Comics

Borderland Speakeasy #6: Moral Bankruptcy and the Smell of Fear

Oliver Ho
A Touch of the Back Stuff: Dark Horse's "Noir".

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

Borderland Speakeasy appears every alternate Monday and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.

Borderland Speakeasy #1: Echoes of Vengeance

Borderland Speakeasy #2: 'They Found The Car' Inverted Noir

Borderland Speakeasy #3: Needle in the Eye

Borderland Speakeasy #4: In Praise of Modesty Blaise

Borderland Speakeasy #5: Mirror Image Murders

-------

DataShadow

Preview Dark Horse's Noir

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image