Crime fiction’s comic book makeover

A new line of graphic novels brings together two literary worlds that have a lot in common

Topics: Fiction, Books,

Crime fiction's comic book makeoverSarah Weinman, Barnes & Noble Review

Last summer DC Comics’ graphic novel division Vertigo launched a new imprint that, from the standpoint of many people, was a long time in coming. For years a number of crime writers had gravitated towards the comics realm, from Charlie Huston’s run with Moon Knight, Greg Rucka’s take on “Batman” (expanded into a novel titled “Batman: No Man’s Land”), and Duane Swierczynski’s interpretations of superhero sidemen “Cable” and the “Immortal Iron Fist.”

But there have also been signs of crime writers making dramatic use of comics fomats — with no capes in sight: Hannah Berry’s masterful “Britten and Brulightly,” her homage and tweaking of classic detective fiction, Darwyn Cooke’s excellent adaptation of Richard Stark’s “The Hunter,” and “West Coast Blues,” Jacques Tardi’s slimmed down and speeded up adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s “3 to Kill.”

Barnes & Noble Review“Dark Entries” dropped John “Hellblazer” Constantine into the emotional quagmire that is a reality show (and illustrated, via Werther Dell’Edera’s broad-brushstroke artwork, the torments awaiting the contestants) and Brian Azzarello and Victor Santos’s “Filthy Rich” mined Nixon-era exploitation films for its caustic look at fast-fermenting celebrity culture. Both books, however, traveled the common road paved by the ethos of noir fiction, where a decent ending is one where the protagonist doesn’t end up in hell. To drive the retro-pulp point home, these and future Vertigo titles deployed a black-and-white color scheme, emphasizing contrast over nuance, overt violence over psychological subtlety.

Having set its tonal template, Vertigo Crime laid low for a few months before starting in earnest at the beginning of 2010. “The Chill,” by Jason Starr and Mick Bertilorenzi, was both a wise and nervy choice to start the year: Starr’s standalone novels, such as “Hard Feelings” and “The Follower,” sustain a mood not unlike the perpetual unscratchable itch on one’s back, and go Highsmith-level deep into the sociopathic mind. When he partners with Irishman Ken Bruen, the collaborative efforts (“Bust,” “Slide,” “The Max”) result in gleeful, over-the-top comedy. It’s that hybrid voice that seeps into “The Chill,” a tale of vicious serial murder in contemporary Manhattan that has its roots in a centuries-old Celtic myth of corrupted feminine power and the transmogrification of sex into death. Starr clearly has fun playing with old-world paranormal storytelling, as does Bertilorenzi with his lurid, Tarantino-esque illustrations of those who kill and are killed.

Oddly, the anti-heroes of both The Chill” and veteran comics writer Peter Milligan’s “The Bronx Kill” share a first name, though their occupations and plights couldn’t be any more different. Starr’s Martin Cleary is an Irish émigré, a Boston police detective, ensnared in the old-new culture clash because his lost love, Arlana, is embroiled in the escalating crimes. Martin Keane, on the other hand, had no desire to be a cop and emulate his garrulous, hard-drinking old man. Instead he writes, with one successful novel under his belt and a less successful one in the works, happy in a marriage that keeps the dark past at bay. At least until his wife disappears and Martin’s the prime suspect, and that past resurfaces, in the form of some nasty family secrets, way up in a desolate, abandoned area — the “kill,” from a Dutch word for stream — in New York’s uppermost borough.

Though the story isn’t uplifted by James Romberger’s illustrations — more serviceable than artistic — Milligan more than makes up by mixing in excerpts from Martin’s manuscript, its fragments furthering the story of what happened to Martin’s wife. He also saves the best line for the homeless man who haunts the garbage-filled Kill, setting Martin straight on the ultimate source of the place’s violence: “it’s people that makes people crazy.”

That sentiment could easily apply to “Area 10,” Christos Gage’s work of neurological suspense, which takes self-mutilation to an extreme both natural and horrifying. Ancient cultures considered trepanation — drilling a hole through the skull — to be a pain reliever, a stress inducer, and in some instances, a way to see beyond time. Such ideas are thoroughly discredited today, but for NYPD detective Adam Kamen, this form of pseudoscience feels eerily familiar, as his own brain injury in the line of duty happened in similar fashion, and unexplained time perceptions have further ill-explained connections to — wait for it — another series of gory murders (in the land of Vertigo Crime, Manhattan is crawling with grisly killers content with ever-more-pornographic methods of murder. Call it an occupational hazard of the comic book world.)

The narrative is fairly standard — to the point where the beautiful resident shrink, of course, sleeps with Kamen — but pulls off the mind-bending trick of making you believe long-discredited theories might still have some truth to them. Area 10′s main star, though, is the gore (rendered in appropriately gut-churning detail by Chris Samnee’s stark artwork). And that seems fitting: if you’re going to dive into another realm, shouldn’t it take drastic, blood-drenched measures?

Yet none of these graphic novels is Vertigo Crime’s darkest. That honor goes to “The Executor,” Canadian thriller writer Jon Evans and Italian artist Andrea Mutti’s doom-drenched account of a former NHL hockey bruiser who returns to his upstate New York hometown at the posthumous behest of his former girlfriend. Avid genre readers will know how this story will go, because revisiting the past also means unearthing ugly skeletons, but the storyline Evans concocts travels all the way down to Inferno’s ninth circle, with side trips into attitudes about Aboriginal culture and the downside of running drugs. Mutti’s illustrations also keep the ever-increasing horror show just on the side of reality, such that the bruiser’s final acknowledgement of wrongs that can never be righted smack with the force of a cleanly hit puck.

My one criticism of Vertigo Crime to date is that it’s been a boys’ club, reveling in violence that, while entertainingly lurid, lacks depth. Of course, the comics world is deliberately double-dimensional, and shouldn’t apologize for being so. But I can’t help but look forward to a planned entry from two sharp-witted female purveyours of contemporary noir, Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott and Edgar nominee Alison Gaylin. Between the two of them their novels run the gamut from Dreiser-like tragedy (“Bury Me Deep”) to celebrity-obsession satire (“Trashed”).  Their joint graphic effort — like Christa Faust’s “Money Shot,” the only Hard Case Crime novel to date by a woman — should mine some very interesting sociological territory as part of its quest to give the reader some Black Mask-like fun.

Sarah Weinman covers the publishing industry for DailyFinance, writes crime fiction columns for the Los Angeles Times and the Barnes & Noble Review, and blogs at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>