Humble Beginnings: Ed Brubaker’s “Scene of the Crime”

For all of its dark undertones and unsportsmanlike cast, Scene of the Crime: A Little Piece of Goodnight could stand to look a bit more threatening. It’s a provocative comics offshoot of the West Coast crime novel tradition, but on the surface, it’s largely a day-lit yarn set in the sun-washed Mission District neighborhood of San Francisco. The role that poorly-lit barrooms play is limited, framing panels where the fluid details of local murders, depraved sex, or cults are drawn-out over strong drinks. Unseemliness lurks, but it just isn’t so much defined aesthetically as it is in the successful Ed Brubaker-penned crime books that would follow; such books as Fatale, Gotham Central (with Greg Rucka), or Criminal. In an essay about the latter for, critic Tim Callahan wrote about the relationship between visual style and noir: “In a purebred noir, if such a thing exists, shadows become as important as the characters, and the harsh urban landscape provides a suitably symbolic backdrop for the cracked stoicism of the heroes and villains.”

Scene of the Crime isn’t as rich with the noir-ish doses of shadow that would flood Brubaker stories in the years to come, but this late 1990s four-issue DC/Vertigo miniseries in some sense birthed the universe of grifters, drug runners, and unlucky bar flies who populate those scripts. Scene spawned the fertile working relationships between the writer, artist Michael Lark, and Sean Phillips, who was brought in to ink the last three issues (Ed Brubaker talked more about his meeting Phillips on a recent giddy Nerdist podcast). These partnerships have arguably yielded some of the best-received genre offerings in recent history, and you can trace them all back to this heavy little story.

The Scene of the Crime miniseries surfaced in 1999 following a short called “God and Sinners,” which was collected in an annual Vertigo anthology. Both appear in a new Scene deluxe edition hardcover from Image Comics. “God and Sinners” is gloomy and bitter cold–its private investigator Jack Herriman stakes out a potential murder witness, far from his temperate California office in the snow-crested, barren streets of a Chicago neighborhood. There’s lots of waiting, cheeky detective story-styled inner monologue, and a morbid finale. It’s short and about as bleak as you can get, but enthusiasts of Ed Brubaker’s work will likely recognize a promising fire brewing between the narrative and Michael Lark’s art.

Lark lent dramatic nuances to the crime stories he penciled even back then; his film noir-guided adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe: The Little Sister was published two years ahead of Scene of the Crime and is worth a look. The artist’s visual unpacking of Jack Herriman’s past in the full Scene story, with vibrant family flashbacks and booze-impeded memories, is affecting and rich. But Michael Lark was unhappy with his own inking on this series. Enter Sean Phillips, who would eventually produce Incognito, Criminal, and more with Ed Brubaker. In the newest edition of Scene’s extras, a handful of before-and-after pages that reflect Phillips’s contributions prove valuable to even the casual reader. This brand of backmatter can illuminate how critical an inker’s role is to a story like this, particularly in the rainswept pages that depict Herriman confronting a client during a spell of nasty weather. Lark communicates the ordeal well in his penciled scene compositions, but juxtaposing the inked pages against the former round should spur a deep “comics process” appreciation for even the uninitiated.

A supplementary article from Ed Brubaker is also included in the Scene of the Crime bonus material. He credits this book with helping launch the projects that followed, and admits to “cringing” about the amount of text that he squeezed into word balloons back then. Early in the “God and Sinners” prelude, Jack Herriman is tellingly positioned off to the side in each panel that features any of “the only family (he’s) got left.” He’s a reserved, secondary figure in the sequences he shares with his aunt and uncle and they’re padded with a lot of expository copy. Terse and punchy, the text isn’t overwhelming but it’s no wonder why Brian Bendis is so supportive in a new foreword, given the copy-heavy pages that litter compelling crime graphic novels Goldfish and Jinx in his own body of work.

If Scene of the Crime is a wordy book, call it a side effect of Brubaker’s influences. In fact, the opening sequence rests on a well-trod convention of the detective story setup. A woman named Alexandra Jordan visits Jack Herriman about a missing relative, a typical “Why didn’t you report her as a missing person,” etc. volley ensues as the investigator scrambles to find an ashtray in his cluttered office for his client. It’s bright and familiar but we’re in a pretty dark place soon enough.

Within a few pages, it’s apparent that even Mission District sun can’t lighten Scene of the Crime. Striking police procedural-driven visuals in the book preface what Michael Lark, Ed Brubaker, and Greg Rucka would become known for in their award-winning and often intimate Gotham Central. And while this early book is rough in comparison, Scene… harbors similar impact in tone via the story’s threat of cults and kidnapping (with the real-life Heaven’s Gate deaths just two years behind us at this point); in Herriman’s harrowing past, rooted in heroin and tragedy; and in a circle of merciless victimizing that calls Polanski’s Chinatown to mind for more reasons than one. There isn’t exactly a visible helping of the San Francisco “night-fog, thin, clammy and penetrant” that hovers over The Maltese Falcon‘s backdrop here, but leave that to those gripping Brubaker books that followed–they have it in spades.