Writing is a form of searching, and if you don’t believe me I invite you to come to my house to see the many variations on this sentence I’ve written and scratched out on sheet after sheet of yellow legal paper. What eludes both serious writers, hobbyists and even perpetual list-makers is some version of the same things: truth, beauty. Those are abstract ideas, but that’s what makes them so accessible, so appealing.
Maybe your idea of beauty is a detailed grocery list filled with a week’s worth of gastronomic whimsies, or your truth is detailing in your journal how that trip to the dentist made you feel. No matter what, you’re trying to work it out, to dig something from your subconscious and hold it up in front of your face. The trouble with all that digging, though, is it can dirty your hands and get under your nails.
The Bronx Kill is about a writer whose digging gets the better of him. The story begins in flashback with the great-grandfather and namesake of the protagonist, Martin Keane, being murdered amidst the water and weeds of the Bronx kill, a waterway where the Harlem and East rivers meet in New York City. Martin tells us this is when he decided he wasn’t going to become a cop like the rest of the men in his family, a decision that created a lifelong rift with his grizzled cop father.
Martin’s wife, Erin, says she thinks his work reads like he’s running from something, which is exactly what Martin does. He leaves for Ireland to learn the roots of his family’s traditional vocation, and when he begins writing again, his work focuses on his Irish roots and the long ago disappearance of his grandmother. When Martin’s wife disappears, too, his work becomes his way of parsing out the details of his past and present tragedies and the strange intersection between.
Writer Peter Milligan has navigated strange intersections in the past, after following Grant Morrison’s run on DC’s Animal Man and teaming up with Michael Allred for Marvel’s X-Force and X-Statix. Those books were infused with psychedelic freak outs and mysticism, but this is straight noir. There are crooked cops, a dangerous dame with a past, and a man on the search for the truth, but the most compelling character is the titular body of water. Erin takes Martin there because of its symbolic status in his life, as if returning to scene of a family tragedy will somehow bring him out of his writing slump.
The kill is personified as a bedraggled homeless man who attempts to rob the couple. The man’s features are soft and soggy, his whiskers and matted hair like moss. Artist Jason Romberger’s work here is moody and strange, at times evoking both classic EC crime comics and Mad Magazine style humor. Romberger does a lot with shadows and light, but his rendering of the larger world of the daytime feels rough and unfinished. Like any good work of noir, the best looking parts of this story happen at night.
When Martin begins writing after his trip to Ireland, we are his first readers. Milligan includes several prose sections in the body of the comic, and within each of these are Martin’s handwritten revisions. The “story-within-the-story” is a particularly fertile idea here because the main character is a writer, and one imagines Martin plumbing the depths of his characters’ minds for information. Milligan has Martin write in the margin of one page, “Is there a fucking clue here? Something I’m not seeing?” It’s a meta-joke for the reader, but it’s also a question Martin asks of himself as a writer and as a husband searching for his missing wife.
As the story continues, though, Martin’s prose—really Milligan’s—becomes purple and dull. What began as a fun story element soon overwhelms the narrative rather than illuminating it. By the end, the comic portion doesn’t fare much better. Both stories end tidily through clumsy exposition and without any of the subtlety with which they began.
No matter the medium, all mysteries operate on the same narrative plane, one which consumers of the culture frequently travel. We accept the tropes and clichés of genre because the essential ingredients are just that. Their stale flavor is diluted with detail, character and the ever-reliable plot twist. Here we see those elements in play—the past coming back to haunt the protagonist, the plot twist in which a trusted character becomes an enemy and an enemy becomes an ally—but the resolution Milligan gives his tale lets his readers see the strings instead of pulling the wool over our eyes.
Making Martin a writer instead of a cop or detective as in most mystery stories and including sections of his novel-in-progress are interesting elements, but their inventiveness is wasted amongst the rest of the by-the-numbers plot. If writing is a way of searching for something, then what is reading? Is it the experience of sharing the author’s journey for elusive and abstract ideas, or is it a journey of the reader’s own? In The Bronx Kill, Martin’s writing eventually leads him to he’s searching for, but as a reader I can say the pleasure is all his.