Friday, January 22, 2010

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

Dark Horse Comics, 2009, paperback, 110 pages, $ 12.95

Creators: David Lapham, Jeff Lemire, Dean Motter, Chris Offutt, Kano, Stefano Gaudiano, Alex de Campi, Hugo Petrus, M. K. Perker, Paul Grist, Rick Geary, Ken Lizzi, Joëlle Jones, Gary Phillips, Eduardo Barreto, Matthew Fillbäch, Shawn Fillbäch, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Brian Azzarello, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Clem Robins, Ryan Hill, Tom Orzechowski
Editors: Diana Schutz, Dave Marshall, Brendan Wright

Out of the 13 stories in this anthology, three focus on a woman—some kind of femme fatale, in the pertinent lingo—seducing and having sex with the male protagonist to win his trust, before a hopefully surprising final scene—a twist ending, they call it—reveals what's really going on.

Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed if the editors hadn't decided to run them all grouped together towards the end of the book, but as it were, this 25-or-so-percent reliance on a well-worn plot formula is emblematic of the degree of creativity on display here.

Granted, these are staples of the noir genre (or style, depending on the school of thought), so a book like this one was always going to have to address them in some fashion; because, naturally, they just happen to be what people expect when they buy a book titled Noir.

The big disappointment here is that so many of the contributors approach the well-established genre ingredients in such an exhausted fashion. For instance, I'm at a loss why the prose story by Ken Lizzi, illustrated by Joëlle Jones, is in here; it's not comics, and it's neither well-written nor otherwise remarkable enough to make a solid case for its inclusion in a comics anthology. It grabs the most superficial elements, the most iconic clichés that this type of fiction has to offer, gives them a walk around the block, and that's that—is the big achievement supposed to be that Mr. Lizzi managed to not stumble and crack a rib on his stroll? I'm unimpressed.

Indeed, most of the stories in Noir are uninspired, anti-climactic throwaway sketches that seem miles away from properly fleshed-out stories. Given the name recognition of many of the contributors, it's very disheartening to find that so few of them evidently have any understanding of what it takes to create a story that connects, or any desire to make comics that are more than mechanically sound and visually appealing. Is that worthy of praise? No more so than a filmmaker who can hold a camera, or a prose writer who knows how to spell, I'm afraid.

Paul Grist's story about a burglar who escapes the police only to run into the arms of a crime lord he's stolen from; Chris Offutt, Kano and Stefano Gaudiano's piece on a self-assured old hitman who doesn't know what time it is; Gary Phillips and Eduardo Barreto's weird sci-fi thing about a woman seducing her gym trainer—they all deliver the basics, and that's where their aspirations end. Even Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' six-pager, the most accomplished story in the book in terms of sheer craft, yields little more than a shrug.

The creators replicate the surface trappings of the kind of material they're trying to emulate, but they don't seem to recognize what makes good noir fiction more than just cheap trash or stylistic masturbation. Case in point, if you were expecting authentic and compelling characters or poignant, twisted insights, this isn't where to find them.

There are brief flickers of inspiration in the book, but they are few and far between, and they rarely go anywhere. David Lapham, who provides the opener, attempts a tight psychological power struggle between three teenagers; it's genuinely gripping for a while, but then Mr. Lapham shoots himself in the foot in the last two panels, forcing a kind of relief and closure that completely undermines his narrative.

M. K. Perker, who examines what witnessing a killing spree does to a janitor, has the right idea, but doesn't pull it off in practice. Rick Geary's "Blood on My Hands," about a middle-aged man who discovers a rather morbid way of rekindling his love to his wife, might be a twisted take on Isabel Coixet's contribution to Paris, je t'aime, if only he'd found a less sedating way to tell it. Alex de Campi and Hugo Petrus' story about a woman in a subway station is the most experimental of the bunch, but ends up being a purely formalistic exercise, with not much to latch on to—and it's got nothing to do with noir, either, for that matter.

There are a few clunkers, too. Jeff Lemire's entry relates a pointless series of events that never adds up to anything, before leaving the reader on a predictable and pointless ending. Brian Azzarello, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá also disappoint, with a story that bores you with tired clichés for seven pages before the twist turns out to be a nod to a long-running superhero series that doesn't even make sense. Judging from the way the characters keep moving up and down the counter on page 112, it seems the artists didn't pay much attention, either; shoddy art was the last thing I would have expected from Mr. Moon and Mr. Bá, but there you go.

Dean Motter's contribution, a Mister X story, is crushed by tired and meaningless exposition that does more to obfuscate the plot than to illuminate anything. And Matthew and Shawn Fillbäch's collaboration, finally, is a complete non-starter. The story, an eye-rollingly awful piece about a woman who ends up leaving a big-mouthed nightclub owner when she's impressed with a "cowboy"'s machismo, sports all the depth and stylistic subtlety of a 1970s porno—sans shagging, tragically, but with the same concept of gender relations.

Noir reads like a collection of B-sides, put together by people who mostly couldn't be bothered to bring their A-game. Few of the pieces are inspired, some are more or less sound in execution. The two qualities never coincide between this book's covers, unfortunately.

Grade: D+

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