So while I was still thinking about the whole “Why Should We Care?” issue, I see Rich has echoed my feelings about DARK ENTRIES, Ian Rankin’s HELLBLAZER graphic novel, and Vertigo’s new crime line in general. I’ve also read Brian Azzarelllo’s entry in the line, FILTHY RICH, and experienced the same “Is that it?” feeling as well.
But it was FILTHY RICH that got me thinking about the crime genre. The plot of FILTHY RICH is that old noir stalwart: not-that-smart guy falls in lust with femme fatale that he knows is bad for him, but bonks her anyway because he just can’t help but think with his groin, then lets her manipulate him into killing her supposedly abusive boyfriend or husband and then he realizes she set him up to take the fall all along. Sorry if you think I’ve spoiled the story for you, but this is how every femme fatale plot goes, almost without exception. This is not a good start to the new Vertigo Crime line.
If I was a teenager discovering noir for the first time, this might be cool. But this particular plot has become seriously old hat in crime fiction, particularly for readers who have a more-than-passing familiarity with novels. It goes all the way back to the 1940s with writers like James M. Cain who practically perfected it in works like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, which were both adapted into notable movies that cemented them into the canon of both movie history and crime fiction canon. In the half-century since, that plotline has become a hoary noir genre cliché that writer and after writer seems to want to repeat over and over again without any freshness or originality. Lawrence Kasdan’s BODY HEAT revitalized the story by updating the characters to the 1980s singles scene. Leaving aside crime comics are huge in Europe, the genre has always been a sporadic occurrence in American comics. It’s only been in the last decade that US publishers have begun publishing crime comics on a regular basis. The problem is, too many of the crime comics currently being published are still far behind in pursuing the full potential of the genre, and comics have to catch up to. FILTHY RICH, alas, does nothing new. It just indulges in fanfic-style reiteration of the femme fatale subgenre. It plays with the noir imagery of shadows, 50s night clubs, raincoats, dames, and really displays nothing more than technical proficiency at replicating the genre dynamics. Call it Noir 101. If no one else had done a femme fatale comic for a while, it might have looked vaguely fresh, but we’ve already had Frank Miller take it over the top in SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR, and Ed Brubaker has already done that plot several times, including in at least one of the storylines in CRIMINAL.
I know conventional genre stories are comfort food for fans, but this particular plot has always struck me as really weird comfort food. Why do fans of noir draw comfort from a story where the main character they’re supposed to identify with gets gamed to their doom by a dangerous woman? Is it a particularly male form of masochism, the equivalent of female readers who love the vampire genre with its vampire lover as bad-boy-violent-sex-possible-rapist metaphor? Really, why do male writers today still love this femme fatale plot so much? The vast majority of them or ordinary guys sitting at the word processor, and they have as much chance of meeting a glamourous femme fatale who will manipulate them into committing murder as they do of suddenly gaining superpowers from a lab accident. The femme fatale character is really a representation of the male fear of women, so is this the writers expressing their primal belief that women will lead them to their doom by their dicks? Notice that there has been hardly any story from the femme fatale’s point of view other than John Dahl’s movie THE LAST SEDUCTION (and that movie doesn’t even get into her head) and there haven’t been more examples ever since? Why doesn’t anyone try to tell a story variant outside the box?
As with the superhero genre, many writers who write crime stories are fans of the genre as well. However, a genre stays relevant and interesting only when it tells new stories. Too many writers of superhero and crime comics are content to just play with the toys of the genre rather than actually have anything to say. Superhero comics are already largely stuck in the ghetto of fanfic since the majority of the writers are just writing their own versions of the stories they loved so much when they were kids. There aren’t as many comics creators into crime fiction so the field is a bit more narrow so it’s easy for Ed Brubaker, Brian Bendis, Greg Rucka and Brian Azzarello to be the current generation’s top proponents of crime comics, even though they all have to write their share of superhero comics to pay the bills. Rucka was already a crime novelist before he started writing comics. When writers like Brubaker and Bendis use the tools from the crime genre for their superhero work as in CAPTAIN AMERICA and DAREDEVIL, it brings a fresh angle to the superhero genre. However, I’ve found Brubaker and Azzarello’s crime comics to be less interesting then the best crime novels of the past and present. CRIMINAL is a well-crafted and a skillfully-conducted tour through the pulp crime genre, but I haven’t found it to be much else beyond that. I wanted desperately to like 100 BULLETS, which started with an interesting premise of people presented with the opportunity to seek revenge without prosecution, but that was eventually jettisoned for a vague and extremely abstract conspiracy plot where factions of men with guns ran around posturing and pointing guns at each other until the finale delivered nothing more than the hoary old “violence begets violence and that is BAD” message. The images, toys and clothes of the crime genre are recreated intact, but lack any real resonance or impact from crime novels that are actually about something. The crime genre is open and flexible enough to explore real issues, personal or political or a charged combination of both, much more than the superhero genre is, and American crime comics haven’t fully taken advantage of that opportunity. I have yet to find American crime comics that matched the impact of the novels of George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, all authors fully engaged with social and political issues that drive crime, an approach that kept them in good steady when they wrote scripts for THE WIRE. James Ellroy combined a deeply personal reading of Los Angeles history with his own personal pathologies to create feverish and obsessive novels of crime and redemption in the likes of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. Community activist Gary Philips wrote political private eye novels set in the working class districts of Los Angeles that he knew well. James M. Cain was exploring his own issues of sex, morality and obsession when he wrote DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Jim Thompson’s novels seethed with his personal obsessions and pathologies when he wrote his self-deceiving and psychopathic chancers. Christa Faust drew on her experiences in the porn industry to write MONEY SHOT, one of the most original crime novels in recent years. There’s the works of Charles Willeford and his pessimistic and dryly comical worldview in the Hoke Moseley novels and his various one-offs. The list could go on, much longer than creators of crime comics.
I’d like US crime comics to become a permanent, but they’re going to need to work a lot harder and offer more than just fanfic. Posturing with guns and cigarettes and femmes fatale isn’t enough. There needs to be real meat under the flashy clothes.
Not bothering to solve any crimes at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Adisakdi Tantimedh