Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Noir: a collection of crime comics

October the 14th saw the release of "Noir: a collection of crime comics" antholoy from Dark Horse. The publisher has a long tradition of providing high quality genre work, particularly horror, done in the way so as to echo the pulps of yesteryear. With their newest effort, they revive the format of the short story collection, while billing the top crime fiction creators in comics. The industry's greats were given the space of eight pages each, to construct black and white morality plays, with a harder edge, and it's interesting how they responded to it.

Surprisingly, for all the diversity in the lineup, some similarities still appear, as most of the stories end up presenting an ordinary man forced to turn to crime because of his financial difficulties. Perhaps it was the limited space that forced the creators to opt for the generally more realistic approach, instead of featuring a traditional noir PI in the lead role. The writers and artists more or less stick to the familiar locale of urban 21st century America, but the tension and violence at their heart keep the stories from becoming too much like their independent comics cousins.

Universally, the shorts are at least visually innovative, presenting solid storytelling, which is more often than not, very appealing stylistically. There are almost an even number of pieces both written and drawn by the same person, as those that are not, but still a general air of cooperation permeates the book. Simply, due to the brevity of the vignettes, the stories are made to be highly atmospheric and distinctive, leaving the artist to get the point across. Not surprisingly, this leaves the anthology as something of an art showcase first, no matter the quality of writing involved.

Generally speaking, "Noir" features two types of stories - the more numerous ones feature new setting and situations, while the others tell of an episode set in the fully realized worlds of it's authors' previously published creator owned comics. It is the latter ones that will probably drive most of the readers to try the book.

On the whole, all of the creators providing side stories to their original work suceed in featuring their established projects in a way that is accessible to the new uninitiated, while functioning as episodes in their own right. The anthology actually opens with a "Stray bullets" short, featuring a very violent incident in the life of David Lapham's protagonist. It is disturbing on several different levels, while maintaining the series' tone of analyzing the criminal behavior from the point of the victim. The effective tale concludes much more organically than most of the others in anthology, leaving the fans to hope that Lapham's involvement might mean that more "Stray bullets" work awaits him in the future.

On the other hand, Paul Grist's story relies on cliffhanger to put the events in their proper context. The writer/artist uses the chance to tell perhaps the most traditional comic-book crime story of all the creators, by having his "Kane" character tackle a gimmick crime. Utilizing traditional cartooning, Grist manages to get across a complete case, pacing it so well, so as to even include a long and climatic chase scene in the end.

Still, no doubt the most attractive story in the book is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" short. The duo are without a question the highest profile crime comics creators in the industry at the moment, and it's intriguing to see their work appear in a black and white format. At only five pages, theirs is also the shortest of the stories in the anthology, but nevertheless switches the point of view no less than three times, as the reader gets the picture of a whole criminal operation. "21st century noir" is Brubaker and Phillips' definitely most contemporary outing to date, which even goes a bit too far in using the Internet slang. Still, the sheer mean-spiritedness and wicked irony that reveal themselves once the scheme is completed, stand out as traditionally black-hearted and perverse as some of their darkest moments so far in "Criminal".

On the other hand, Dean Motter presents a much more stylish tale, and his depictions of the art deco-inspired Radiant city definitely stand out among the generally more realistic stories. The "Mister X" story deals with a part of the past of the writer/artist's retro-future comic book series, and is perhaps the densest of the shorts involved, as it directly references several of the trappings of the cult series. Still, a discerning reader will recognize that the various oblique terms are merely there to give background to the proceedings, which remain engaging on their own. Once again, it takes a seasoned comics veteran to get across so much information and plot using a limited amount of space, which Motter manages to pull off very convincingly, still delivering a complex narrative. "Yacht on the Styx" might not be to everyone's liking, but it remains a strong and very distinctive entry on it's own.

Having discussed the hyphenated entries, the anthology surprisingly offers several more pieces whose creators' voice is so familiar, that it renders them a part of their existing work, in all but the name. Jeff Lemire, the creator of "Essex triology" thus offers nothing less than a spin-off of his most famous work, albeit not titled as such. "the Old silo" once again focuses on human drama strewn between the country life as defined by the borders made up of barns and farm houses. The only difference lies in sheer malice exhibited by a familiar Lemire figure, that somehow rings contrary to the honesty inherent in the writer/artist's sketchy and emotional approach. The desperation of an infirm relative sitting in front of the window reminds of "the Country nurse", but it somehow seems much more artificial, a mere prop to explain the main character's motivation. Using a whole page to depict "Essex County"'s unmistakable wind vane as the sign of the passage of time is perhaps the best reminder that Lemire's a creator used to utilizing long form to set up his own sense of pacing, and create the sort of melancholy that defined his most famous work.

Rick Geary is another creator who utilizes a similar story mechanic in his contribution to "Noir". Perhaps it's a little unfair to consider "Blood on my hands", a story clearly defined as fiction, as some of his more famous work, but it's easy to see why the creator would see it as a compliment. In many ways, "Blood on my hands" is the most controlled of the stories, as it features no dialogue balloons, and sticks to using the six panel grid format throughout, using the captions to speak of the events in first-person. It is through sheer banality and frankness that the little details making up the story of a horrible crime sneak up on the reader as the closest thing to the truth. This was no doubt Geary's intention, the veteran illustrator that has gone far to legitimize the comics medium with his adaptations of non-fictional court cases. Considering the talent that's brought forward "the Treasury of Victorian murder", it's best to look at his contribution to the anthology as a counter point to his most famous work, which still manages to be one of the strongest entries in the book.

The last work that offers direct reference to the previously created characters and situations is perhaps the most problematic. Featuring the celebrated "100 bullets" creator Brian Azzarello on writing and the art team of brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon on art, it will no doubt be the story that most of the readers will want to get to first. And, by and large, it is a typical period piece showing a heist being planned in a crowded 1930s bar. Azzarello's dialogue makes both of the main characters distinctive and their plan very clear, while Moon and Ba proceed to masterfully illustrate a very complicated set piece. Starting with wide shots, they slowly start breaking the story in smaller and smaller panels, gradually focusing on the relevant pair of con men, while still keeping rotating the view so as to keep up with the dynamic expressed in the writing. Still, all of that work feels somewhat shortchanged with a twist ending that provides a sinister context, going so far as to tie in with a very popular superhero's origin. This kind of unauthorized tongue in cheek approach costs the story of all of it's previously established momentum, as the characters so individualized through Azzarello's speech patterns, and distinctively built by Moon and Ba's artwork break down to become ciphers in order for the punchline. This is made all the more controversial considering "the Bad night" is the last short in the anthology, and will no doubt leave some of the readers with a bitter taste in their mouth regarding the whole enterprise.

As far as the pieces that are presented in "Noir" without the previous publishing history, "the Last hit" is probably the most typical of what could have been expected to be found between the book's covers. A collaboration through and through, it still manages to remind the reader of a "cold" movie opening, serving to quickly introduce the players in the most action packed way possible. Chris Offutt still caps off writing the very moody genre piece into a morality play, thus culminating the philosophy of the practical gangster that is at the heart of the short. It's expertly realized by Kano and Stefano Gaudiano, into a tense and exciting story that manages to work with the intended realism.

On the other hand, M. K. Perker's contribution is perhaps the most ill-constructed, seemingly failing to make use of all the set pieces it introduces. This is particularly puzzling, as the Turkish artist's previous "Heavy metal" magazine work exhibited a firm command of both the quirky atmosphere and pulpy narrative structure at work here. "the Albanian" is certainly meant as more of a straight forward work though, but it seems strangely disconnected from the traditional form of short story makeup. For example, the person introducing us to the title character in the opening is never seen later on, no matter how logical his appearance in the next several pages would be. Similarly, after the tense culmination, the plot goes on for two more pages that each convey very little information, and seem somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. The pacing problems are unfortunate because Perker's protagonist is certainly among the most memorable in the book, as it seems somewhat unfair to leave him after a very anti climatic finale. The story achieves it's goal of being off-putting and featuring strange, uncommon characters, but it remains slightly ambiguous as to what the reader is to make out of their encounter.

Following "the Criminal", several other stories seem to draw upon the same idea of featuring a femme fatal character in the lead role. Without a doubt, "the Fracture" is the most innovative, experimenting with the comics form to achieve a very unusual effect. Alex de Campi starts out narrating a seemingly mundane slice of life piece, that quickly turns into a silent postmodern daydream, featuring multiple points of view, and a very unorthodox use of a double page spread. Hugo Petris tries his best to keep up with her script, adding a somewhat Adam Hughes-like polished sheen, trying as clear as he can to make sense of the confusing proceedings. Still, despite the creators' best efforts, this seems like the only story that would have actively benefited from the use of color, as the differences in the panel borders fail to truly distinct between various events running through the girl's head. Even though the enigmatic ending mirrors the opening page and effectively forces the reader to return to the story over and over again, it remains a highlight due to sheer ambition involved in the presentation.

As is the case with all their anthologies, Dark Horse has felt obliged to include an illustrated prose story in "Noir", that stands out only in contrast to the comics that surround it. "Trustworthy" is a plot-heavy episode, that probably wouldn't work as an eight page vignette, but could perhaps have functioned given the space of a standard American comic book pamphlet. In any event, Ken Lizzy writes a very visual story, featuring an ordinary man that has found himself in a situation with a femme fatal, forcing him to make a choice that could alter his whole life. Strangely, the writer opts to describe the locale where the pivotal moment happens first, along with the protagonists, before beginning the plot in earnest. Otherwise, the prose is grounded in urban slang and moves quickly, centered on flashing out each of the characters' psyches as deep as possible. All this makes Joelle Jones' illustrations largely unnecessary, as they not only erode the reader's imagination, but actively spoil several key plot points. Still, this is nothing compared to the ending which features a controversial MacGuffin that manages to challenge the realism that makes the already very unlikely criminal scenario work in the first place.

Truthfully, the unlikely elements were set up in a deliberately careless way from the beginning, but unlike the "Mister X" vignette, the unorthodox resolution still actively clashes with the tone of the piece. This is illustrated even better in the finale of another short, that embraces the strange, but going much further with the campy elements. Gary Phillips starts writing his story as a slice of life drama of a woman enlisting the personal trainer to help her achieve better results in the gym, although he does hint to a deeper conflict from the start. Eduardo Barreto picks up on it, trying to keep the working out equipment as detailed as he can, while concentrating on the idealized bodies with sleazy facial expressions. In many ways, in "the New me" their collaboration seems like a porn comic, with the female protagonist exhibiting wholly unrealistic physical makeover in mere five weeks, just in time to get ready for the big finish with her fitness instructor. The story ends up being by far the most disposable in the book, which is made even worse considering that it was no doubt intended as a satire on some level.

Finally, "the Lady's choice" rounds out the last of the original stories, once again focusing on a woman under very peculiar circumstances. Fillabach brothers' contribution doesn't center on a femme fatal per se, as she is merely an observer that doesn't affect the plot. This is deliberate, as the creators set out to bring across the point of view of a particular part of a criminal's entourage. Her spontaneous narration does help guide the plot along, but it's the art that finally seems to label the whole presentation slightly amateurish. Still, it remains a thoroughly readable affair, albeit somewhat superfluous in setting the expectations so low that the creators seem content at having presented any kind of functional story that carries across the simple premise.

Taken as a whole, "Noir" leaves a very strange impression. Perhaps it's the lack of the really strong, groundbreaking stories that would have made up for the blandness of others. But truthfully, it seems like the format has defeated the creators across the board, as they more or less end up with knowingly creating pulpy yarns, no doubt smirking at the thought of the twist ending. In effect, the shorts feel a bit patronizing, as if a cheap bit of campy fun is all the reader can expect from a single eight page installment. In not taking the task seriously, most of the authors in turn give in to presenting underdeveloped stories of femme fatals, botched crimes and some random swearing, seemingly oblivious to their own shortcomings.

Once part and parcel of comic book form, and indeed the original format of a Golden age story, the shorts are treated here as an experimental venue the writers and artists have little experience in. In turn, they seemingly submitting their most solid craftsmanship, largely devoted to what becomes almost a pointless exercise in this day of decompressed storytelling. But the readers willing to pay for the collection certainly deserve more care, and this is not a case where a new "Sin city" or "Hellboy" vignette might have smoothed out the overall package. Dark Horse should have taken note that they aren't publishing a print version of a web comics anthology, but a collection of original content that deserves all of the creators' strength and talent.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Planetary #27

Back story

Today saw the release of the long-awaited last issue of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's "Planetary", for DC's Wildstorm imprint. "Planetary" was first published in 1999, and shipped on an irregular schedule for more than two years, before the publisher decided to give it another push in late 2002, choosing to with a bi-monthly schedule. By then, both it's writer and artist have found success in the more traditional DC and Marvel superhero comics, thus the series once again started to come out infrequently.

The second to last issue of "Planetary" was published three whole years ago, with Wildstorm openly declaring that the finale will be some time in coming, due to the creators' commitments. In the time since, the news about the eagerly awaited #27 were rare, but what was finally established was that Ellis had turned in a script a couple of years ago, leaving the series to wait until Cassaday found the time in his schedule to commit to pencilling the issue.

For it's fans, "Planetary" was in many ways a special series. Debuting side-by-side with Ellis' more commercial "the Authority", the Cassaday-drawn series was something of a cult favorite. Nominally utilizing the premise of inventing new superheroes to explore the Wildstorm universe Cold war continuity, the creators were quick to establish the series as it's own thing. Thus, every issue of "Planetary" worked as a self-contained chapter, featuring a very lush and expertly-paced mix of superhero homages as seen through it's pulp origins. The special care used to develop the project manifested itself through memorable covers, and every adventure having a somewhat different feel, while slowly creating the book's mythology.

More than that, Ellis managed to inject his stories with his own commentary on the pop culture referenced, but never in the way that would slow the book down, or encumber it with unnecessary references. Cassaday's distinctive artwork saw fit to integrate all of the pieces into a unique whole, that was still very accessible and stylish. Basically, "Planetary" never stopped being a post-superhero book that targeted a more mature reader bending toward science-fiction with a lot of character, but it was remarkably successful in what it set out to do. It stands to it's creators strengths that in the 10 years since it debuted, there has been so few of the books that managed to come close to it's level of craft and entertainment.

Last issue

"Planetary" was always designed to be a finite book, though, and over the course of it's run, a clear pattern slowly and naturally emerges. Thus, the later issues in the series focus firmly on the team's mission, which is trying to eliminate their opposite numbers. Interestingly, "the Four" that the protagonists set out against, turn out to be a more cynical version of Marvel's Silver Age pioneers, "the Fantastic Four". Yet, the anti-climatic final confrontation with the malevolent scientists took place in the issue preceding #27, enabling Ellis and Cassaday to focus on showing the difference between the two groups. The last issue of the series is thus completely devoted to a benign act of trying to save the long thought dead fourth member of the main Planetary cell, Ambrose Chase.

In order to accomplish this, the book's central character, Elijah Snow uses not only the strength of his own team, but all of "the Four"'s resources that the team's come into possession. Contrary to Marvel analogues, the Planetary organization utilizes all of the knowledge available to benefit the humanity, gained by following their motto of preserving "a strange world". Due to the nature of Ambrose's predicament, the issue serves to spotlight the group's mutant scientist, and artist John Cassaday's self-portrait, "the Drummer".

As with some of the later "Planetary" issues, #27 doesn't exist as a concrete parallel to a particular piece of pop-culture, but it still comes with a heavy does of science-fiction. Warren Ellis makes all of the pseudo-science convincing on the plot level, even if some of it seems dense at first. This is very important considering that the operation Elijah and his team partake on makes up the whole of the 32-page story. If some of it seems heavy, thankfully, the comics format enables the reader to go back and reread the confusing section in order to obtain a clearer understanding of the proceedings. Even then, just continuing on with the story may prove a better option, as the construction of the life-saving machine and it's function is adequately explained at every turn.

Ellis is careful not to sideline the team's powerhouse, and provides enough space for Jakita Wagner. The team's female member with a scandalously low boredom threshold ends up not merely commenting on the plan for Ambrose's rescue, but plays the integral, and very much in character, role in the finishing stages. Likewise, Ellis finds enough space to feature some of the series' more colorful supporting characters, showing the reader their role in the next step of the Planetary organization, but never at the expense of plot.

Because, if nothing else, the reader could have expected the series' send-off to be a retrospective, providing another look at some of the hinted-at lore behind Planetary's world filled with decades of superhero history. Ellis and Cassaday forgo such sentimentality and keep true to form, by concentrating on a single science fiction idea, and making it work in the larger context of the series. This makes for a much more cohesive and wholesome experience, that actually stands up as a story on it's own. Considering that the issue was three whole years in the making, it's remarkable how clear it is in reminding the reader of the characters and the situations, providing just enough of a reminder so as not to intrude in the complexities of the plot at hand.

Strangely, for all the drama regarding such a time-oriented rescue operation, the question of Elijah Snow's own mortality never comes up. It's interesting in itself, because as set up by Ellis, "century babies" end up perishing at the end of 1999, or at least undergoing a transformation into another incarnation of the planet's immune system. This particular bit of trivia seems incidental only when considering that a simple line of text could have justified the protagonist's continued existence. Still, the seeming anomaly points out to a hazy sense of time that surrounds the events featured in the issue. Ambrose's incident, previously clearly shown to take place in 1997, is referred to as happening "a few years ago", while it was previously clear that all of the Planetary's twenty seven issues, including the specials, take place in a relatively short amount of time. Considering this being the last episode of the series, it seems unlikely that the editorial would push to blur the timing of events, so as not to confuse the readers.

Sadly, this plays out in concert with the promise that the closing pages of the issue make. Ever optimistic, "the Planetary" just begs to be continued upon, but it's creators once again prove right in their decision. Taking into account that all of their series has been one wider arc, it's a relief to see it come to it's natural conclusion without further spin-offs, no matter how interesting the glimpses at Ellis and Cassaday's superhero world may have been. The many interesting concepts and new versions of pulp phenomena, no matter how colorful, were always employed with a precise goal, of getting across the idea of a fully functional fictional reality. And, looking objectively, having beaten their rivals, the Planetary team have achieved a kind of superhero utopia that is by it's nature devoid of the kind of drama that has characterized the series, the question of Elijah Snow's lifespan excluded.

Perhaps this is a reason why Ellis and Cassaday chose not to feature Ambrose Chase's family, declining to give them even a cameo in the last issue's pages. They are simply not integral to the wider plot, no more than the several other Planetary cells glimpsed throughout the series' run. "Planetary" ends up being a story of Elijah Snow, a nearly hundred years old superhuman that resurfaces to try and adapt to new times, while figuring out how to deliver a final blow to the enemies of humanity that have arose in his absence. Having unlocked "the Four"'s secrets from the world at large, the Planetary organization has introduced their reality to the 21st century, which largely brings the plot to it's conclusion. Thus, the series' last issue acts as nothing more than a personal coda to the difference saving one life makes to the team, and in turn the humanity they are indebted to saving.

In the end, "Planetary" remains a superhero series at heart, once again proving that the decades old concepts can be refreshing even now, if utilized with intelligence and flourish. Hopefully, it will have a long life in collected form, showing the result that the difference the skill and knowledge of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday have made in the over-crowded comic book market, that regularly struggles when it comes to similar ideas.