In the year 1938, the very first issue of Action Comics hit stores and the film Angels with Dirty Faces was released in theaters. The former was written by two Cleveland comic book authors (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) and marked the introduction of Superman, an alien who chose to take on human guise and to protect Earth’s poor and weak inhabitants from criminals and monsters. The latter was a crime picture directed by Michael Curtiz and starred James Cagney and Pat O’Brien as two childhood friends that grew up to be a gangster and a priest respectively. It would be a few year before film noir began, but Angels with Dirty Faces was a bit of a prototype for those films. The film looked at the downtrodden youth in New York’s ghettos, as well as the effects of the glorification of violence strengthened by a highly provocative ending. Both Superman and Cagney would become icons, and spawn numerous imitators over the next 70 years.1
A coincidence perhaps, but I personally think that this is the best indication known of the seemingly predetermined destiny that comics and film would share. Throughout the next few decades, both comic books and films would go through similar eras and reach similar audiences. It’s easy to see why both mediums would have such aligned histories throughout the better part of the late 20th century, and would occasionally even intersect. Both use pictures to tell stories, and utilize common visual techniques to establish shock, excitement, and intrigue from their audience.
The 40s particularly marked a great era in the relationships the two art forms had. It began the era of film noir, a new style of film making that dealt with dark themes such as lust and greed. The stylistic techniques used in these films took advantage of the black and white colors and pushed forward the ominous feel in its filming methods. Film critics initially disapproved of this style of film making and felt that these films lacked artistry, but film noir would grow to become one of America’s two most recognizable contributions to the film world, along with the western.
What many people don’t discuss, however, is that the noir style is very multi-medial and touches on other areas besides cinema. The comic book medium had a noir movement of its own, and it started around the same time as film noir did. Comics dealing with the criminal underworld (starting with the pulpy Crime Does Not Pay, and artistically climaxing with the boundary pushing comic-noir The Spirit) became hugely popular and for a time even surpassed the readership of superhero books. Unfortunately, popularity often brings controversy, and parent groups protested the depictions of violence and illegal activity in comic books.2 These protests led to a stricter set of guidelines that severely limited the amount of content comics could show over the next few decades. Due to the new rules, crime comics became far less common and eventually vanished from the mainstream altogether.
They did return, though. In fact, the resurgence of comic book interest during the 80s is indebted to the return of noir elements in comics. Since then, the themes have become more common place than ever and have led to some of the most acclaimed pulp fiction of the last few decades. In fact, in this day and age, the fiction that tends to really envelop the noir spirit isn’t in theaters (films like Black Dahlia and Hollywoodland have tried but failed), but at your local comic book store.
To truly understand the noir style one must see it as a multi-media aesthetic. Most people feel that the style started solely with Hollywood films, and then it transferred over into the world of comics. With this essay, I set to prove that noir was a universal style from the start, looking on its impact on comic books specifically. It’s a long and detailed history that one must start from very beginning in order to understand the complete progression.
The Roots of Comic-Noir
The 1940s was a rough time for America, as the country had just gotten out of the Great Depression, and World War II had begun. Taken the term “art imitates life” to a massive scale, Hollywood went through a renaissance of darker cinema during this time. Influenced by the hardboiled crime novels that came from the Great Depression and Prohibition as well as the brooding style of German expressionism, films began to look at the dark underbelly of society, and explored flawed characters with cynical views and sexual frustration. At first this movement didn’t have a name, but when French critics noticed the stylized trend in these American films, they dubbed it as film noir (literally black cinema).2
Film noir became a hot commodity in Hollywood for the next few years. Its popularity would last for nearly two decades and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Directors throughout Hollywood contributed to the movement, such as auteurs like Orson Welles and Howard Hawks, and even popular foreign directors like Akira Kurosawa tried their hands at it. Film Noir was a product of the times as it stemmed not just from artistic developments like detective novels and horror films, but also from social issues including war and a rising crime rate. While many would call these films overtly pessimistic, many others would find them completely relatable.
Film Noir was groundbreaking for its time and added more than a few new visual and narrative techniques in movies. Films like Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak 1948) had non-linear narrative structures that used flash backs to unravel the twisting plots. Even more pivotally, these films took great advantage of their black and white colors. They concentrated heavily on the darkness, while only using light as a guiding force, furthering the feeling of large brooding cities.17
While noir is principally considered to be a filmmaking style, the lasting effects have been multi-medial. Also beginning in the 40s, comic books also explored the narrative and stylistic traits of noir. It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the 40s comic books were the most popular form of entertainment. Often cited as the Golden Age of comics, these books were selling between eighty million to a hundred million issues a week, with an average single copy issue being read by at least six different people. Comics were a more radical form of entertainment as their creators were mainly outsiders that wished to tell their stories outside of established norms. They wanted to appeal to their select group of pulp lovers, and their tales reflected a more adventurous world, but one still run by power hungry tyrants (who would ultimately be overcome).1
Crime comics became particularly popular at this time. While the newspaper strip Dick Tracy was possibly the first comic to feature gangsters so prominently, its title character was still a private eye. In 1942 Lev Gleason Publication premiered Crime Does Not Pay, the first monthly crime-based comic. The book gave stylized retellings of true gangster stories and was mainly written by Charles Biro (although illustrated by many different artists throughout its long run). At first the book’s sales were merely satisfactory, but by 1948 it was selling about a million and a half copies a month. It was a long time coming for the creators of Crime Does Not Pay, but for everyone else its emergence into the mainstream was swift and unexpected.1
Crime Does Not Pay appealed to people because it focused on bad characters for a change. The characters would meet with unfortunate ends before the last panel, but it was the trek there that was so much enticing for readers. Here we got to see the criminal enact in all types of hedonism, and the stories touched on risqué subject matter for the time such as violence, drinking, and sex. It was an edgy alternative to other comic books that focused on men in tights fighting crime. Of course, it takes more than just themes of lust and violence to draw an audience
(despite popular belief). Good writing is as much a draw, and there was plenty of that in the best books of the day. Films at the time were becoming more creative too, such as Orson Welle’s impeccably well shot Citizen Kane (1941), and comic book writers were following suit. Crime comic books also used first-person narration to the same effect as film noir, which has remained a stable in comic books in all genres to this day.
It makes sense that noir would find a happy home within comic books. Film noir was derivative of the hard-boiled pulp novels of authors like Chandler and Goodis, so returning to the print page was a logical step. Moreover, the low-key coloring of noir found its place in comics, with darker colors used for more dramatically tense scenes. Even superhero books took cues from films of the era, and lead to the creation of some of the industry’s most iconic characters (The Joker look is allegedly based on Conrad Veidt’s character from The Man Who Laughs (Leni 1928) combined with a joker playing card).
Still, the most solid argument for a parallel history between film noir and comic noir must address Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Comic book author Will Eisner is most famous for creating the graphic novel in the 70s, but his work in the 40s should not be disregarded either. He was one of the first writers to combine the outlandish elements of super hero fiction into a noir-esque setting. His iconic character, the Spirit, became a pulp hero thanks to Eisner’s inspired storytelling and clever acuity with the comic-book medium. The world of The Spirit was based in New York City (although the location later changed its name to Central City), and it looked just like real place, especially in its urban areas. The youth acted like street hoods, the upper politicians were corrupt, but all the characters were human.1
The Spirit, however, was far from ordinary. Like most comic book heroes of the time, The Spirit was the creation of an outsider. Eisner was someone who saw the appeal in a character that stood up for the common man and battled the woes of everyday society. Like Batman, The Spirit was a vigilante who lacked superpowers, received permission to fight crime form the city’s commissioner, and sported a sidekick(the controversial Ebony White, a stereotypically rendered African-American youth). It was a more down-to-earth approach to the over-the-top concept of a masked vigilante (Eisner compromised with his employers that wanted the character to have a costume, by giving him a slight mask over the eyes that would allow the character more Human features without exposing his identity).
Since The Spirit began its run the same year that The Maltese Falcon (often considered the first film noir)premiered in theaters, it would be inaccurate to call the Spirit noir influenced (besides, the term was not established until 1946). Actually, it would be more accurate to call the Spirit the first ever instance of comic book noir, as it was part of the same artistic movement that brought us films like Laura(Preminger 1944)and The Big Sleep(Hawks 1946). Eisner borrowed from the very same material that started film noir, such as German Expressionism and pulp crime novels, and he told stories that comics could do most adequately.
The Spirit really enveloped its strengths as a comic book. One story was about a killer, and every panel was an image taken from the pupils in his eyes, while another used the comic panels to represent rooms in a house with actions occurring simultaneously, but lead to a murder in the basement panel. Eisner wisely chose not to make his stories become too convoluted though, as the artwork helped drive the reader’s attention just as much as the plots. Michael Barrier put it perfectly when his essay on Will Eisner said, “the more shallow and melodramatic Eisner’s material, the better, because the more it lent itself to bizarre staging, oblique angles, and chiaroscuro lighting.” These visionary techniques can now be seen somewhat as the comic equivalent of Orson Welles’ noirish Citizen Kane, as they took their relatively new medium into visionary new levels that set benchmarks for decades to come.4
Even the genres that the Spirit touched on were constantly changing. While crime and noir were almost always at the helm, at times the character would have more humorous adventures, and even delve into elements of horror, folklore, fantasy, and action/adventure. The Spirit was one of the most accessible pulp comics of its time, and it’s easy to see why its impact has been so lasting. Unfortunately, today’s filmgoers most likely attribute the character to the poorly received 2008 film adaptation; however, adept comic readers know that the character’s history is much brighter than merely one bad recent movie.
Censorship = End of an Era
The phenomenon surrounding crime comics didn’t last into the fifties. It wasn’t because people lost interest. Quite the contrary, it’s because they were too popular, and as we all know popularity almost always brings something unwanted with it: controversy. What most people living today don’t realize is that during the start of the baby boom era, comics were heavily protested. Decades before video games; gangsta rap; A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971); and even Catcher in the Rye, reading comic books was considered the most hazardous thing a youngster could do in his free time. It was really only a matter of time before conservative parents began to outrage on these books.
Once again, this is a remarkable similarity that comics have with film. Similar outrage towards films had happened as early as 1896, when Dolorita’s Passion Dance was banned in some cities for its suggestive content. Several groups tried to form throughout the years to censor film content, which eventually led to a production code. However, filmmakers found ways to work around this code as they added innuendo in sly prop placement and subtle dialogue. Even today film critics are still impressed by what movies were able to get away with by just being a little creative.1
Where comic books differed from their older sibling, however, is that they weren’t nearly as lucky with their censorship. The comic book code severely limited what could be used in comics, and not just in terms of violence and sex. The comic book code also forbade material people today would find tame, such as heavy use of slang, glamorizing depictions of divorce, disrespect towards law enforcement, or criminals being successful in their endeavors. Needless to say, crime comics could not exist under these restrictions, and all but disappeared. Once more costumed super heroes became the norm in the industry.
Comic books fell back in prominence due to this and the advent of television. Characters who previously dabbled in dark themes became more campy (such as the live-action Adam West Batman TV series from the 60s which brought the character to new levels of absurdity). While comics still remained popular with the youth, adults gravitated away from them. In the decades to come authors like R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar gained cult followings with their adult comics, but the mainstream didn’t find very mature audiences.
Film noir also saw a lapse during the 60s. Films were being shot in color now, and the peace loving ways of the hippie generation did not agree with the nihilism that the genre was known for. For this reason, many scholars consider the 50s to mark the end of the classic noir period, with latter films that mimic the style being referred to as neo-noir. During the 70s Hollywood would revive an interest in film noir with great films like Chinatown (Polanski 1971) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1977), but comic books would have to wait until the 1980s before they could be considered edgy and dark again.5 When it happened, however, it happened in a huge way that no one could have predicted.
Two Game Changers in the Same Year
In 1982 the science fiction film Blade Runner premiered in theaters. Adapted from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner was neo-noir in the most literal sense. Set in a dreary future where corporations were more prevalent in society than ever, it was told from the perspective of a detective with first-person narration (depending on which director’s cut you watch) who was asked by his superiors to hunt down and kill a group of artificial humans. It took just as much influence from retro pulp fiction as it did from recent sci-fi films (not the least of which being Star Wars). The film failed to make a profit theatrically, but eventually Blade Runner would go on to become a monumental cult classic. This new yet familiar take on film noir perhaps paved the way for the revival of comic noir four years later.
In 1986 two comic-book mini-series aimed at mature audiences appeared. The first was the Dark Knight Returns, a highly influential reimagining of the world-renowned Batman character, and it didn’t just change the character’s comic status, but influenced future film and TV shows based on the character. This comic was then followed by Watchmen, a groundbreaking series that needs no introduction. Readers were amazed by how well written both of these titles were told, and their status hasn’t diminished nearly 25 years later. Very frequently comic book fans are asked, “What is the greatest comic of all time?” Almost as frequently, fans will answer with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.
While Watchmen did delve into some noir themes (mostly through the fan favorite character Rorschach with his grim dialogue and shallow view of the world), it was far too original to be considered overtly derivative of anything. The Dark Knight Returns, however, was blatantly indebted to film noir in both its artwork and story. A perennial book, The Dark Knight Returns not only returned comic noir to the mainstream, but did so with a character that many comic fans felt needed a revival.18
The Dark Knight Returns
This four-issue mini-series was a new take on Batman, written by Frank Miller and drawn by Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley. The Dark Knight Returns, was set in a near future Gotham (Blade Runner?), with a very different depiction of the title character. Bruce Wayne had hung up his Batman mantle for over a decade, but the recent spate of apocalyptic gang warfare on the city streets forces our hero to leave retirement and save Gotham once more. Teaming up with a new female Robin, Batman battles not only criminals, but the police force and the cold war-weary American government that disapprove of his vigilantism. Set outside the regular continuity of typical Batman stories, Miller was able to twist this world to his liking, as well as kill iconic characters.
Miller had shown in his previous work on Daredevil that he had a knack for noir themes, so it only made sense that Miller would only further explore them with a more recognizable character. Batman is undoubtedly the most noir-derived of DC Comics top-tier superheroes, and for more than just his affinity for black clothing. It was a recurring theme throughout the franchise that Batman was a psychologically unstable person, who used his condition to protect the innocent rather than harm them. A crucial theme that was capitalized by Miller’s hard-boiled style.
Since this version of Batman was older, the book explored the cerebral elements of Batman even more closely than the norm, through genre tropes such as flashbacks and first-person narration. This Batman was haunted by his past, and consistent flashbacks brought us to the night his parents were killed right before his eyes. Through Batman’s thought balloons, it painted a complex character, with full reason to don his costume again.
Miller gave Batman’s world a serious facelift as well, as the Gotham City of The Dark Knight Returns was not the one that readers were familiar with. It was a decaying city with paranoia a constant emotion, overrun by gangs and psychopaths. The streets were always depicted as either being littered, rain soaked, or disheveled, with some panels containing homeless people holding cardboard signs that read, “We are Damned!”. Even the book’s character designs contributed to the morbid setting that Miller created, with cubic facial features, and disproportioned bodies.
The book’s format of paneling was groundbreaking for its time, and the The Dark Knight Returns still feels like a one of a kind book today. Miller and his artist Lynn Varley worked with smaller panels than most other superhero books, so they could fit more narrative into it. The average page held more than a dozen panels on it, nearly double the amount of an average DC comic book. It was a formatting sense that could be found in European comics such as The Adventures of Tin Tin, but unheard of with a comic featuring a highly recognizable American superhero.
Through this format, Miller would construct innovative storytelling techniques, with darkness proving to be a very good friend. Several key points of the story would have panels completely blacked out but with dialogue. In the subsequent panels, however, an image would become more visible. This is exemplified in a scene where Batman is covering a thug’s eyes and then removes them slowly to reveal he is dangling off a skyscraper, as well as another section where Batman battles a mutant in the dark with a circular opening coming into view in the last three panels.
Even with bright colors, The Dark Knight Returns felt like great noir cinema. One standout part of the book is a scene in which Batman chases down the Joker in a funhouse. First the Joker holds a child hostage, but Batman uses the mirrors to fool the Joker. The Joker wastes his bullets on shooting reflections of our hero, in a series of pale and distorted panels that evoke the famous mirror room climax in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai. The fight reaches an end when Batman and the Joker get into a fist brawl knee-deep in the murky waters of the tunnel of love in yet another technique that was used by directors of film noir(Journalist Chris Justice argues that the presence of water strengthens the fluid and mirage aesthetics of film noir).7 After Batman defeats the Joker, the villain commits suicide by breaking his own neck. This brutal action makes Batman seem responsible for a murder, and drives the momentum into the final act.
The Dark Knight Returns also enhances the role of noir as social commentary. Film analyst Lise Hordnes writes, “This alienated mood in film noir can be seen as a reaction to the large, impersonal, dehumanizing cooperation’s of the new consumer society. I view the hard-boiled heroes disillusionment as a reaction to contemporary Americas loss of old myths and identity.”8 Since clssic film noir was partly spawned by the hard times America was in during the Great Depression and then World War II, it would make sense that neo-noir would look at contemporary conflicts, and what better time than the 80s? The decade was home to both a recession and a disparaging crack epidemic, both of which can be felt in Miller’s cast of characters that include violent social outcasts, and naïve politicians. The cold war was also addressed in a subplot about America attacking Soviet-occupied Corto Maltese, with an unkind version of Superman being portrayed as a symbol of America’s arrogant foreign policies.
Being so epic in scope, one might ask what kind of noir informs The Dark Knight Returns? It is a very masculine book, mostly avoiding sensual female characters, so at first glance one might actually compare it to testosterone heavy action films from the 80s like Terminator or Die Hard. Still, noir is a very male dominated style, feeding into the psychology of men. Some film analysts, like Frank Krutnik, have taken unorthodox views on the gender issues in noir. Krutnik feels that there are three types of noir thrillers where the masculine hero takes full reign: the investigative thriller, the male suspense thriller, and the criminal-adventure thriller. While earlier Batman stories could have easily fit under the title of investigative thriller as the character often did fill the role of a detective, The Dark Knight Returns is the opposite, a male suspense thriller. Krutnik descripes this category as, “In that the hero is in a position of marked inferiority, in regard both to the criminal conspirators and to the police, and seeks to restore himself to a position of security by eradicating the enigma.” 6
Krutnik further argues that it is essential that these films have a main character that is unjustly charged of a crime. This is a description that fits The Dark Knight Returns perfectly as not only is Batman accused of murdering the Joker, but the Gotham Police perceive him to be a menace while he is in all honesty trying to help this dying city. Perhaps in an even more interesting claim, Krutnik also likens this group of noir films to revenge movies. Batman has always been a character that takes revenge stories to the next plateau, as he doesn’t just desire to punish the man who killed his parents, but to eradicate criminal activity entirely.
Miller’s writing takes this noir suspense thriller hero trope to a more outlandish, yet still fascinating level. Yes, Batman is a vigilante who clashes with both the authoritative American government and Gotham’s criminal underworld in order to maintain peace. What separates this vigilante from scores of other noir protagonists is that he does not struggle for prospects of wealth or admiration, but because this is all he cares about. Before donning the Batman cape and cowl again, Bruce Wayne is depicted as being a lonely old man. He’s unshaven, solitary, unmarried, a heavy drinker, and nostalgic for his days as a masked wonder. It’s as if Miller were saying this character has no purpose outside of being a hero, even decades after he has retired from such a life.
Batman has sworn off the vices that have led to the downfall of many a noir protagonist. He’s not interested in sex, he doesn’t smoke, he’s always alert, and instead of being traumatized by the deaths of his parents, he uses the memories to strengthen his cause for justice. As the book goes on it feels like the whole world is against Batman and his cause, and Batman could easily prevent it all just by hanging up his costume. However, that isn’t the case for him, and he persistently strives to be a hero in a world that screams no.
In the book’s fourth quarter Batman does battle with Superman in an epic clash that leaves both super heroes bruised and battered. Yet our suspense thriller hero keeps fighting, despite Superman’s brutality. Attacking most effectively with wordplay and traps, Batman does gain the upper hand. Just as it appears Batman is sure to win, the panels switch their focus onto a declining heart pulse, and then Batman succumbs to an apparent heart attack. A funeral is held, but in the book’s true final pages we find that Batman faked his own death through chemicals. Gathering his followers, he plans to continue his fight against injustice.
While Miller caps off the book with less than a happy ending, he shines a ray of hope for our hero. In the end, Batman does survive his tumultuous trials, and with a just reward. He gains a following of supporters, ready to aid him in his endless war on crime. If anything, the false funeral symbolized the death of Bruce Wayne, as now that man has truly enveloped the role of Batman. He is the embodiment of the tough guy thriller, made undeniably clear in the book’s final sentence, “This will be a good life…Good enough.”
The entire story is symbolic for the character’s mythos, as Batman’s termination of retirement and climactic defeat of Superman vicariously represents his return to greatness. In fact, The Dark Knight Returns was such a rousing success that it can be credited with the increase in quality that comic book film adaptations experienced soon after, as Tim Burton even said the book was a substantial influence for him when filming his Batman film. While admittedly the character had returned to his darker roots some years before this mini-series was released, The Dark Knight Returns was the first book in decades that gave the character mainstream exposure again. It is a book whose poignancy has yet to be equaled in the character’s nearly 70-year history.
The Dark Knight Returns was arguably just as much a game changer as Watchmen was, and both ushered in a huge tonal shift to mainstream comic books. Countless imitators arose in the wake of this book, and Miller would continue to be one of the comic book world’s most talented writers. Film noir like the Maltese Falcoln and Double Indemnity had similar impact on the film world when they were released in the 1940s, cementing their names in film history as the blueprint for dark cinema (whether the filmmakers knew it or not at the time). However, perhaps The Dark Knight Returns is more comparable to Roman Polanksi’s 1974 film Chinatown. Arguably the first neo-noir film, Chinatown told a riveting story that resembled the film noir template, but in a more edgy manner. Chinatown ushered in other films that incorporated the style throughout the decade, and The Dark Knight Returns did roughly the same thing in its medium. The 90s would continue to be a return to form for comic book noir.
Continuation in the 90s
In the wake of the immense success of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, comic book writers tried to capitalize on their success by making their own mature work. Unfortunately, the use of sex and violence didn’t replace the need for good storytelling, and many new adult comics became unsuccessful (Frank Miller is suspected to have parodied this trend with his grotesque tech-noir graphic novel Hard Boiled). Still, film noir influences could still be felt in some big titles, particularly in the latter half of the decade. Noir was arguably the go-to genre for auteur filmmakers in the 90s, such as Quentin Tarantino and the Coens Brothers. Comics took a lot of guidance from the acclaimed neo-noirs of the time, such as Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, so some of the best storytelling that comic-noir has ever seen came from this decade.
Frank Miller was about to strike pay-dirt again this decade. While The Dark Knight Returns may possibly be his most legendary work, Batman wasn’t a character he created. Miller began to think of a series composed completely from his imagination. Through a creator owned series he could create his own world with a cast of characters all his own. What’s more, Miller could indulge his love for noir more so in a setting free of super heroes. Enter Sin City.
Both written and drawn by Frank Miller, Sin City was a full black-and-white comic (with occasional symbolic use of color) that told pulpy stories about a crime-ridden town called Basin City, but referred to as the eponymous Sin City by many of its inhabitants. Miller’s story arcs were episodic and featured different protagonists, but they also had recurring characters and locations which conveyed the feel of stepping into a new world. Removed from teen-friendly super hero books and the confines of reality, Miller created an ultra-violent and eroticized world where any character could die brutally at any time (often over sex). Characters were bludgeoned, mutilated, beaten; female characters were often topless and not above the prospect of sexual favors; villains consisted of pedophiles and rapists. If the Dark Knight Returns was the final nail in the coffin for the comic book code, Sin City was Miller proverbially pissing on its grave.
When the film adaptation of Sin City came to theaters in 2005, Roger Ebert referred to it as film noir on steroids.8 This is a pretty accurate description, as Miller brought noir to new levels of extremity in his books. Characters could possess super strength (examined in the near indestructible anti-hero Marv), samurai warriors frequented the city, and one particularly nasty character had a skin condition that made him bright yellow (read That Yellow Bastard). Despite these flights of absurdity, Sin City still felt like gritty noir rather than a ludicrous comic book attempt at it, which was helped by the 40s-esque setting, the ominous use of black-and-white, and the doomed love stories that drove every single Sin City tale.
One of the presumed reasons that noir has continued to have such a presence is because it allows writers to tell pulpy stories built around relatable human emotions, namely love, isolation, and guilt. Sin City actually heightened the philosophical and oedipal themes of noir in artistic styles; Miller’s handling of women, or more precisely femme-fatales, clearly took the tropes of noir to a more muscular form. While the female heroes in Sin City were involved in demeaning professions such as prostitutes or strippers, they were undeniably very strong characters that stood for their beliefs and fought overbearing male foes. Mixing his uber-stylistic details with classic noir storylines, Miller made characters who were hauntingly beautiful, as if we were gazing into the mind’s eyes of his male characters, and understanding their infatuations. Whether being a street thug’s dedication to tracking down his lover’s killer, or an elderly cop’s father-like protection on a young stripper, their devotion for these females was believable, and the readers shared it.
Sin City’s second story, A Dame to Kill For, is a great place to test this claim. This edition in the series looks at Dwight, a photographer who comes across an old flame of his named Ava. Ava tells our hero that her current husband is an abusive man and needs his help to save her from it. Dwight eventually kills her husband, but only to find out that he has been set up. Ava lied to him about her husband, knowing that Dwight’s anger would lead him to kill the man, and then she would collect his inheritance. He is shot multiple times and left for dead, but Dwight survives the encounter and vows revenge on this femme fatale that deceived him. What follows is bloody action, strangely alluring sex scenes, and prostitutes that have the fighting skills of Xena. It’s Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944)if it had physics comparable to a Warner Brothers cartoon.
All of Miller’s Sin City books are predominantly painted in stark black and white, but in A Dame to Kill For his drawings are particularly relative to noir. He uses lights sources to depict shadows, uncertainty is representative by blurring the outline of objects and characters with white or black backgrounds, but most original is his use of mist. In the book’s first chapter, Ava and Dwight meet in a smoke filled bar, with thin blurry lines adorn the panels. This mist gives the area a surreal feel that has the readers expecting a sudden arrival of menace. Of course, in this scene, Ava, the book’s evil femme fatale, makes her debut.
Noir’s visual style isn’t just about the use of light and darkness, and the mise-en-scene is arguably just as important. In Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, R. Barton Palmer comments that, “In normal Hollywood practice, figures were positioned in balanced and harmonious poses; the lack of such balance in noir films is disorienting and often confusing to the spectator”9. In almost every panel in A Dame to Kill For, characters appear in positions that are anything but statutory, and once again comic art is able to do this in a way that camera shots cannot.
The sex scenes are a particularly disorienting aspect of A Dame to Kill For. The first one finds Ava and Dwight making love in a dark room with the only source of light coming from the paned windows. This paints their shadows across the floor, but they’re horizontal. These fornicating shadows have a dizzying aura around them, which aides the uncomfortable knowledge that danger lies ahead. Ava herself is almost always displayed in an equally voluptuous manner. Early in the book we find her naked body jumping into a pool, where her curvaceous frame appears from many angles. Her nudity, a bright white body painted in shades of dark, feels far more ethereal than ribald, and her positions mimic sex and perfection in beauty. Ava is alluring, surreal and mysterious.
Ava is the type of femme fatale that has graced cinema from film noir classic’s like Out of the Past (Tourneur 1947)to neo-noir hits like Body Heat (Kasdan 1981). She is a deadly female that uses her sexuality to her advantage by bringing many men to their knees. In Miller’s world everything is ten-fold, so Dwight isn’t the only poor sap that’s manipulated by her. Ava also manipulates her husband’s former thugs and a police lieutenant (who eventually commits a homicide-suicide) into helping her track down and kill Dwight. However, this tale does not see the temptress as the victor, and Dwight does achieve his just revenge. The final page in the book is just one panel of Dwight standing over Ava’s corpse with a smoking gun, after she had just offered him escape. Miller perhaps let our hero live in this volume to avoid a similar ending to his previous Sin City story, but it also may be because he felt that Dwight was too familiar a noir archetype to die after all he had been through.
If nothing else, Sin City proved to be a great bridge for the old and current generation of comic noir. It brought the violent quotient up to new levels and really began to show how film noir’s aesthetics are so bravely replicated on the printed page. It proved to be a very influential series even before the lucrative live-action adaption arrived, and only continued to increase awareness of comic-noir in a fruitful decade when films like L.A. Confidential (Hanson 1997)and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino 1994)were taking viewers down those dark streets as well.
Jinx: Criminal Artistry
Even casual readers of comics today probably know who Brian Michael Bendis is. The man has become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers and has handled almost all of their biggest characters like Daredevil and Spiderman. What many fans aren’t familiar of is the work Bendis did before he was a reigning writer for one of the world’s leading comic book publishers. Fresh out of art school, the aspiring comic book artist created several black and white crime books that he both wrote and drew. Possibly the most famous one was Jinx.
Jinx was a mini-series first released in single issues, and later collected in its entirety as a graphic-novel. Set in modern-day Cleveland, Jinx wasa noir love story between grifter Goldfish and the title character, a beautiful female bounty hunter. When Goldfish and his ex-partner, a violent and ignorant criminal named Colombia, come across the location of a money-filled suitcase (from a plot point very similar to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as it involves both characters getting two vital pieces of information from a dead man), the treasure hunt propels the story into being an intense character story on outcasts in contemporary society.
Jinx is composed of many factors that people attribute with great noir. It contains an absorbing black-and-white visual style that blurs the line between reality and stylization, not one but two affable anti-heros, a love story between two societal rejects, a missing suitcase full of money, and an obnoxious jerk who keeps messing up the plan. Still, it’s so much more than just a crime story as it’s as much a product of 90s pop-culture as it is the aesthetics of 30s and 40s pulp fiction. Jinx both honors and transcends its status as a noir book, and is one of the most unique entrees in the genre.
One thing that almost immediately stands out amidst the leagues of other comic noir books is the dialogue. Jinx is a very funny book, with characters constantly making references to pop-culture, telling jokes or making witty comments that drive the narrative, when physical action isn’t present. Actually, Jinx might still be the best example of a post-Tarantino comic book, with characters having elongated conversations of everything from questioning why films have a letter boxed format, to dissecting life through metaphorical traffic lights. It’s easy to see that Bendis would one day pen the snappy dialogue of the likes of Spider-man (there’s a comical four page interlude in Jinx, where Bendis recaps the events of the book’s first act in the art and writing style of a traditional Marvel Comic), but in crime fictionhe’s more in his element.
Although Bendis’ main talent is first and foremost a writer, Jinx is proof that his time in art school was well spent. The book has a real art-school mentality to it, however, and uses photo-realistic images and dream-like montages at times. A stand out section of the book involves a flashback that reveals why Jinx became a bounty hunter. In this chapter, the art has a much different look than the rest of the book, with visuals that look straight out of a film, but done with a print shop style. The thick shades of black, disorienting use of snowy-television-esque white sparkles, and swirling panels (reminiscent of the dizzying transition twirls in the 1950 film noir D.O.A.) show a harsh sense of panic that just can’t be replicated in the world of film. It’s no wonder that the proposed film adaptation of this book has had such a hard time becoming a reality.
The graphic novel is one of Bendis’ most emotional works, and touches on themes such as loneness, bleak childhood, betrayal and hatred towards women. The latter is a very driving theme in the novel, and substantiated by the fact that the lead character is female. It’s intriguing that Bendis would use noir as a vehicle to explore feminist issues, as mentioned beforehand film noir was often considered a masculine art form. What many people disregard, however, is that film noir did help actresses break away from stereotypical good girl characters, into the more unique role of the femme fatale.10 Bendis inherently tries to subvert the femme fatale trope into a more sympathetic female character. Jinx is both an achievable heroine in a pulp world, as well as a victim of rank misogyny.
Early in the book, there is a six page chapter called I Hate Everything. It avoids traditional paneling and instead journal entries written by Jinx abound on the page, as do images reflecting the words. Through this sublime tactic, we read that Jinx is a tortured soul who has had enough of living in what she sees as a heavily chauvinistic society. She feels that being a bounty hunter, a profession mostly associated with males, has made her become the victim of even more neglect and discrimination.Seeing that shortly after this graphic montage we are treated to a scene in which a male bounty hunter calls her a whore, an emotional reaction of disgust immediately surfaces.
It’s arguable that feminist issues had been touched on as early as the classic era of film noir. Film analysts have actually felt that these films have mainly portrayed women as being dangerous, because it’s how they survive in the dangerous world around them. Scholars have pointed out factors in film noir that strengthen this claim such as overbearing male characters, and the fact that married characters tend to be either absent or unhappy.11 Bendis, however, is far more blatant in his feminist approach to noir.
Jinx is a strong noir woman, but she’s not the typical femme fatale. In fact, Jinx attracts the attention of Goldfish through psychological means, instead of physical ones. Goldfish first sees the girl in a diner writing in a book by herself. Goldfish is forced to leave when his friend Colombia starts spewing profanities at the store’s owner, but as soon as our male protagonist gets to a payphone he immediately phones the establishment. He asks to speak to the woman he eyed earlier, and the two begin a long conversation. Goldfish explains that he’s in a bit of a “social catastrophe”, where he has bad luck finding women of substance in this day and age.
Goldfish goes on that the reason he called her is because she was writing in a book, which he found to be a mark of intelligence. Jinx is flattered, and the two find themselves lovers rather quickly. This phone call proved to be the right decision for our hero, as Jinx soon learns that he is a con-man, but does not turn him in and instead goes with him on his treasure hunt. In a complete turnover of a noir cliché, Goldfish’s infatuation with a woman saved him, rather than lead him to an ill fate. The relationship these two develop is certainly sweet and touching, and works in stark contrast to the violent criminal world around them.
Like Shane Black’s 2005 neo-noir film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which would come out almost a decade after this book), Jinx works as both a satire for the genre, as well as a highly substantial contemporary entry. Make no mistake, Jinx still tells a very powerful story about society’s woes amidst all the yuks. Film Noir was often seen as being more psychological takes on crime and detective stories, which Jinx is the epitome of. Bendis, however, proves to love his characters so much that he lets both Jinx and Goldfish survive in the end, even if they don’t get the money. In fact, this is one of the few noirs I can think of where a bittersweet ending was the only way to go. Tragedy would not have made for stronger storytelling at all.
The 2000s: Recent Explosion
100 Bullets: 100 Issues of This Stuff
In the late 90s, as the mainstream media began to realize that comic books weren’t kids stuff anymore, DC Comics mature readers label, Vertigo, really took off. Garth Ennis’ Preacher proved to be the most influential ongoing series of the time, as its vulgar yet sweet style became imitated by numerous other writers. After that hugely popular series concluded, a new comic noir was released by Vertigo that felt completely fresh, despite its consistent use of noir idioms. This new crime title was entitled 100 Bullets and debuted in the August of 1999. The ongoing series would span 100 issues and run for almost a full decade, making it Vertigo’s longest running creator-owned title. A tall order to have a series run that long and be considered a masterpiece throughout its run, but 100 Bullets was no ordinary comic.
Written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Eduardo Risso, the book was a full color crime epic set in a shadowy and intense world, but without a doubt a reflection of our own. The series starts out episodic as it looks at an old man named Agent Graves who gives select individuals a suitcase that holds a gun and 100 unmarked bullets. Graves then tells the recipient that they can have revenge on the person that wronged them with this case, and the law will not pursue them. This leads to many morality tales at the series beginning, but an extensive conspiracy story then reveals itself. We find out Agent Graves is actually a renegade soldier formerly of the organization the Trust, a centuries old collective of powerful families that is secretly controlling America. Through the eyes of an ensemble cast, we see the complex war that Agent Graves wages against his former employers that will leave no one unscathed if alive.
While one could make a case that 100 Bullets is equal parts espionage thriller as it is hard-boiled noir, it definitely seems to take most of its cues from noir literature and films. Brian Azzarello claimed to have taken most of his influence from pulp writers like Jim Thompson, and David Goodis and it showed in his stories.8 The characters were archetypes such as chain smoking detectives, tragedy stricken anti-heros, sadistic thugs, and femme fatales (usually playing the object of other character’s desires). While 100 Bullets wasn’t confined to one location like in other noir titles, the actions still primarily took place in the gritty areas of major cities, including film noir main stays like Los Angeles and New York City. In fact, possibly more than any other long-running comic noir title to date, 100 Bullets was the most impressive in terms of its epic scope and deep sociological themes.
While other writers like Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis were making more accessible noir stories that appealed to broader audiences (usually with super heroes), Azzarello took a no-nonsense approach. The dialogue was smart, but not witty, the characters were compelling, but not necessarily likable, and if there was any humor present it tended to be pitch black (one instance that comes to mind is in the arc Contrabandolero that features a teenage Mexican girl who gets sexually excited whenever someone says the word “fuck”). 100 Bullets had plenty of violence and sex in it, but it was often too grim and dark to come off as fun, even for the biggest lover of Hollywood gore fests. It might be for this reason that the book lost its popularity over the years, but the acclaim never died.
Azzarello’s dialogue, for instance, was considered some of the most accurate and consistent language to appear in a comic. The series looked at many different groups of American people (from African-Americans, to Latinos, to guidos, and even rednecks), and the dialect they used was very realistic. These characters used the slang and wordplay that their subculture was associated with, making 100 Bullets feel so much closer to home. Not bad considering that Azzarello is an upper class Caucasian male living in Chicago.
This also shows Azzarello’s skilled adherence to past traditions, as it was tradition to make poetry out of greasy language in film noir. James Cagney certainly wasn’t reciting shakespeare in Public Enemy or White Heat, but his use of slang terms made him instantly appealing and recognizable. While the dialogue in 100 Bullets is often profane, not once does it feel ignorant or sloppily written. You also get a feeling of sympathy for the characters through the wording such as in this sample taking from the acclaimed arc, The Counterfifth Detective : “He chuckles a bit, tells me you can’t feel numb, cause numb means you can’t feel…He goes on, talkin’ some dopey bullshit about my dressing, about itching, about keepin’ it dry. But I wasn’t payin’ attention no more. Funny thing, my brain got locked on those two words. Be numb. Be Numb. Be Numb.” Tough guy talk and inner psycho drama once again ruled the day throughout this series.
Of course, 100 Bullets’ words would fall on deaf ears if not for Risso’s stunning artwork. At first glance it would appear that Eduardo Risso would be an odd choice for a gritty crime comic rooted in American pulp cinema and literature. For one, Risso was an Argentinian, and second his art style was more cartoonish than the fairly realistic designs in other contemporary titles. In all honesty though, Azzarello couldn’t have chosen a better partner for his book. Risso’s art style not only adheres to noir conventions, but develops on them as well. The artist fully realized the chaotic yet lively universe that Azzarello was after.
Like Sin City, 100 Bullets took an extreme yet passionate stab at the noir style. Taking full advantage of being a comic book, Risso was able to do things with his art that couldn’t be replicated in film, namely his use of shadows. Often times, characters would be completely covered in black with only their eyes and mouth visible. This was used to convey sinister emotions such as lust, sadism, and greed, really given readers a true sense of both literal and metaphorical darkness. It’s a gimmick that’s been seen in cartoons before, but in 100 Bullets they cranked up the ominous level of it up to a full ten.
Risso also proved fully capable of depicting the living breathing world that 100 Bullets wanted to establish. The artist often had minute details in the backgrounds of panels that either foreshadowed events, or carried on with the books theme of corruption in society. In fact, we would occasionally see other violent acts in full focus on the panels, but it was segmented with the talk balloon dialogue of the story’s central characters. Such encounters could range from something simple like school yard bullying, to something more morbid like a spousal murder, or even something bizarre like an old woman having a heart attack after witnessing a sex act. It only further strengthened the series themes of always existing violence underneath America’s sugarcoated exterior, and yet another prime sample of how a comic book can sometimes delve into a film noir mentality better than films themselves.
Almost as much credit must be giving to the colorists, Grant Goleash and Patricia Mulvihill. Keep in mind that this was a full color book, but it found new ways to contrast the traditionally dark and white colors of film noir. Instead, Goleash and Mulvihill painted the world in colors that clashed between bright and dark. The colors also reflected the cultures of locations the book went to. New York City was grey and dank, Los Angeles was drenched with both sun and artificial light, and New Orleans had a dark blue look to it (in response for its popular blues and jazz music history). To be honest, at times Azzarello’s narrative could falter a bit, but the artwork never did.
The book received nearly unanimous praise with some even calling it the best book on the stands. One of the book’s most devoted fans was Bill Savage, a professor at Northwestern University, who even included the 100 Bullets’s first trade paperback collection (First Shot, Last Call) in his class Crime and Punishment in American Literature. “The world of 100 Bullets, like all great noir, is our world, twisted just a bit, turned up in intensity a notch…100 Bullets engages with fundamental questions about individual identity; race, gender and especially class; the corruption of power.”13
I feel this quote explains the series exceptionally well, as social commentary was never far from the story’s heart. Film Noir were considered post war films as they reflected the dark nature of the time, and likewise 100 Bullets often looks at the turmoil and paranoia that plagues America in our current age. Through the Trust we see how these corrupt and selfish men of power kill and destroy each other for the sake of their own greed, while the America’s most downtrodden citizens are faced with grueling situations thanks to their uncaring nature.
As for direct homage to classic film noir, 100 Bullets referenced only the greats, and one should look no farther than the fifth trade paper back: The Counter Fifth Detective. It’s this particular five-issue story arch that recalls the pulp stories of old as it takes place in Los Angeles, the central character is a hard smoking detective, and much of the story’s dilemmas come from murder. This volume stars a Philip Marlowe-esque private eye named Milo Garret, who has just been released from the hospital after a close call with a near fatal car crash. Garret’s face has been completely wrapped in bandages due to his injuries, but he must still solve his client’s case while facing off with a femme fatale, a vicious assassin, and an obsessive art collector.
If the plot sounds familiar, well it should. Besides being arguably the most noir fueled story in the series, the storyline bears more than a few resemblances to the 1947 film noir Dark Passage, which stared Humphery Bogart as a detective who receives plastic surgery to avert the authorities and past enemies. The Counter Fifth Detective’s Milo Garret also escapes the recognition of people that once knew him due to his condition which works as both a blessing and a curse. Several of the people working with him on this new case are members of the Trust and would kill him if they knew his true identity (which even Garret doesn’t know as he has amnesia). In true noir fashion, however, his seeming advantage ultimately proves to be his undoing. In the final pages when Milo faces off with former partner Lono, this book’s fill-in for the sadistic and depraved killer, Milo is not recognized as such by him. Garret decides to fight back, but his headstrong action leads him to a bloody death.
Dark Passage is a very fitting noir for 100 Bullets to emulate, as it’s far-fetched yet effective style is felt throughout the series run. What’s more, they both used a certain pragmatic technique to address America’s manipulative nature. Author J.P. Telotte, addressed the film’s unconventional narrative in his book Voices in the Dark. “The subjective camera not only ties our view to a character’s,” he writes. “It also emphasizes that film is always a directed-and hence manipulated-way of seeing.”14 100 Bullets hyper stylized sense always made people realize it was the work of an artist, but the parallel of an extremely misguided society.
100 Bullets took influence from other movies besides classic film noir. Seeing that the series was post Tarantino, 100 Bullets owes a lot of its dialogue sense and non-linear plotting to films like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects. The group’s central group of assassins all wear suits and carry large hand guns, bringing up not-so vague mimics of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Also, John Woo’s influence can be felt in the over-the-top action scenes when a single main character would dual-wield pistols and manage to eliminate whole groups of armed thugs (there actually was an aborted video game based off the series in the works at one point).
Truly, this entire project could cover this one series, which is why I have given it such a lengthy portion, as well as decided to look at the series as a whole rather than one single story arc. 100 Bullets’ success as both entertainment and art lies in the fact that it’s able to feel so farfetched, yet completely terrifying at the same time. Azzarello and Risso do entertain the traditional comic book audience with stylish action scenes and artwork, but there’s always an emotionally devastating scene around the corner. No character was safe in this world, and even the most appealing character could meet a grizzly end. Still, it was just as impossible to look away with impeccably well told stories, and fascinating artistry. Like any true noir tale, 100 Bullets presented the beauty in human imperfection.
Criminal: Back to Basics
Writer Ed Brubaker has become one of the most heralded writers working in comics today. Critics and fans have all become enamored with his sharply written stories, which have reintroduced noir-esque themes into a few Marvel flagship titles. He sent Daredevil to prison, focused on Iron Fist’s shadowy past, and even killed off legendary Marvel comics character Captain America in a widely publicized event. Still, perhaps his greatest contribution to comic noir is in his ongoing creator-owned title for Marvel: Criminal.
Similar to Sin City, Criminal mimics comic noirs like Crime Doesn’t Pay, where each arc focuses on different characters and stories, but they’re all set within the same universe where recurring characters and locations show up. Unlike Frank Miller’s work, however, Criminal strives for realism and avoids supernatural elements. Collaborating with artist Sean Philips (Whom Brubaker had previously worked with on the tech noir mini-series Sleeper), the series has a stylized yet realistic art style. Criminal is yet another laboriously executed love letter to noir in the form of an ongoing comic book series, but one of the best in recent years none the less.
Brubaker makes his influences clear (in the back of the single issues Brubaker writes a column recalling his favorite crime films), and recalls everything from blaxploitation films, indie crime films of the 90s, and of course film and comic noir. It’s hardly groundbreaking, but by given in to noir clichés rather than averting them, the series proved a winner with critics, and a breath of fresh air amidst Marvel’s mainstream titles. Notable filmmakers even found Criminal’s nuanced storytelling irresistible. For instance, John Singleton (Boys N The Hood, Rosewood) said, “What Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips have created in this series of books is a world that feels like a 40’s/50’s film noir or gangster movie, but populated by the children of the 70s blaxploitation and grindhouse pictures. But to their credit they’ve done much more than create a series influenced by other mediums. Brubaker and Philips have made this seedy atmosphere…personal.”15
Brubaker is actually smart enough to incorporate other idioms in this series and give them a noir twist. One of his most recent story arcs, One Bad Night, pays homage to old detective strips, with main character Jacob Kurts, a stocky comic-strip artist who finds himself in hot water when a one night stand leads him to a thug that forces him to make a counterfeit FBI badge for him. The book’s story takes a Chandler-esque direction when it turns readers’ expectations on their head in the last third, when Kurts realizes he’s caught up in something much bigger than he imagined, and that his whole ordeal was planned right from the start. One Bad Night is a classic tale of revenge and paranoia, but what most sticks out about it is its take on an old story telling method, “the spirit advisor.”
A spirit advisor is the name given to characters (actual or imagined) who appear only to one character and give him/her guidance. In this case it’s Frank Kafka, the fictional detective that Kurts created for the funny pages. This tough guy detective gives Kurtz advice through his many predicaments throughout the story. Acting somewhat as a split personality for our hero, Frank Kafka allows Kurts to perform actions he typically wouldn’t, including fatal violence. It’s an extremely clever tactic that furthers the mystery surrounding this initially seeming tame character
One Bad Night explicitly looks at the woes of sexual frustration through familiar characters. The femme fatale in One Bad Night is comparable to the ones in films like Gilda (Vidor 1946)and Double Indemnity as she’s a highly attractive young woman who brings the main character into a bad place though her sexuality and selfish desires. In fact Kurts resembles Chris Cross, the protagonist of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, as he’s an unattractive middle aged man who finds himself in a world of crime and eventually murder due to his sexual involvement with this woman. Also, like Chris Cross, Kurts does not receive capital punishment at the story’s end, but instead is punished for his misdeeds by his guilt and inability to commit suicide.
Their send up of old tropes is very welcome, but Brubaker and Philips’greatest strength is that they realized what makes pulp so appealing, and in this case the excess details are a godsend. As aforementioned the characters fill the archetypes, but the locations in Criminal are traditional for noir too. Seedy bars, gambling spots, docks, winding high ways, are all present and accounted for.
Use of familiar locations like these not only establish the retro and harrowing feel of the series, but they really strike noir through the heart. In Vivian Sobchack’s essay on film noir Lounge Time, the writer felt that the settings in noir film communicated the feeling of post-war America more than the dialogue or the character actions. “The noir world of bars, diners, and seedy hotels, of clandestine yet public meetings in which domesticity and kinship relations are subverted, denied, and undone, a world of little labor and less love, of threatened men and sexually and economically predatory women-this world (concretely part of wartime and postwar American culture) realizes a frightening reversal and perversion of home and the coherent, stable, idealized, and idyllic past of prewar American patriarchy and patriotism.”16
Criminal is quite possibly the best comic noir on the stands today, whether you considered it clichéd or not. Since almost any fiction nowadays is using story telling methods that have been used since the dawn of time, it’s wise for a writer to work with time-worn traditions if he’s good at it. Currently Criminal is on hiatus as Brubaker and Philips work on their other series Incognito, but it’s unlikely that we’ll have to wait long before they cook up some more hard-boiled goodness for us. After all, why would two extraordinarily talented artists leave behind such a masterpiece that still holds such infinite potential?
As mentioned earlier, although the classical era of noir (arguably from the early 1940s to the late 1950s) has come and gone, the reach has had much staying power and can be felt in some of Hollywood’s most recognizable films such as The Godfather (Coppola 1972) and Raging Bull (Scorsese 1981). As explained in Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon’s book The Rough Guide to Film Noir, “A large part of noir’s continuing impact on other genres can be put down to the immense influence that classic movies have had on the directors who emerged from the postwar era. This began with French nouvelle vague auteurs, such as Truffaut and Godard, in the 1950s and 60s and continued with the so-called “movie-brats” of the 1970s (Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, et al) who embraced noir’s stylistic and thematic sensibilities as a means of plying their own brands of harder-edged, crime films.”5
Film Noir has also reached other entertainment fields. Recently, noir influence is seen in some of TV’s most acclaimed programs, such as the retro stylization of Mad Men or the non-linear season-length plots on Damages. Even video games, a medium often considered to possess little artistic merit has taking cues from the genre, such as 2003’s Max Payne II: The Fall of Max Payne which was advertised as being a film noir love story that followed the tragic romance between the tortured title character and a female assassin.
Still, the one place where noir’s presence is felt the most in modern times is in comics. While recent Hollywood films like Gone Baby Gone and Road to Perdition have admirably gone for the noir style, let’s be honest: The last truly outstanding noir film was 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Studios seem to find noir to be one of those genres that’s too esoteric among film buffs to be considered a true box-office draw, so instead filmmakers tend to only milk it in small amounts.
Perhaps the reason that noir has had so much staying power in the comic book industry is that authors are able to incorporate so many elements of the genre with little effort. Film noir always worked best within low budgets, and the comic book format contains practically no budget as opposed to all the considerations that a live action film needs. Writers are able to use visual and narrative techniques of their choice, with no conflicts from a money concerned studios. Noir masterpieces are put out every month on the stands in comic book form, and not just the ones mentioned in this essay. Books like Powers and Scalped are also great reads, and with plenty of promising new titles on the horizon for comic noir (including an alleged return to form for Brian Michael Bendis with his new creator-owned series Scarlet) there’s plenty to maintain any pulp lovers steady diet of intelligent tales of sex, greed, corruption and murder.
As aforementioned: comic noir houses some very powerful storytelling that is able to act as escapism, social commentary, self-expression, artistry and even a history lesson. The noir movement that started in the 1940s has reflected America’s turmoil and social change, which is why film and comic books have had such a like history in terms of noir. Whether someone was initially a fan of film noir or comic noir, it should be easy for one to transgress and comprehend the other one. Like the dark alleys that populate noir itself, it’s easy to be caught up in the allure of these stories, and one might end up with an addiction. The choice is one’s own if this is a good or bad thing.
- Hajdu, David The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, New York, NY: Picador 2009
- Dirks, Tim, Film Noir http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html
- Hirsch, Foster Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, New York, NY: De Capo Press 1983
- Barrier, Michael, Will Eisner: Moved by the Spirit June 2003, http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Essays/Eisner/essay_Eisner.htm
- Ballinger, Alex and Danny Graydon The Rough Guide to Film Noir, New York, NY: Rough Guides 2007
- Krutnik, Frank In a Lonely Street, New York, NY: Routledge 1991
- Justice, Chris Senses of Cinema: The Lady From Shanghai June 2005 <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/05/36/lady_from_shanghai.html>
- Ebert, Roger Sin City 31 March 2005 http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050331/REVIEWS/50322001/1023
- Palmer, R. Barton Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, New York, NY: Twayne Publishers 1994
- Palmer, R. Barton Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir, New York, NY: Twayne Publishers 1994
- Blaser, John J., Film Noir’s Progressive Portrayal of Women 2008,http://www.filmnoirstudies.com/essays/progressive.asp
- 12. Waters, Tom Rabid Fire With Brian Azzarello, 1 December 2006 <http://www.forbisthemighty.com/acidlogic/brian_azzerello.htm>
- Savage, Bill Introduction in 100 Bullets: A Foregone Tommorow, New York, NY: DC Comics 2002
- Telotte, J.P. Voices in the Dark, Chicago, IL: University of Illinois 1993
- Singleton, John, Criminal: The Dead and The Dying, New York, NY: Marvel 2008
- Sobchack, Vivian Lounge Time, Los Angelas, CA: University of California 1998
- Hirsch, Foster Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, New York, NY: De Capo Press 1983
- Smith, Matthew J. and Randy Duncan The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, New York, NY: Continuum 2009