noir

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I’m trying to do something about the massive backlog of 60-98% complete post drafts. It’s scary in there! For example, both of these bits are from (gulp) 2012.

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (1993), by Frank Miller & John Romita Jr.

While Daredevil has long been my favorite single superhero, I wasn’t the right kind of fan to be the target audience for this. This is an origin-story miniseries that fills in gaps and juicy details (the rise of Kingpin, Matt’s childhood training, and his initial relationship with Elektra in college). I grew up with 4 or 5 single Daredevil issues around the house – much obsessed-over, but far from exhaustive enough for me to be able to appreciate the back-filling that Miller does. Since Miller compresses over a decade into 5 issues, the pace was also too breakneck for me to feel like I could really sink my teeth into the narrative, until Miller slows down enough to focus on a crucial kidnapping incident at the end of the series.

General thoughts: the style is strikingly noir, which is not surprising given that it’s Miller. Matt’s rage is always simmering in the background, and his rough upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen lays down the basic growth medium and texture for his character. Miller emphasizes in his intro that Daredevil could easily have been a supervillain. The emotional hook of the miniseries is that Matt’s righteous anger and physical prowess aren’t enough to make him a hero (there’s a really awful moment where he accidentally kills a prostitute while trying to attack one of his father’s killers); he must also learn self-mastery.

I warmed very slowly to Romita’s art, as it’s sort of blockily formless a lot of the time. However, there are occasionally really effective panels that made me okay with him by the end – in particular, the poetic silhouettes of Daredevil bounding across the Manhattan skyline, and one creepy close-up of Kingpin’s chilly eyes.

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Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Vol. 2) (1993), by Mike Mignola

Paranormal folkloric bingo! On top of the evil Nazis + Rasputin + cosmic/Revelations-flavored menace from last time, there are a Napoleonic-era vampire lord kickin’ it old school, Thessalian witches, Baba Yaga, an iron maiden broken in by Elizabeth Bathory, Lamia, Hecate, a homunculus… Honestly, it got overwhelming at times (I felt whiplashed), and occasionally I questioned the lumping of so many mythologies together, given that it really did start to feel like “lumped together” instead of “woven together.”

But the goofy dialogue lightens things up well, and Mignola’s art always sells it. There’s a spectacular cosmic setpiece of about 5 pages towards the end of the arc that actually had me reading with my mouth open. And then – emo Rasputin! Because even villains bent on universal chaos have to question themselves sadly sometimes, even if it’s just to ask if they’re being selfish enough.

Plotwise, this is really just expanding on the “evil Nazis/Rasputin plot for cosmic chaos” direction. Not too much more character development, sadly, although there’s plenty of character exposition.

– E

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.12.14

“When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.

I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.”

Caitlín Kiernan’s novelette “Houses Under the Sea” (2003) introduces the Lovecraftian deep-sea mythology that later figures largely in the 2012 novel The Drowning Girl. My favorite section of the story is actually the very first, where Kiernan sets glinting shards of memory tumbling in the liquid medium of her protagonist’s memory. It’s painful, frightening, smoky, sensuous (just take the fact that the victim-villainess’ name is as outrageously rich as Jacova Angevine), with a noirish swagger later amplified by the narrator’s hard-drinking pathos, and, rather playfully, by included excerpts from the works of Angevine’s mystery-novelist father.

Technically, the story is beautifully crafted, with Kiernan’s trademark circular movement (which echoes the final image that ends up haunting the narrator – “She has drawn a circle around me”) of thought and memory carrying the reader to successive climaxes of dread. An empty warehouse with a recently painted-over floor. Undersea things – coldly, sinuously, invasively sensuous, both muscular and rotten-soft.

The role that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s deep-sea exploration plays in the story is especial fun for me given the fact that I spent several years in elementary school obsessively drawing viperfish and anglerfish, and that my dream job for a much longer time was to work at said aquarium… (It did just occur to me that a thread of my anglerfish affinity persists, in that I now study the family of bacteria that includes Photobacterium, those responsible for the luminescence of anglerfishes’ and flashlight fishes’ light organs. Shine on, you creepy diamonds.)

Go to:

Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.11.2012
Book from: Personal collection

Original Sins collects issues 1-9 of Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, with art by John Ridgway & Alfredo Alcala.

There’s a certain disadvantage to targeted reading of comics (or whatever) that are considered to be gamechangers. This is, obviously, that you don’t actually appreciate what the game is that they’re coming along and changing. I theoretically know plenty, for example, about what the 1980’s British Invasion of Comics achieved, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the associated works. But since I don’t actually want to go sloshing around in the surrounding milieu of stagnating American comics, I just have to take people’s word for it that they were stagnating – which means that it’s hard to completely understand what the Brit Pack reacted against so successfully. Ah well.

Hellblazer vol. 1 cover

It’s a rotten, fallen world that magician John Constantine lives in, ushered along by his ripely tortured narration (“My mouth is rank – sweat bathes me, like the cold, nicotine condensation on the carriage window”), and sometimes simply by panel after panel depicting British urban misery in Ridgway and Alcala’s scratchy inks. Delano takes shots at just about everything awful in Britain (and sometimes the US) in the ’80’s, sometimes satirically (demon yuppies!) and sometimes just angrily: Maggie Thatcher, economic decay, televangelism, football hooliganism, and hatred and bigotry and greed of all stripes. I’ve seen the John Constantine character dismissed as dated, but it’s depressing how close to home much of Original Sins still feels in 2012, particularly on the economic front.

It’s the anger that really gets to you in this series, anger directed both outward and in. Constantine often lashes out against the forces of suppurating evil, but even more often seems to do harm to humanity himself through some combination of deliberate, self-interested inaction and plain cockiness. Apparently it’s a running “joke” in the series that Constantine gets all of his friends killed; he’s already off to an impressive start in Original Sins, with various allies falling dead throughout the volume at the hands of all manner of hellspawn and religious zealots. His raffishness and devil-may-care pragmatism too often translate into willingness to pass easy judgments on others’ weaknesses, and on what needs to be done to expedite his idea of the greater good, with the result that guilt becomes another dominating flavor of the series.

The story that I found the most viscerally disturbing in the volume, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” features Constantine as passive witness to the destruction of an Iowan town by their own Vietnam War ghosts. He insists that he’s cut off from the conflict, helpless to intervene. But given his shoddy track record on intervention throughout the volume, I wasn’t so convinced that this wasn’t just his well-developed sense of self-preservation talking.

I was certainly impressed with the heated, fetid atmosphere that Delano brews up – so different from the limp, humorless chilliness of the Constantine movie, whose main and only attraction for me was the Keanu-Reeves-as-Constantine/Tilda-Swinton-as-Gabriel homoerotic tension. Unfortunately, my aggregated puzzlement at the dense referencing of previously encountered characters and situations increasingly convinced me that I really had to backpedal at least a couple years and start in with Swamp Thing, where John Constantine first appears, before diving back into Hellblazer.

I also note that I started this review a year ago, and, coming back to finish it now, find that my memories of the comic are surprisingly dim. I’m guessing that this is in large part because I felt more impressed by its effect, than actually affected.

Go to:
Jamie Delano: bio and works reviewed
Violent Cases, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (1987): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.1.11 (re-read; originally read circa 2006)
Book from: Personal collection

Hellboy, Volume 1: Seed of Destruction
Art by Mike Mignola, script by John Byrne

“When strangeness threatens to engulf the world, a strange man will come to save it. Sent to investigate a mystery with supernatural overtones, Hellboy discovers the secrets of his own origins, and his link to the Nazi occultists who promised Hitler a final solution in the form of a demonic avatar.”

It’s alllll about the broody menace. I was not too impressed by my first read of Hellboy‘s first volume, five years back, having gotten idiotically hung up on what I dismissed at the time as “unoriginal” plot elements. (Hello, 2006 Emera, paying tribute to pulp favorites is the point…) This time I just sat back and let the consummately pulp-noir atmosphere swallow me up, to much better effect.

After all, there’s so much to enjoy about Hellboy. The storytelling, even if often predictable, is crisp and fast-paced, cannoning the reader from a glimpse at Hellboy’s WWII origins into a present-day case featuring frog demons, an Arctic expedition gone awry, and a cursed family. The dialogue and exposition (vol. 1 is kinda exposition-heavy) are loaded with menace and portent, the action sequences are so beautifully composed as to look balletic (even when they mostly involve Hellboy punching demons), and now let’s talk about how much I love Mike Mignola’s art.

LOOOOVE. I love the way that he builds his compositions mostly out of shadows and looming statuary, frequently in suggestive poses (when Hellboy first manifests in a churchyard, the two angels carved in relief in the background seem to make gestures of threat and aversion); I love the way his craggy, massive, mostly stone-faced figures lend themselves to expressions of unexpected tenderness and piercing emotional simplicity. One of my (many) favorite single panels in this volume is the one below, in which Hellboy attempts to comfort his adoptive father, the aged paranormal investigator Trevor Bruttenholm:

This volume includes generous art extras: early sketches of Hellboy, the two mini promotional stories in which he first appeared, and an excellent gallery of guest art. I should note though that the trade paperback edition has terrible binding – the cover cracked away from the glue on the spine after I’d been reading for about 45 minutes. So, definitely not worth it unless you happen to find it on sale.

That aside, Hellboy is eerie, tightly written, and features an intriguing cast and Lovecraftian/Revelations-inflected apocalyptic mythos. (The chapter headings have scenes from Revelations as their backgrounds: the seven-headed beast, the Four Horsemen, etc. Again, LOOOOVE.) This time around, I’m going to have to follow the series to its finish; I’d love to get to know Hellboy and his teammates better.

Go to:
Mike Mignola: bio and works reviewed
B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth & Other Stories, by Mike Mignola, review by Emera

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Date read: 5/31/08
Read from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

B.P.R.D.: Hollow Earth and Other Stories collects side stories of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, from the Hellboy universe, though all (deliberately) absent the eponymous hero.

  • “Hollow Earth” (written by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski; art by Ryan Sook and Curtis Arnold): The fish-man Abe Sapien, Roger the homunculus, and a disembodied medium named Johann Krauss venture into the center of the earth, searching for their missing teammate.
  • “The Killer in my Skull” (written by Mike Mignola, art by Matt Smith and Ryan Sook): The B.P.R.D.’s Depression-era counterpart, Lobster Johnson, encounters a mad scientist.
  • “Abe Sapien versus Science” (written and inked by Mike Mignola, drawn by Matt Smith): A disquieting glimpse into the origins of both Abe and Roger.
  • “Drums of the Dead” (written by Brian McDonald, art by Derek Thompson): Abe and a young psychic investigate paranormal incidents – possession, inexplicable shark swarms, ghostly drumming – manifesting on an Atlantic shipping route.

I read the first Hellboy collection quite a while ago, and wasn’t impressed, but reading this actually motivated me to go back to the series. Though the stories aren’t terribly original, I’m a sucker for the art (most of the art in these stories closely emulates Mignola’s own, though whether that’s good or bad is debatable) and characters – particularly the erudite, gently tragic Abe. I love the art’s distinctively shadowy, bold look, and Dave Stewart’s dim colors give the series an appropriately eerie, pulp feel – the panels look as though they’ve had all the light sucked out of them, except for cigarette sparks and lantern glows and the occasional dose of phosphorescence or hellfire. This was especially effective for the haunted-ship story – I always love a good sea-ghost tale.

Bottom line: predictable stories, but the art and affecting characters win out for me.

Go to:
Mike Mignola

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Date read: 6.03.09

Book from: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

The City & The City is dark, brooding, and meticulous. It is the story of Inspector Tyador Borlu who investigates a mysterious and highly delicate murder case. “Highly delicate” for Borlu soon discovers that he must invoke Breach, a mysterious judicial force that governs disputes in the rare case that they involve a crossing of the cities, Ul Qoma and Beszel. However, help is not so easily found and Borlu must undertake this investigation himself. Using not-exactly-by-the-book methods, Borlu uncovers mysteries of the murdered girl, the very archaelogy of these two odd cities, and Breach.

Review

Mieville pulls the reader in with promises of the same great and dark fantastical adventures of his previous novels– we concoct a terrible conspiracy in our minds when first confronted with the murder, we imagine the city divide must have come about as a result of a great otherworldly battle, we provide ancient magical powers for each mention of a mysterious artifact… and although these theories are shattered one by one as the novel progresses, we still imagine the epic Big Reveal will, in fact, prove all our thoughts to be correct. Instead, The City & The City is cold and harsh, and there is never a magical solution. There is definitely a depressing, suffocating atmosphere that comes from knowing that every death, every misunderstanding, every unnecessarily gruesome fact of life is caused for humans, by humans.

I have to say I harbored this niggling disappointment each time a plot turn indicated that there was in fact no magic. I was naive– I should have paid closer attention to the genre titles “noir fiction” and “weird fiction”, but Mieville has always had a way with enchanting the story no matter what genre. I found the mentions of Myspace and Chuck Palanhiuk highly jarring, but undoubtedly genius. These references really made the reader think and realize he was reading about a country off somewhere in the Middle East that existed in the same world at the same time, that if he travelled far enough he would perchance bump into the city of Beszel. This effect was definitely unnerving and brought the story closer to home.

In many ways, I found Beszel and Ul Qoma to be the darkest of any of Mieville’s cities to date. Beszel and Ul Qoma encapsulate the grimness of today’s most rundown urban centers, without the usual gems of beauty that one can find in Mieville’s other works. While New Crobuzon was covered with filth, death, and corruption, the reader was still made to understand the powerful potential of inner beauty– Lin’s amazing (although admittedly grotesque) artwork, the majestic surrealism of The Weaver, the slowly nurtured romance between Bellis and Silas– and in the end, the Baslag books were just as much about the good as they were about the bad.  And of course, the London underground setting of King Rat also contained an edgy artistically musical appeal. I didn’t see any of this hope or light in these cities– whenever I uncovered more about a good person or a seemingly magical concept, there was simply only… dirt and muck underneath. Basically, I didn’t come away seeing promise dangling on the ends of story threads in the same way I did for other Mieville works. This, perhaps more than the downward spiral to nowhere, frightened me the most and in many ways, made the story as a whole less appealing.

This is not to say that The City & The City isn’t another great work of art created by China Mieville. I was so accustomed to floating along in the waves of Mieville’s greatly fantastical settings and characters, only to find myself rudely shoved into a hard and entirely unforgiving setting. I am under the opinion that this novel is extremely mislabeled as a fantasy work…there is an explanation and a science behind everything plot turn, and ultimately, my point is do NOT walk into The City & The City expecting fantasy. Although I have not read much detective noir fiction, I can confidently say The City & The City must be among the cream of the crop– as usual with Mieville, you can see the literary quality dripping off the edges of each page and feel the weight of a great imagination.

Go to:

China Mieville

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Date Read: 6.3.09

Book From: Library

Reviewer: Emera

A prequel to the first Dresden Files novel, “Welcome to the Jungle” is the first graphic novel addition to the series – a full adaptation of the first novel (Storm Front) is to come, apparently. The four-issue comic’s plot is boilerplate Dresden Files: a gruesome murder, this time at the zoo, has Lt. Karrin Murphy of Chicago PD’s Special Investigations calling in Harry Dresden, the only professional wizard in the phonebook. Harry has 24 hours to uncover the killer, and, of course, has no idea where to start. In the meantime, the murder has been pinned on one of the zoo’s prized (and innocent) gorillas, lending extra urgency to Harry’s search for the real culprit.

Unsurprisingly, the Dresden Files, with their spectacular action scenes, car chases, and colorful magical rituals, translate perfectly to comic-book form, with quick panels here capably taking the place of the lengthy descriptions required in the book. Indeed, Butcher explains in his introduction that his storytelling is strongly influenced by the multitude of comics that he read when young (something that I definitely sympathize with).

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