If there’s one thing the people over at Dark Horse love, it’s anthologies. The publisher’s initial title and signature series for many years was an anthology series titled, appropriately enough, “Dark Horse Presents.” Many of its signature series got their start here including “The Mask,” “Sin City” and “Hellboy.” I believe “The Goon” also had its Dark Horse debut in the series, but as creator Eric Powell pointed out in the fine print of vol. 1, the series ended with that issue #150. Pure coincidence, I’m sure. Since then, the publisher has put out a number of anthology titles, but not one that I felt compelled enough to pick up. Until now, that is. “Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics” boasts an all-star list of creators that includes the likes of writers Ed Brubaker and Brian Azzarello, artists like Sean Phillips and Gabriel Ba, and writer/artists such as David Lapham and Paul Grist. That’s not the entire list, yet while some of these stories show how familiar “noir” tropes can be the fact that it contains new “Stray Bullets,” “Criminal,” “Kane” and “Mister X” stories will make the purchase worth it for fans of these series.
Stray Bullets: Open the Goddamn Box: Talk about opening on a high note. This entry in David Lapham’s long-running crime series involves a girl tied up in a box, a boy who wants to rape her (but is conflicted about it), and another boy who loves being in charge. Lapham packs an incredible amount of character detail and tension into these ten pages that show how cleverness will get you out of any situation, and remind me how bad of a person I am for only having one volume of this series in my collection.
The Old Silo: I’ve heard a lot of good things about writer/artist Jeff Lemire’s work, but this came off as just “okay.” An old man is in danger of losing his farm, but a potential solution to his problems arrives in the form of a gutshot bank robber. In terms of plotting, it’s certainly not the most original thing I’ve read, but Lemire’s creepily skewed art gives the piece a sense of unease that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Mister X: Yacht on the River Styx: Of the stories from long-running series featured in this volume, this is the series I’m the least familiar with. The title character takes a female reporter out to a ghost ship to solve the mystery of a massacre from years ago, only to find out that the killer has plans for them. While the story is set up as a mystery, it winds up solving itself before writer/artist Dean Motter has had enough time to build it up. Still, the retro-future world is nicely illustrated and it’s the one story in the book where the sci-fi elements don’t feel out of place (more on that later).
The Last Hit: A seasoned hitman gets the feeling that something has gone wrong when additional conditions complicate his latest job. Writer Chris Offutt is clearly familiar with the conventions of this kind of story as he spends most of it subverting them. That’s great up until the end when he serves up the ending you saw coming from the beginning of the story. Great moody and gritty art from Kano and Stefano Gaudiano, though.
Fracture: What happens when a girl decides to push an annoying beggar in front of a train? What happens when she doesn’t? More of an exercise in style and form than an actual story from writer Alex de Campi and artist Hugo Petrus; however, it’s still a fun exercise to analyze once you figure out what’s going on and where everything leads.
The Albanian: An Albanian cleaning man finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time after hours at his job. Usually these “witness to a murder” stories wind up with the witness on the run or under some kind of protection, but there aren’t enough pages for that. So writer/artist M.K. Perker takes an absurdist approach to things and has the main character running through the office remembering his old military training before coming face-to-face with the killer and his hand puppet. Even if it’s not clear what the point of it was, it’s an entertaining romp.
Kane: The Card Player: NEW KANE!!! … uh, sorry. I got a little worked up for a moment because this is THE FIRST NEW KANE STORY I’VE READ IN YEARS!!! … Yeah, I’m a fan of writer/artist Paul Grist’s absurdist noir/crime series that for six volumes (so far, I hope) performed an impeccable balancing act between the comic and the tragic. That said, despite a really clever “knock-knock” joke setup, this is probably a bit too continuity-heavy for those unfamiliar with the series to appreciate. If you’re a fan of the series like me, then you’ll be glad that it just exists.
Blood on My Hands: Writer/artist Rick Geary, whose odd cartoonish art style I’ve always found appealing, tells a tale of suburban rot, marital infidelity, and what happens when one man goes off his meds. It’s very well-worn territory and while the first-person perspective (both literal and figurative) does offer some novelty, it doesn’t last. The ending also undercuts the story as its return to normalcy gives the story a “What was the point?” feeling.
TRU$TWORTHY: It’s a story of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy finds out about the bad, bad men that are after the girl, then boy pledges to find some way to get girl out of trouble. It’s a setup that’s probably older than “noir” itself and the way it plays out here is pretty much the way you’ve seen it done before. The difference here is that it’s told in prose with illustrations… which is only unique in the context of this collection, and the writing by Ken Lizzi and art by Joelle Jones don’t really distinguish it. It’s only notable twist is at the end, which borders on sci-fi since I don’t think holographic technology has reached that level of sophistication yet. Speaking of out-of-place sci-fi elements…
The New Me: …This story has an even worse one. The setup is promising as it involves an unattractive and overweight woman looking to get in shape with help from an amorous instructor who only has eyes for good-looking ladies. Once the woman does get in shape, her instructor starts to have eyes for her and then his troubles begin. It’s a good setup from writer Gary Phillps and it features some sharp art from Eduardo Barreto, but the final twist completely undermines the story since this particular sci-fi element is both implausible and comes from out of nowhere.
Lady’s Choice: I’m more familiar with writer/artists Matthew and Shawn Fillbach for their oddball takes on other creators characters, and this is my first experience with an original story from them. There’s still a hint of the absurd in their tale of a bored woman who narrates the tense showdown between a powerful criminal and a genuine cowboy, but it’s played straight for the most part. Their art is stylish as is their willingness to use as many panels as needed on a page in order to tell the story, which is familiar but still well-executed.
Criminal: 21st Cenury Noir: Leave it to writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips to take the dead-standard “noir” setup featured in “TRU$TWORTHY” and not only make it fresh for the modern era but provide a clever twist on how it’s told. Yes, boy meets girl and is willing to do anything for her once he falls in love with her, but we don’t just get the story from his perspective, we get the story from the girl’s and her husband’s. Bonus points are awarded for how the story uses the internet in a way that doesn’t feel tacked-on and makes the story seem fresh as a result.
The Bad Night: Some people will read this story written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Gabriel Ba and see only a tense story of a two-bit hood getting orders from a Mafioso to steal a pearl necklace from a rich couple as they walk home from the movies with their son. Others will read it and see a thinly veiled take on the origin of one of DC’s most famous superheroes. Fortunately it works on both levels, though this is the second time that Azzarello has done this kind of story with this particular DC character (he previously did it on his “Hellblazer” run years ago). If he keeps this up, someone is going to have to stage an intervention…
So it’s hit-and-miss, but there aren’t any truly awful stories here and even the mediocre ones still have something interesting to offer on an artistic level. The best ones, however, are good enough to make up for the ones that are just “okay.” So if you’re in the mood for a good collection of crime tales, or are fans of any of the series or creators that contributed a story here then this is a collection that’s definitely worth your time.
After taking the time out to focus on USM last time, there’s been a considerable amount of stuff piling up for me to look at. Without further ado…
Chew vol. 1: Taster’s Choice: I can’t tell you what a relief it is to read the words “sold-out surprise hit comic” on the back cover and know that it isn’t utter BS. Tony Chu is a cibopath, someone who can get psychic impressions from what he eats, who is recruited by the FDA to solve food-related crimes in a world where chicken has been outlawed after the bird flu epidemic. In lesser hands this might’ve been an exercise in weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but writer John Layman manages to treat everything with the right amount of seriousness to make the absurdity funny and make you take things seriously as well. Artist Rob Guillory also has an appealingly cartoonish style that’s at home with drawing exaggerated character expressions as it is with ultraviolence. While the actual story told here is great at setting up the world and future plotlines, it’s really not all that interesting in itself and sets up a conflict I really couldn’t bring myself to care for. Still, the storytelling details are great and I’m really intrigued to see where Layman goes from here now that he has set everything up.
Captain America: Road to Reborn: Here we get stories about people remembering the past that prove even when Ed Brubaker is working on autopilot, he’s still better than most other writers. Seriously, the majority of the tales here are just filler and of importance or relevance to the series ongoing storyline, and the stuff that’s actually relevant to “Captain America: Reborn” probably wouldn’t have fit into an entire issue. Yes, it’s still interesting to read about Sharon Carter realize that she was once pregnant, and to hear Bucky talk about fighting vampires with Cap in WWII, but the feeling that everyone involved is just killing time until “Reborn” is unmistakable.
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit vol. 1: In this Japan, random citizens are injected with a capsule that will kill them at an early age. The thinking behind this is that if they’re instilled with the fear that they’re going to die at any minute, the populace will learn to value life. With a premise like this, it would seem that the obvious route to go would be to focus on the last hours of those about to die. That is the case for most of this volume as we see a depressed wage slave take revenge against those who bullied him in high school and a singer try to leave his mark on the world, but mangaka Motoro Mase seems to be more interested in showing us how the people who are part of the system that implements this policy work and live with themselves. That’s a good thing because it’s far more interesting to witness the banality of evil in the people who keep this system going than it is to see its victims. The story about the bullied kid is effective if predictable and familiar, while the musician’s tale is painfully melodramatic and contrived. If Mase can make the system’s victims as interesting as the people who administer to it, then I’d recommend this series to anyone but this first volume doesn’t really get there.
Real vol. 7: After the last few volumes’ focus on Takahashi’s rehabilitation, the focus shifts back to Togawa’s struggles with his wheelchair basketball team, and Nomiya’s struggles to find meaning in his life. The best part about this volume is how it manages to balance Togawa and Nomiya’s storylines and integrate them together to a certain extent. While the wheelchair basketball matches are as exciting as ever, Togawa’s crisis at the end doesn’t quite have the drama that mangaka Takehiko Inoue wants it to have. Frankly, I’d be more surprised if Togawa actually DOES leave the team than if he breaks his word and decides to stay where he is. We’ll see where that goes. Inoue’s successful balancing act between Togawa and Nomiya’s storylines also has me anticipating when he’ll finally bring Takahashi into the mix (because he’s not even in this volume) and start telling stories about the three of them together than splitting his focus between two separate storylines.
The Unwritten vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity: This is writer Mike Carey’s new series for DC/Vertigo and he’s teaming up with his “Lucifer” artist Peter Gross. The high concept for this series is that Tom Taylor is the son of the author of a wildly popular “Harry Potter-esque” series of books and the ostensible basis for its main character. Except that he might actually be the character come to life, and to get answers he has to start digging into his father’s past only to find weirdness. While Carey does seem to have a plan for Tom’s “fictional character in a real world” dilemma, his main goal with the series seems to be more about using it as a jumping off point to dissect how people respond to fiction. Here’s hoping it’ll be as focused as his work on “Lucifer” and “X-Men,” and not degenerate into head-scratching ridiculousness as it did in “Faker.” The last story, about Rudyard Kipling’s dealings with the people that Tom’s father were involved with since it’s a very good story in itself that manages to both serve Carey’s themes and offer up tantalizing glimpses of the larger plot.
No Hero: Writer Warren Ellis’ latest collaboration with artist Juan Jose Ryp after their “superhero kills the president” opus “Black Summer.” This time they’re looking at superheroes through the lens of how they relate to the idea of vigilantism and just how far people are willing to go in order to achieve their dreams. For the most part, it shows that Ellis learned from the flaws of “Black Summer” and does much more showing how messed up his characters are than simply telling us they are. He also sets up his plot twists better here, but that winds up biting him in the ass at the end. While it’s a given that the main character had to have some sort of secret that would be revealed in the end, the revelation of that secret winds up kneecapping the very premise of the book. It recovers somewhat in the end, but it really detracts a lot from the overall enjoyment of the book. On the other hand, Ryp shows that he’s as adept as ever at depicting the twisted environmental and human carnage that Ellis is capable of dreaming up.
The Walking Dead vol. 11: Fear the Hunters: This took far too long to arrive from Amazon, but when it did… it was worth the wait. Writer Robert Kirkman finally gets around to addressing one of the inevitable concerns of any world where human society is in ruins (think cannibalism) and manages to subvert a lot of the expectations that a reader would have with the setup of this story. What’s more interesting is that beneath the story of Rick and co.’s response to being hunted by cannibals is the emotional cost involved with people’s needs to protect themselves, their family and their friends. I have no doubt that Rick and co. did was the right thing, but that doesn’t make it any easier for them to do it and it makes for great drama to see them grapple with the moral implications of their actions. It’s a tribute to Kirkman’s skill as a writer that he also keeps finding ways for his characters’ suffering to be interesting, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for them once they reach Washington D.C. and civilization in the next volume.