By Jay Stringer
Last week I took a look at pulp. That is, I took a look at how crime fiction, comic books and superheroes are all part of the same dysfunctional family.
This week I’m going to bring things up to date. But before I focus more on the crime side of things, I want to give a special mention to one of the best comic books of all time.
Batman: Year One was Frank Miller’s revision of the batman’s origin. Bringing the costumed hero crashing down into the slums and dirt of mid 80’s urban life, it’s seedy and dark and brilliant. Batman is dark and driven, but unlike Miller’s other stories he still gave Bruce Wayne enough humanity and humour to keep him sane. The real achievement of Year One was Jim Gordon. Previously a one note supporting character, friendly and honest in the comics and bumbling in the TV show, the Jim Gordon of the 80’s was going to be a whole new breed. He arrives in Gotham at the start of the story as a disgraced Chicago cop, hired by the most corrupt city in America because he can be bribed and controlled. But, in the last place you should ever choose to make a stand, he refuses to be bought. His journey is the human core of the story, as he finds redemption for himself in the shape of a man who dresses like a bat. In many ways, this version of Gordon was the last time Miller would show any restraint or subtlety in his writing.
Okay, that’s enough of the guys in tights. A while different breed of hero came in the form of Ms. Tree, from Max Allan Collins. A feminist take on the hardboiled private eye, she was gun toting and hard as nails. The issues were topical, dealing with rape, incest and drugs, and the main character was as unforgiving as Mike Hammer ever was. Collins recently gave the character a prose reboot through Hard Case Crime, but her comic book routes don’t get the attention they deserve. I’d say a decent retrospective collection is long overdue.
Since then crime has spread like a wonderful addiction back into the mainstream. Frank Miller’s Sin City series was a stylish pastiche of Mickey Spillane, full of dames, bullets and huge guns. It’s (almost) all black and white, and if you’ve seen the film you have an idea what you’re in for. The first story (now retitled The hard Goodbye) saw Marv, a psycho with a heart of gold, on a trail of revenge for the one woman good enough to sleep with him. As Marv himself says, she was “Worth dying for. Worth killing for. Worth going to hell for.” Each subsequent book in the series overlapped slightly, there are enough connections to build a bigger story if you’re looking for them, but you can enjoy each book on its own.
An unknown cartoonist by the name of Brian Michael Bendis spent the best part of a decade working away on crime comics. These days he pretty much is Marvel, writing for spidey and the avengers, but once upon a time he was working full time and using his spare hours to write (and photocopy) Jinx, the tale of a female bounty hunter who falls for the wrong guy. As well as a great crime tale, it was paying homage to Sergio Leone, which adds another branch to the family tree.
Then something funny started to happen. Crime fiction authors started to cross over into comics. Charlie Huston wrote Moon Knight, Greg Rucka produced the snow bound crime drama Whiteout before writing just about every important character on the DC roster, and (friend of the site) Duane Swierczynski jumped head first into characters like Iron Fist and Cable. Rucka has just started a brand new PI comic called Stumptown, a homage to the Rockfords and Magnums of the world. The second issue is due out any day now, so RUN.
In truth, there are just too many top people out there in the field right now –and too many quality titles- for me to provide an indepth look at them. There are a few notable absences from the last two weeks, 100 BULLETS, THE HUNTER and Will Eisner will all be returned to in more detail at a later date. Whilst I haven’t get my eyed around the new crime series from Vertigo comics yet, but I will. And i've not gone into any detail at all about the careers of writers like Ed Brubaker. But i've written plenty about his work elsewhere. What I really wanted to achieve was to give you a list of modern titles to check out, all of which are readily available and come with the DSD seal of approval.
If I had to come out and decide on the best comic book on the stands right now, It would be impossible to look beyond SCALPED. In fact, it’s already been the subject of some love on this blog. To reveal too much about the plot would be to ruin the twist of the first issue, but it’s a book that centres of the seedy, vice and alcohol fuelled world of an Indian reservation in the Unites States.
Sometimes you come across an idea so perfect, and so simple, that you want to break down in tears if you didn’t think of it. THE ROBERTS is one of those cases. Two of America’s most famous serial killers are residents in the same retirement home. There, genius. What follows is dark, unsettling and deeply funny.
A true crime period piece. It wouldn’t be to far off to call this the James Ellroy of comics. Following Elliot Ness as he hunts for the ‘torso’ serial killer. Bendis is known for his dialogue, but challenges himself here by trying to give the characters a realistic 1930’s voice. The artwork is an interesting mix of black and white drawings mixed in with crime scene photographs, and overall its one of the most interesting reads I’ve come across.
Criminal is the most instantly accessible hardboiled crime book on the stands. It’s also ideal for jumping on, because it takes regular breaks between story arcs giving time for people to catch up. So far the whole series has taken place in and around the same town, with the same supporting cast. Each story arc has a different lead character, and follows them as they become slowly trapped by the world around them or by their own humanity. So far we’ve had heists, drugs, organised crime and lots of people in over their heads. With some of the best writing in comics, and the incredible noir art of Sean Phillips, this is a book worth reading, right now.