Noir can be tricky. There’s a thin line between conventions of the genre and outright cliché, and when cliché wins out the results can be excruciating. This is true for any genre—elves and dragons can be excruciating too, or star-crossed lovers or what have you—but somehow, the world of tough-as-nails private eyes and hard-drinkin’ straight-talkin’ dames is especially ripe for abuse.
Fogtown, the latest entry in DC Comics Vertigo Crime imprint, doesn’t do enough to avoid the pitfalls. Writer Andersen Gabrych, who has previously worked on Detective Comics and Batman, has an obvious love of shadowy corners and secrets stashed deeply away, not to mention sudden outbursts of vicious violence and rough sex.
His protagonist Frank Grissell, a self-described “private dick” who doesn’t like to kiss but sure likes to screw, veers perilously close to parody. He is prone to saying things like “Shoot first and ask your questions later” and “This dick ain’t nobody’s patsy” and “Who the fuck wants to look French?” Okay, this last line is pretty funny, but you get the idea.
Some of the story’s overly familiar elements slide past the reader, because the plot is suitably twisted, in more ways than one. Prostitutes start showing up dead in San Francisco’s streets circa 1953, and Grissell has no plans to get involved, but get involved he does, when a woman shows up at his office looking for her missing daughter. It’s Grissell’s assistant and lover, Valentine, who takes on the case. Grissell himself would prefer to stay away from missing-child cases, for reasons unknown for quite a while.
Then again, Frank has a lot of secrets, which is one of the more interesting things about him. Even Valentine doesn’t know everything about her man, although she does learn something crucial midway through, which shakes her up considerably and leads to a series of unfortunate consequences. It’s not giving away much to mention that there are a fair number of unfortunate consequences in this book.
The prostitute murders prove to be only the first step along an increasingly winding path, populated with a cast of characters who never rise above stock types: dragon lady Madame Tze, psychiatrist Eliza Grey, activist priest Father Fischer, an overweight philanthropist known as the Colonel and his bodyguard Bone. Few of these people are exactly what they appear to be on the surface, and—this being noir—whatever lies beneath the surface will most likely be unpleasant. As Grissell tells us at the very start of the story, “On the surface things might look pretty, but below—they’re uglier’n ever.”
Gabrych’s story is not well served by Brad Rader’s artwork, which is suitably heavy on blacks and deep shadows but lacks much in the way of nuance or finesse. Thick lines and a limited palette of grays result in a heavyhanded, cartoony look, perhaps a deliberate attempt to evoke the ‘50s. Action scenes in particular look stiff and unconvincing; Rader is better at static scenes such as cityscapes, which he suffuses with tension through heavy inking and clean lines.
His character’s facial expressions are as stylized as the characters themselves; some panels simply look poorly drawn. Dr. Grey in particular suffers from Rader’s inability to draw a woman who is supposed to be sexy and professional at the same same time.
That said, a number of layouts and panel sequences prove effective, especially when two plot threads are intertwining. In what is perhaps the most engaging section of the story, Grissell’s lover Valentine makes her shocking discovery while Grissell pays an unexpected call on Dr. Grey and receives an unwanted revelation in return. The long scene between Grey and Grissell is deftly intercut with one- and two-page scenes of Valentine rummaging through Frank’s belongings. Each shift in attention only serves to increase the suspense of the other scene—so it’s something of a letdown that Dr. Grey’s revelation is eye-rolling rather than jaw-dropping, as no doubt had been the intent.
One more thing about this book: it contains a fair amount of fucking. Fucking—as opposed to sex or lovemaking or spooning or whatever—is the dominant thematic element contributing to the miasma of confusion and conflicted motivations in which Grissell finds himself, and which is reflected in the title. The story begins with a murdered prostitute, and sex is never very far away from the characters: as a reward, as a source of shame or confusion or profit or violence. This is a potentially compelling idea, but Gabrych relies on it too much, allowing it to substitute for character, or rather, to become nearly the only motivation for any character’s actions.
Vertigo Crime is a promising imprint from an important and often invigorating branch of DC Comics. Fogtown, though, is an example of potential as yet unfulfilled.