Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Review: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

I enjoyed reading fellow DSDer Jay have a go at the history of crime in comics these past two weeks (part 1; part 2). It got me to perusing my bookshelves and I happened upon my collection of crime graphic novels by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I read the first one, Coward, a year or so back and thought I'd post my review here (from my own blog). While Jay's posts inspired me to re-visit this older post, I'm also under the gun for two projects, both due by month's end. So, a reprint for today. Enjoy.


When you think of comics, I bet you think of superheroes in spandex. Nothing wrong with that. But there used to be a whole other realm when someone mentioned comics—horror, mystery, crime, and terror—in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then, with the Comics Code Authority, much of what was in comics evaporated and the superheroes were neutered. Crime-focused comics fell under that knife and stayed dormant for decades. By the 1970s, when I began collecting comics, I don’t even remember any crime comics out there. And I’m not including Detective Comics that long ago became just another vehicle for Batman. No, crime comics died and only rarely rose up to see what was going on. The only crime comic title I can think of before the 1990s was Max Allan Collins’s “Ms. Tree.”

The late 1980s saw the introduction of a newfound realism in comics. The emergence of the graphic novel as a medium proved that comic books were not just kids’ stuff. DC Comics launched the Vertigo line of comics intended for mature readers and focused on subjects more intense than Superman trying to get the alien imp Mr. Mxyzptlk to say his own name backward (thus banishing him back to the Fifth Dimension). With this new attention being paid to comics as a storytelling medium, it was inevitable that crime comics would be re-born.

While the re-birth cannot be attributed to one person, there is one man who can take a large amount of credit for the revitalization of crime in comics. Ed Brubaker bounced around the comics’ world, writing his own material that was usually crime-related and putting his own unique stamp on standard heroes like Batman, Catwoman, and the X-Men. In 2007, he and artist Sean Phillips launched a new title, “Criminal” that featured multi-issue story arcs. The first five issues have been collected in a trade paperback.

Coward” tells the story of Leo, a pickpocket with a genius gift for planning heists. He got the gift from his dad and his dad’s best pal, Ivan. Over the years, Leo has internalized his father’s rules, one of which is always have more than one way out of a situation. Leo lives by these rules and he has survived. The fallout is that he knows when to bail—and does—and he’s earned himself the reputation of being a coward. He’s cool with that, however. As he tells one character, “My ego can take a few morons thinking they scared me.” What Leo realizes (too late) is that his aloofness turns people away, even people who try to get close to him.

Leo’s gone under the radar in the five years since the Salt Bay heist went belly up. He takes care of his dad’s friend, Ivan, now a heroin addict with early onset Alzheimer’s. But an old friend shows up asking for Leo’s help in a heist. It’s a big payday: an armored car full of trial evidence including $5 million in diamonds. Leo says no way. “I’m out of that line of work.” Then his day nurse (the one looking after Ivan) quits. Greta, whose husband died on that botched Salt Bay job five years ago, shows up, cajoling Leo to help. She’s a recovering addict with a kid who needs some medical bills paid. Suffice it to say, Leo agrees and sets out to plan the perfect heist. He’s working with crooked cops and he knows he’s going to be double-crossed. It’s just a matter of time. But what he doesn’t know is that the double-cross is going to allow him and a wounded Greta to get away with the real target in that evidence van. Only when he sees the prize he’s stolen does he start to form another plan, a plan to get himself and Greta out from under the thumb of the guys looking for that briefcase, and, while he’s at it, see about getting paid for his services.

“Coward” is a joy to read. Oh, it’ll slap you in the face with its realism and it’s language, but it’s still a rush. The language surprised me. If filmed, this would only work as an HBO program as the language is rife with four-letter words. But that’s how real criminals talk so no harm, no foul. The plot is tight. Brubaker plays his cards close to the vest, not revealing the true nature of Leo’s actions and outlook on life until late in the book. The artwork is film noir on paper. Sean Phillips uses shadows and light exactly as a director did in the late 40s, giving “Coward” its visual tone that matches the bleak outlook of its text. This is a noir story, not necessarily hard-boiled. There is a bleakness to Leo’s story that permeates most characters as they question their motivations.

In a nice touch, there is a story within a story. The characters all read the newspaper and most of them read a comic strip featuring Frank Kafka, Private Eye. Okay, you can start sniggering now. But the name Kafka and the story being depicted speak to Leo’s story and vice versa. It’s a style Alan Moore used brilliantly in “Watchmen”—except he used three stories.

I’ve been interested in crime comics for a little while now and decided to start with Brubaker’s work. This will not be the last trade paperback I buy. Next up will be "Gotham Central," Brubaker's story of the Gotham City Police working under the shadow of Batman. “ Coward” has merely whetted my appetite for more crime comics, modern as well as golden age. If you like crime fiction, there’s more to it than just novels and short stories. Try the comics and start with Brubaker’s work. Don’t worry: they’re so good, you won’t have to hide them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Loss Launch

By Russel D McLean

If my camera was working, I'd have pictures.

But the sad truth you'll just have to accept my word as proof that tonight Scots noir author wunderkind Tony Black launched his third novel, LOSS.

I have already talked about LOSS at the website of the ITW, rightfully praising both book and author for their bleak, beautiful view of Scottish society; a view that is seen from the bottom up by alcoholic hack Gus Drury. Dury is one of the most impressive characters to emerge from the Scottish crime scene in recent years - - a complex and dangerous character whose faults often make up for his virtues, he is, as Black was quick to assure us tonight, nothing like the author. Except perhaps in his views of politicians and the abundance of “tartan tat” that blights the Scottish tourist industry.

Black is one of those writers I offer as proof of the rebirth of Scottish hardboiled. His cynical worldview combined with a searing prose style has swiftly edged him up on my list of must-read writers. And, as ever, it is because Black seems to understand that politics and society are as important to crime fiction as any creative bloodletting. Yes, people may ask (and tonight, some did)what kind of mind can conceive of such attrocities as Black describes, but when you think about it, the true horror of a writer like Black comes in the quieter moments, the moments when Black confronts the mindset of those who would commit attrocities both physical and mental on other people.

Not that he was always a crime geek when it came to his career as an author, of course. Tonight's event offered up evidence of a burgeoning need to write a historical novel about the Tasmanian Tiger (no, we're not kidding) and the revelation that his four previous novels were not remotely connected to the Drury series (although at least two were caper novels). There was also the admission that women's reaction to Drury was “they'd either slap him or shag him” and the admission from the audience that men are more squeamish than women when it comes to the violence in his novels.

For me, one of the more interesting (and sadly unexplored) moments of the night came in Black's naming Irvine Welsh as a crime writing influence. Welsh is more generally accepted as a literary author, and yet I'm right behind Black when he outs Welsh as a crime writer. Having argued with many folks over the use of “mystery” as our preferred nom-de-genre, I would say that Welsh is a crime writer, if not a mystery writer and thus mystery is clearly a subset of crime. But I guess that's an argument for another (arguably more sober) day.

For today, however, it is enough to say that LOSS is a book you need to go and buy right now. Or, failing that, you need to buy the first two Dury novels.

Tony Black is currently one of the best kept secrets of the Scottish crime scene, but if you're missing out, believe me when I tell you that you're missing one of the most emotionlly honest, painfully violent and brutally intelligent of the new Scottish crime pack. Black brings a brutal urgency to his novels and manages to make Dury more than just another alcoholic hack with anger management issues. This is modern crime at its most affecting, its most honest and its most intelligent.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Robert B. Parker

by Dave White

Parker was one of my biggest influences. I've been reading his books forever. His death hit me pretty hard this week.

I wrote a tribute on my blog, and I'm not sure how much cross traffic we get between here and there, so I thought it would be a good idea to repost the tribute here:

R.I.P. Robert B. Parker

My father once said that THE GOLDWULF MANUSCRIPT was the kind of book he wanted to write. Robert B. Parker just did it a lot better.

Parker was my first introduction to the world of private investigators via Spenser. My parents were always buying his paperbacks, reading them, and then passing them to me. I loved the voice, the witty banter, the action, everything that went along with a Spenser novel. I enjoyed that Spenser never felt rushed, and rarely felt afraid. He knew he would solve the case, and he would do what it would take to get the job done. Some people would call it lazy writing, all the tension taken out of the novel. It didn't matter to me. I loved Parker's characters. They were broadly drawn, but had a depth to them that would sneak up on you.

I even liked Susan.

Between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I breezed through the first four novels on a road trip to Florida. During that trip, MORTAL STAKES became one of my all time favorite books. After that, I didn't miss a novel.

And as the series went on, people complained the quality of them sagged. I kept buying them, the day they came out.

You see, the Spenser novels weren't about thrilling reads to me. They became a visit with an old, tough, and funny friend. Half the fun was noting the types of beer Spenser drank, trying to spot quotes from English lit. Half my witty comebacks were borne from something read in a Spenser novel. I always wanted to know what Spenser was up to... even if it was the same old same old. I even read Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall, and the Appaloosa novels. None of them were Spenser.

I couldn't give him up.

Last fall, the last (I'm assuming) Spenser novel was published. As usual, I bought it on release day. I hadn't read it yet. I gave it to my parents to check out. There were other things to read. Other books to check out, other authors I wanted to get to first.

THE PROFESSIONAL is going to be my next read. I'll probably read it slowly, trying to savor that one last visit with an old friend.

Those visits will be missed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If I Ran HBO

Well, I'd sell my stock options and retire to write books before I bankrupted the place, but let's say I made one decision before I left.

It would be a series. I used to love movies, I used to go all the time but I don't much anymore. Now I prefer the longer story arcs of a good seriesor miniseries. The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, Band of Brothers - I watched them all on DVD.

Now we have HBO Canada so I'm looking forward to The Pacific (my father-in-law spent a lot of the war in what we used to call Burma with the RCAF):

And I'm really looking forward to this one:

Let’s see, Emmy Award winner Terence Winter (The Sopranos), Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi, Gretchen Mol, based on the book by Nelson Johnson, set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, I guess it could be good.

So, the next big one I'd like to see as a series on HBO is this:

Such great characters, everybody from Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Nixon, Kennedy (Big Brother and Little Brother), Jimmy Hoffa, movie stars, mobsters, HUAC, COINTELPRO – it’s Hollywood, Washington, Vegas – everything.

I really liked the movie version of LA Confidential but the material in these three books would make for such a great HBO show. Each book could be a ten or twelve episode season.

Let's face it, HBO is losing out to AMC and FX and other cable networks and stuff like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Justified (the one based on Elmore Leonard's Fire in the Hole with US Marshall Raylan Givens) and so on.

So, what do you think? What material would you like to see adapted into a cable TV series?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Four Colour Crime, Part Two.

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.

SCALPED by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guerra (vertigo)

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.

THE ROBERTS by Justin Shady, Wayne Chinsang and Erik Rose (Image)

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.

TORSO by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko (Image)

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 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Icon)

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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

You got a problem with that, punk?

By Steve Weddle

At the moment I am writing this, 27,873 fiction blog posts in the last 365 days have been devoted to discussing the writing of sex scenes.

Coming in a close second is the fight scene.

As Dave is the self-appointed DSD expert on fictional sex (see his earlier posts), I’ll take a shot at fight scenes.

Mostly so that I can deduct this month’s $93 innerweb bill, I researched fight scene writing.

Here are some tips I found >> Use as many kicks as you do punches. Have the fight move from one room to another. Always use at least one weapon. Vary sentence length. Only use short sentences to keep the action quick. Pause after a punch to describe the scenery in order to slow the action.

Heck, you could read pages of these tips and feel like you’re really learning something. I don’t know how helpful it is to your own writing, though. Or to mine.

What I’m thinking often happens is that writers want a fight scene, so they choreograph some moves. They write the scene, not the character.

I’ve read stories in which the protagonist, as the page turns from 73 to 74, magically picks up the ability to fight for a couple of pages. This might come as a shock to many in the noir community, but most private detectives are not seventh-degree black belts. They’re not former Army Rangers who have retired to a small town to fight their bad dreams and alcoholism.

Not to get into Dave’s specialty of fictional sex, but remember that Elvis Costello song, “Mystery Dance,” with the line: “So both of us were willing but we didn’t know how to do it”? Why is it that everyone in noir is a good fighter? Don’t tell me it’s just the genre. That’s a crap answer, and you know it.

Maybe the reason is that writing fight scenes is fun. Active. A nice break from all that exposition junk and placing clues around and having to write a convincing explanation of how your protagonist knew that the colonel was the real murderer just because he’d gone to Notre Dame with the victim’s brother.

If your protagonist is a stand-in for you – whether you’re the reader or the writer – the fight scenes are fun. Punching someone in the nose with no consequence. Let me tell you, you pop someone’s nose back into his skull, there’s gonna be some blood.

You know what happens in most fights? They end up on the ground. At the dojo where I trained, we spent a considerable amount of time working with Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, a style of fighting pushed by the Gracie Family who knew a thing or two about ground fighting. How many fights in that novel you just finished ended up on the ground?

I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong. I’m certainly not saying that I know which is which. But I’ve written a few fight scenes that just don’t quite work. And I’ve read some like that, too. Too long. Too many people. Too much standing toe-to-toe.

If the first rule of Fight Club is that you don't talk about Fight Club, let's make the first rule of fight scenes that we talk about fight scenes. OK?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Don’t Read This If You Are Offended By The Word Crazy

by Mike Knowles

A while back, I wrote about the Stark Equation. If you missed it, in a nutshell, I wrote that I noticed that each installment in the Parker series by Richard Stark follows a pretty standard equation. The other day I noticed something about a lot of contemporary crime fiction novels. Many books contain a crazy best friend.

The standard crime fiction protagonist is usually a man with a strict code of morals. The morals may differ from character to character, but most are alike in that the character has some personal idea of right and wrong that they base all of their actions on. Crime fiction protagonists are as rigid to their personal code as samurai. But many protagonists, despite having strong feelings about right and wrong, have a close relationship with an absolute psycho. Someone who, by all rights, should offend their code and who should be considered an enemy.

Off the top of my head in no particular order, I present a list of men and their chemically imbalanced friends.

1. Spenser and Hawk

2. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike

3. Patrick Kenzie and Bubba Rogowski

4. Ray Dudgeon and Gravedigger Peace

5. Leonid McGill and Hush

6. Easy Rawlins and Mouse

7. Burke and Wesley

The presence of a nutjob friend in many of my favorite books was something I thought was interesting and as I sat in bed last night thinking about it, it suddenly occurred to me that I did it too. In my books, there is a main character with his own code that he follows and he is friends with a man who is, at the best of times, barely containing his explosive rage. Steve Sullivan in both Darwin’s Nightmare and Grinder is like a lid on top of a pot of boiling water. The lid makes you nervous when you watch it hop around and you know that left untouched the steam will build up and cause the pot to boil over.

I didn’t consciously put a character like that into my book. I didn’t say to myself, you want to write a crime book well then you need to get yourself a nut sidekick. But as I sit back and look at myself as another person who used a similar archetype in his writing, I wonder why. What is the appeal of this type of character?

In many cases, this type of character is a tool. The crazy friend is brought out to provide backup or to connect the hero with a part of the underworld that he would never be a part of. Most stories involve a main character going up against a powerful, evil enemy who outnumbers the hero in bodies and resources. The crazy best friend is usually a way to even the odds and allow the main character to gain an advantage over his foe.

Perhaps, they crazy friend is a foil. Someone who makes another seem better by contrast. The main character seems more noble, more human, when compared to their friend. Those of you with wives know what this is about. How many times have you gone out with your idiot friends and come home looking like a great catch?

The crazy friend could be the yang to the hero's yin. Take Spenser and Hawk for example. Spenser is almost completely good, Hawk is almost completely bad (or at least he once was when he was cool). I use the word almost. Both characters have enough of the other in them to create a balance when they are paired. The balance is what makes the books so good. Most of the weaker Spenser books are those in which Hawk is absent. Spenser never feels quite right without his other half. Suddenly he is less interesting and too much of a goody goody. In the better books, the one’s with Hawk, Spenser’s nobility seems to shine when there is a lack of it so close.

The nut buddy could also serve as a reminder of what could have been for the main character. Most of the protagonists and their friends are close because they have grown up together or have shared extreme experiences. The main character could have gone the other way and become the crazy friend, but their strength of character kept them on the right path. The presence of the friend is a constant reminder of the strength and loyalty of the main character.

But it has to go deeper than that. Why do so many use a similar type of character in their writing?

The idea that an unbalanced character attached to a protagonist serves a function implies that there was a conscious decision to include a character like that. In my case, there was no preplanning. The character came on the fly and stuck around because he earned his keep and made me like him. So why would a writer devise such a character? If the book is looked upon as a reflection of the writer’s consciousness there is a possible answer.

Every character I write has me in it. Good or bad, man or woman, black or white part of me is there. I am sure of this because every time I am typing my first handwritten draft of a novel I find myself typing without looking at the page. I suddenly think I have an idea about the perfect way a character will respond. I will type in the response and then look at the page to find I already wrote it. This happens a-lot. I mean a-lot. It’s not memory. This is tens of thousands of words, months after I wrote them, and I keep rewriting the same thing. This is because the characters are part of me and I know how I would respond.

So if we look at a book as a reflection of the author’s consciousness the rational mind is usually represented in the protagonist. The rationality is expressed in whatever code a character possesses. The code is structure and reason even if it is extreme and outside the societal norm.

If the rational mind exists on the page then the irrational should automatically also exist. The antagonists display the types of wrong behavior our consciences protect us from acting on. Personally, whenever I have a truly heinous thought there is a small bit of shock and shame that follows. I would imagine that these types of emotions are the way certain types of behaviors are controlled and curtailed. On the page however, these feelings and emotions are not beaten back they are instead given life in the bad guy.

But, there are other bad thoughts that my conscience holds me back from acting on. These types of wrong ideas are not accompanied by feelings of shock, shame, or remorse. For example, the urge to do harm to someone who hurts their child. My thoughts run wild with ideas on how to solve the idea of child abuse myself, but I do not act on these thoughts. I do not act on the thoughts because I find the idea of them shameful or wrong - it is because they are not rational. I know better. These types of thoughts, I think, are the root of the crazy friend. They are not felt to be wrong feelings, so they are not the seeds for the antagonist. But the feelings are not also right because they are not rational, so they are not the seeds of the protagonist either. The homeless thoughts feel closer to right than wrong so they end up in a character close to the hero, but not part of the hero. They become the crazy best friend.

Turns out in fiction, friendship is complicated.