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.