[19 December 2006]
Adherents to the DIY ethic of punk rock must be reeling at the Hot Topicization of their beloved genre. Anarchy, in the UK and in the rest of the world, is now embroidered on hoodies and patches and sold to suburban teens who can still remember fawning over Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Mohawks, after a brief dalliance with mainstream acceptance during Mr. T’s heyday, have become firmly entrenched in fashion, even spawning the dreaded faux hawk for those who like to have their cake and eat it, too.
Still, there are those who soldier on, making their mark on the world with their zines, music and other creative endeavors. The guys behind Grave Danger: A Zombie Noir Tale—writer Jim Bryant and artist Dave Fox—are doing it themselves, through Bryant’s Tiki Room 32 Productions, a self publishing venture that delivers “edgy punk rock cinema and literature with a bite!”
If only this were true.
From the cover on, Grave Danger is a juvenile, derivative story that wears its influences on its sleeve like a Hot Topic Misfits patch. Indebted to George Romero’s zombie films and Frank Miller’s Sin City, Grave Danger is the story of Frank Graves, a trench coat-wearing heavy who returns from the dead to exact revenge on the CIA-sponsored program that made him the world’s best assassin.
The story opens, like many a noir before it, on a fog-drenched pier, where Graves is plugged full of lead and dumped into the deep. Later, after being transported to the morgue by an anarchy shirt-wearing punk rock orderly (“Punk Rock isn’t just music, it’s an attitude!”) and his bored partner, Graves returns, steals the anarchy shirt and heads off into the night to find his revenge.
Not strictly a comic book, Grave Danger is a long short story interspersed with pedestrian black and white artwork by Fox featuring Graves toting guns and babes through a series of bars and graveyards. The art does little to enhance the story, serving merely as a visual representation of a few key scenes within the story. With only seven drawings in the book’s 113 pages, the book hardly qualifies as an illustrated story, let alone a comic book, but that doesn’t stop the inclusion of a number of comic book sound effects. CLUNK! SMASH! BLAM! Onomatopoeia is a long-standing convention in comics, but it’s very difficult to pull off on the printed page without sounding down right silly. In a standard, Times New Roman font, these words don’t convey the same sounds as they do in the stylized letters in comic book panels. Similarly, the overuse exclamation points—still the preferred punctuation in many comics—lends a bit of the ridiculous to what might otherwise be taken seriously.
Like the artwork, the writing leaves much to be desired. Besides containing an over abundance of clunky sound effects and exclamation points, Bryant’s prose breaks nearly every writers’ workshop rule. An example: “The darkened hospital lights created an ominous and eerie feeling as a nurse filled out paperwork at the end of the hall.” Here, Bryant contradicts himself by trying to convey the creepiness of a hospital late at night, but goes back on that feeling by ending with as dull an image as possible: health care industry red tape. “Show, don’t tell” is a mantra repeated in nearly any level writing class around the world. It’s important because writing that conveys a feeling rather telling the reader what to think is more effective because it allows the reader to use his or her imagination to create the scene. This is especially important when suspense is involved because the reader will draw on his or her own fears and anxieties to enhance the story. Here, everything is on the page, in bare bones prose that tells everything without showing us anything.
Like many of his noir predecessors, Graves runs into a beautiful femme fatale, Jessie, who is responsible for his most recent death. In order to get information out of this frail, Graves roughs her up, detailed in one of Fox’s drawings. Regardless of the moral implications, beating a woman may very well be in play when one comes back from the dead to exact revenge on those responsible for his demise. In fact, children and grandmothers and ministers and anyone else is fair game if resurrection occurs, but here, slapping the woman around seems to be simply a throwback to the misogynistic themes of many noir films (or any pre-women’s movement films for that matter) where a slap in the face was a the cure-all for feminine hysterics. Even among the gun shots, living dead and tangled government conspiracies, this bit of violence seems out of place and outdated. Its inclusion as homage seems too sophisticated for such an inept story, but the only other option seems too sinister for creators who, despite their faults, obviously mean well.
The Bryant/Fox duo is obviously indebted to punk rock (spelled here as Punk Rock, making it a proper noun). References to Joe Strummer, Sid Vicious and the aforementioned anarchy abound. In one scene, Graves turns on the radio to hear “an old school punk tune… jamming through the speakers. I almost felt like doing a stage dive.” It’s appropriate, then, that this is, besides a noir, a zombie story. Punk rock is the ultimate zombie. Its initial wave—along with many of the musicians responsible—is dead and gone, but variations on the musical and social themes still exist today. Thanks to the proliferation of shopping malls and tatted up, MTV-friendly punk rockers it has inspired a new generation of freaks and outcasts to make their own mark on the world. Grave Danger is an example of this, a mall punk zombie noir mash up that seems the likely result of a couple of guys reading Sin City and watching zombies films and saying, “We can do that.” While one has to admire your DIY spirit, the simple truth is no, you can’t.