[28 January 2010]
One of the all-time classic noir films, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past tells the story of a retired hoodlum forced to leave his self-imposed exile in the Nevada desert to do one more job for a mob boss: find the gangster’s missing girlfriend.
Robert Mitchum gives one of his defining performances as the hoodlum, and his character narrates the film. When he finds the girlfriend, played by Jane Greer, he falls for her (of course), and for a time they try to hide out in Mexico.
Mitchum’s character describes sending misleading reports back to the mob boss, played by Kirk Douglas: ‘I sent him a telegram—I wish you were here—and then I went to meet her again’
In his study on film noir, Somewhere In The Night, Nicholas Christopher describes the flashbacks in Out of the Past as being arrayed in a ‘jagged, fragmented mosaic’.
‘Like the voice-over, it is another distancing device that makes the action, and the orbit of the characters, that much more alienated, remote, and unstable’, he writes.
David N. Meyers also identifies one of those themes in his description of the film, in his book A Girl and a Gun: ‘Mitchum’s alienation is key; he’s alienated from himself, from sacred love, and, by his betrayals, even from his own kind: gangsters’.
All of this comes to mind when reading “They Found the Car”, the second issue in the series Wish You Were Here, by the renowned comic book artist (and writer, cartoonist, filmmaker, musician, and probably several other endeavors) known as Gipi.
The comic begins with a man receiving a phone call late one night. A voice on the other end of the line simply says, ‘They found the car’. When the man who receives the call thinks back to that moment, he recalls how those words ‘transported him back, in a single moment, into a life he had thought was gone and buried’.
Over the course of one long night, the man and his old partner confront the specter of something mysterious that happened seven years ago. Neither man wants to bring up the past, yet each is forced to do so. And although they may have responded with like minds in the past, now each man responds differently.
From the echoes of ‘wish you were here’, to the reluctant protagonist who must return to a life he had hoped to leave behind, there are many resonances between Gipi’s comic and Out of the Past.
Gipi’s “jittery man” shares Mitchum’s alienation. However in the comic there’s a more directly philosophical angle. The character wrestles with his morality, religious beliefs and sincere fear of being damned to hell. It’s as if he “found God” sometime in the past seven years (perhaps as a result of the mysterious event related to the car of the comics’ title). The man’s violent partner doesn’t believe in god, or fate, saying in one key exchange: ‘So my destiny, it’s in my hands and my hands only’.
Despite the consistent echoes of noir throughout “They Found the Car”, the story seems to deliberately avoid some of the genre’s classic elements. It’s as though the story is trying to invert noir’s cliches. For example, Gipi avoids flashbacks, where Out of the Past is built on them. In this respect, the comic feels like a distilled, even-harder-boiled noir story. We don’t know the back story because it isn’t as relevant as its impact on the characters here and now.
“They Found the Car” also doesn’t delve into a labyrinthine city filled with sharp angles and deep shadows. Instead, Gipi’s tale takes place in a rural countryside, and breathtaking full-page shots of the wide sky and often empty landscapes, along with a final, wonderful image on the inside cover (the dust jackets are vital storytelling elements in both issues of Wish You Were Here).
‘When I draw the sky, I don’t do it because I like to draw clouds, I do it because I feel the imbalance of power when I look within me and when I look from the inside out’, Gipi says in a ljudmila interview.
‘When I see myself as a human being I always feel small… So the only way to show the inner misery—since that is what interests me most about people, their smallness—is to juxtapose it to something very clear and powerful’.
A femme fatale plays a key role in both stories. Out of the Past has Jane Greer, and also Virginia Huston as her antithesis (to quote Nicholas Christopher’s description again), the good woman in Mitchum’s new life, whom he leaves behind. In Gipi’s work, the “jittery man’s” wife could be a blend of the two female leads in the film. She’s good and bad, and she mirrors her husband’s religious convictions with a strength that seems ultimately to horrify him.
“They Found the Car” is the second issue in the Wish You Were Here series. The first issue, “The Innocents”, told a similar story of a man confronting a character from his past. It’s equally compelling, and downright beautiful, though it contains fewer noir elements than the second issue. Both issues seem to be independent of each other so far.
The Fantagraphics Books description of the series suggests the ‘jagged, fragmented mosaic’ discussed by Nicholas Christopher: ‘Future issues will focus on other members of this group of friends . . . with supporting characters stepping into the spotlight as former ‘lead’ characters become part of the background’.
Hailed as “the greatest Italian comics artist alive today”, Gipi is a prolific and award-winning artist whose work in Wish You Were Here, as well as in the graphic novels Notes for a War Story and Garage Band, seems to return to the idea of characters being haunted by their pasts.
Gipi describes some of these ‘little obsessions’ that run through many of his stories:
‘Destiny—what decides our lives? Why am I here to answer to an interview, while some friends of mine, from those ‘wild ages,’ are dead or are sick or in jail? What makes people make bad choices? At what point do people become bad people? Adolescence. Friendships. These are the things I’ve always found myself writing about’.
Borderland Speakeasy appears every alternate Thursday and explores classic horror and mystery reprints (such as the recent EC and Warren Comics archives), along with modern crime (non-superhero) comics.
Out of the Past (in ten parts):