by Derek Royal
If I were choose a title for this review of two recent crime/noir releases, Mean Streets and Crime Does Not Pay Presents: City of Roses, it would probably be “Crime Comics Redux.” Both books are solid examples of what comics creators continue to do with the crime/noir genre, and both are composed from earlier publications and even allude to genre-defining precursors. In the case of Mean Streets, we have a complete repackaging of four graphic novels that were originally released between 2008 and 2011, and all through IDW Publishing. The first in the collection, Supermarket, is written by Brian Wood and with art by Kristian Donaldson. It’s a modern day, Asian- and noir-injected Romeo and Juliet story…or at least one that is once removed. The protagonist, Pella Suziki, is shocked out her bland, privileged existence by the murder of her parents, each of whom she soon learns had been members of rival gangs earlier in life: her father in the Yakuza and her mother in the Porno Swedes. (The later is a female gang who dresses as their name suggests.) Pella is suddenly thrust into the chaos, chased by both crime families who are looking for secret digital information that her parents had stolen when they left their respective gangs to live a new life together. She finds an unlikely savior in Beta Nakatari, a current member of the Yakuza, and his girlfriend Marta, a Porno Swede, who, much like Pella’s parents, are running away from their rival gangs because they are in love with one another. Here, Brian Wood narrates the lives of younger, hip protagonists he documented so well in Local and Demo and infuses them with the kind of political intrigue he has created in DMZ and The Massive.
The next story in the collection, Palle Schmidt’s The Devil’s Concubine, is about a crime caper that goes wrong. Jean-Luc and his gun-happy assistant, Linda, are hired to pull a job — and in a popular crime convention, Jean-Luc plans on retiring after this one final score — yet unbeknownst to them, they’re being set up as fall guys in the convoluted machinations between competing gangs. Schmidt’s story is classic noir, and his art has the gritty, dark, and claustrophobic feel that underscores the protagonists’ trapped-like-rats dilemma. This is followed by Kevin Colden’s Xeric Award-winning Fishtown. (Of all the original graphic novels collected in Mean Streets, Colden’s is the only one I was familiar with before this release.) While the style and color scheme — Colden uses more muted tones, and with a washed yellow base — do not cry out “noir” in the same way that the previous contribution does, Fishtown is by far the most bleak and nihilistic of the collection. Originally appearing as a webcomic on Act-I-Vate Comix (at least its first chapter), it is the story of four teenagers from the titular Philadelphia neighborhood who plan the cold-blooded murder of a sixteen-year-old classmate. It’s a chilling narrative without conscience.
The final story in Mean Streets, Ben Wagner and Nathan St. John’s Baja, is a classic revenge crime drama filled with convoluted plot lines and unexpected twists. In fact, the first two sections of this narrative warrant multiple readings, in that it’s not entirely clear at first who is involved in what story, and in what capacity. The key players are Zack and Hil — the latter a classic femme fatale — who target another couple for what at first appears to be an easy heist. Much like Schmidt’s story, Baja is filled with elaborate schemes and storylines that almost, but not quite, strain narrative integrity. Also like The Devil’s Concubine, the art in this piece is dark — black, gray, and red are the primary colors here, and all set against a black page frames and gutters — and without much detail. Individually, each of the four stories included in Mean Streets could easily stand out on its own and make compelling reading, but taken together, they provide a varied platter of different noir styles that work well as a collection. Plus, at an affordable $29.99 cover price, it’s a great deal: four graphic novels in one. If you want an example of what IDW can do with crime comics, this is the volume to get.
However, Dark Horse can publish good noir comics just as well, as demonstrated by Crime Does Not Pay Presents: City of Roses. Written by Phil Stafford and illustrated by Patric Reynolds, City of Roses was originally published in twelve separate installments in the monthly anthology Dark Horse Presents (and in three cycles: issues #16-#19, #24-#27, and #30-#33). The story begins in April 1968, with Vince “Ice Man” Capitan executing someone who may have ratted him out, and then going to prison for ten years after cutting a deal with the district attorney. But this isn’t Vince’s story. In fact, with perhaps one exception, this isn’t really the story of any one individual. As the title suggestion, City of Roses is about the larger criminal underworld of Portland, Oregon, and on both sides of that thin blue line. Indeed, we see more corrupt cops and lawyers in this book than we do crime bosses and hit men.
If the story can be said to focus on anyone, it is Valerie Dushane, who begins her life in the city as a topless dancer in the 1970s. After a quick glimpse into her checkered and rocky past, we see her move up from a popular local performer to a “respected” madam going by the name “the Duchess” who oversees dancers of another sort. Indeed, the book literally ends with quick glimpses into her personal life after going through some profound (and predictable?) changes. Much of her story involves a narcotics cop named Mitch, who constantly wavers between corruption and legitimacy, and who begins to share his life with the former topless celebrity. Much like Valerie, Mitch wants to extricate himself from the corruption, but determining forces keep preventing his rehabilitation. These outside influences include an array of corrupt narcs — including Lennert, who builds his own criminal franchise from within the department — as well as sleazy city councilmen, bought judges, quixotic public defenders, a former boxing contender who finds new life in drug dealing, and Vince the Ice Man himself, after having served his brief term in prison.
The first part of the book’s title, “Crime Does Not Pay,” should be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in comic-book history. It refers to the series, mostly written by Charles Biro, published through Lev Gleason Publications and running from 1942 to 1955. (In fact, Dark Horse is currently reprinting the entire Crime Does Not Pay series in nice archive volumes.) It put crime comics on the cultural map, and in its early days (and when superhero comics were losing some of their gloss in the immediate post-war years) it claimed a readership in the millions. With its titillating depictions of violence, sex, and drugs, it helped set the stage for the kind of public outcry against comics that eventually led to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and its confrontation with the industry in 1954. Supposedly, and as the title suggested, the guilty always paid in the end, but such was not always the case in Biro’s often glamorized stories of crime. Something of the kind takes place in Stanford’s contemporary example. Crime does not pay…at least for most. But there are still a few who find that they might get something out of it, after all.
But again, it is the city that is the real character in this book, one that Stanford paints as rotting from within. This is the author’s forte, crime and corruption in the Great Northwest, as demonstrated in his earlier non-fiction works Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Rose City and The Peyton-Allan Files. Lately it seems that when we hear about Portland, it’s usually its offbeat or still-grunge-influenced side, the home of “Too Much Coffee Man” cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and the setting of the IFC series Portlandia. But Phil Stanford reminds us of what Greg Rucka — another Portland resident — first did several years ago in his Stumptown comics: that the Rose City has a dark and violent underbelly hidden beneath its more palatable and alternative culture. Patric Reynolds’s art nicely reveals this, although in more of a realistic and colorful style than we find in the Mean Street stories. Taken together, these two recent releases demonstrate that crime noir is still a vital genre in comics, and perhaps more significantly, one that comes in a variety of visual forms.
It would be a crime not to get your own copies of the books discussed in this review: