Books

Sex + Noir Does Not = Sexy Noir, Not in 'Fogtown', Anyway

Photo by Ben Hallert

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.


Fogtown

Publisher: Vertigo Crime
Length: 175 pages
Author: Andersen Gabrych (author), Brad Rader (artist)
Price: $19.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-08
Amazon

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.

4

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image