Murder Book materializes where hard luck stories are best peddled: between bottles of beer at seedy, nowhere-town bars. Or maybe it unfolds in the woods just before dawn, miles from where anyone can hear the soft thwack of thrown punches or the clink of broken glass. Vancouver-based writer Ed Brisson’s comics read like the scenes we’re hesitant to visualize when we browse the “Metro” section’s police blotter in the daily newspaper. These are quick blow-by-blows. They finish as little more than striking renderings of street arguments gone very badly or of alcohol-fueled bouts of rage. And Brisson’s gritty pages never really end well, either. Murder Book’s panels produce at least a corpse or two before each self-contained story closes out, just as they’re designed to.
The phrase “murder book” is real, and relegated to discussions between detectives and any other members of an agency that’s tasked with investigating a killing. It refers to an actual case file that organizes interview transcripts, a forensic rundown, photography, anything that helps mold the story of a murder. Ed Brisson’s comics are relatively short on the caliber of details you’d find in an actual “murder book,” but his characters—both beaten and those dealing a beating—fit the mold.
Wearing perpetually frustrated expressions that aren’t unlike those shaped by Sean Phillips for Ed Brubaker’s cast in their pulp noir Criminal, Murder Book‘s characters are desperate. A handful of illustrators usually fit Brisson’s protagonists with shaggy hair and well-worn collared shirts. They don’t belong to any particular locale, and loosely resemble the types who lumber through the black and white books in DC “sub-imprint” Vertigo Crime. The Murder Book players are either hired hitmen, dirty cops, or just the kind of the people who would eagerly choke someone if it meant that a decent paycheck was on the other side of it.
The two year-old “Skimming the Till,” is void of professional killers, but instead offers up downtrodden coffee shop owner Jordan Porter. He’s facing a mountain of business debt and turns the tables on would-be thieves when he foils a stickup in his cafe. Wielding a pistol, Porter lands in the back seat of their getaway car and directs them to his own cash grab. Built in Prophet contributor Simon Roy’s sketchy, fraying black lines and filled-out in watercolor greys, “Skimming the Till” doesn’t end in some mind-blowing catch. The memorable nuggets are in everything that leads to the final blow. There’s the irony of a stickup gone very wrong, and an incisive connection that Porter makes between the meth-addled getaway driver and childhood memories of his father showing him how to ride a bike.
Like the vengeance-fired thread of “Settling Up,” drawn by Michael Walsh, who partnered with Brisson on the forthcoming print series Comeback, Murder Book mostly delivers the unspeakable parts of the crime report. It’s economical, and little resonant shards like Jordan Porter’s backseat narrative emerge only occasionally. Sometimes it’s up to the reader to build the bulk of a chapter, with Brisson dealing quick, jarring pieces of writing that play out just fine without any additional pages of exposition. And this is all we get, because not everything needs explaining.