Borderland Speakeasy #6: Moral Bankruptcy and the Smell of Fear
Late-Night Thoughts on a Mean Little Book of Noir
Raymond Chandler wrote that "everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds."
The 13 tales in Dark Horse's Noir demonstrate that vitality in spades. It's a lean black and white anthology with an invigorating sense of energy that presents an intriguing cross-section of crime narrative and visual styles.
The collection kicks off with a backwoods story of adolescent rage and lust from David Lapham of Stray Bullets fame, which leads into a sort of farmhouse noir by Sweet Tooth's Jeff Lemire (imagine the characters from American Gothic in a story by James M. Cain).
These are the types of stories that can reignite a passion for crime comics (Vertigo's Scalped inspires a similar sense of excitement and originality). They bring to mind a description from the introduction to the anthology "Hard-Boiled," where editors Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian write that "the hard-boiled crime story deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction."
"The typical hard-boiled character (if not the typical hard-boiled writer) has a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law. He (or sometimes she) is often a loner a social misfit. If he is on the side of the angels, he is likely to be a cynical idealist ... If he walks on the other side of the mean streets, he walks them at night; he is likely a predator, and as morally bankrupt as any human being can be."
Criminal's Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips offer a particularly nasty tale of moral bankruptcy, which features an interesting narrative shift in perspective away from the femme fatale's patsy in the story's second half. The story epitomizes Paul Duncan's description of noir, from his essay "Noir Fiction: Dark Highways":
"Noir is not about the people standing on the edge of the abyss looking in, but about the people in it, forever writhing, aware of the pain, aware of the future pain to come. The character(s) must suffer/confront the darkness inside them. Whether they live or die is immaterial--the quest into this heart of darkness is the thing."
Noir pairs well with Paul Gravett's Mammoth Book of Crime Comics. If that 480-page tome is a sledgehammer, this 120-pager is a stiletto. Where Gravett offers an essential historical perspective, Noir focuses on new work.
The list of artists and writers in dazzling, not just for the works they are famous for individually, but for the variety they bring to this collection: Rick Geary, Kano, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, even Dean Motter's legendary Mister X turns up to solve an old mystery in Radiant City.
Alex De Campi's "Fracture" is one of the most unusual stories here, and the one that seems to warrant the most frequent re-reads. It's a puzzling story that follows a young woman from an encounter on a subway platform, and seems to delve into her often violent fantasies.
Its panel breakdown brings to mind Bernie Krigstein's famous "Master Race" story for EC Comics (aided by a similar subway setting), and its narrative recalls Roman Polanski's film Repulsion, as well as John Franklin Bardin's novel Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly: two stories similar to "Fracture" in the ways they take us into the minds of dangerously, mysteriously unstable female protagonists. Oddly enough, the final image also brings to mind the "roach motel" scene in Nightmare on Elm Street 4 (but that might be the insomnia talking ... two, three, Freddy's coming for me ...).
Among the many criteria Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian list as key elements to hard-boiled stories, one of the most prominent is their final item: "It should generate, as much as possible, what Raymond Chandler called 'a smell of fear.'"
"It is not a very fragrant world," Chandler writes in his famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder":
"But it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization."
Borderland Speakeasy appears every alternate Monday and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.