#5: Mirror Image Murders


#6: Moral Bankruptcy and the Smell of Fear


#7: Creepy’s Cabinet of Wonders


#8: Arnold Drake’s Secret Identity


#9: Call Off the Thriller


#10: Time to Join the Demons


#11: The Strange Case of Igor Kenk


#12: Beelzebub and that Other Devil: Mezzo and Pirus’ “King of the Flies”


#13: “Look down, or look hard”


#14: The No Wave Noir of “La Pacifica”


#15: “Nothing is as lost as I”


#16: Sherlock Holmes and the Public Domain


#17: “Annoyed as hell and dead”


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