Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics | Dark Horse

Originally published over at

I’m not exactly sure what book kicked off last decade’s crime comicbook revival (Powers, probably), but 2009 was most definitely the peak of said “movement,” the year when crime went commercial and quickly lost its inseparable edge.

I remember this because that was the year I went diehard for the shit. Everything and anything that had to do with crime (minus the real thing) I immediately sucked up and deemed priority. I went from watching few movies ever to hand writing a must watch list containing anything from Out of the Past to Heat, and if I ever caught sight of a trench coat or dark alley on a comic book cover, said comic was bought. Ross MacDonald and Dashiell Hammet were also read, to a degree, and I even went as far as to brag to my friends that I was an expert on the genre in question when in reality, I was then, and still am, far, far from it. But I doubt they were very impressed to begin with.

But no matter my involvement, and as true as my enthusiasm may have been, this was sort of all spurred on by the growing popularity of the genre in my medium of choice: comicbooks.  Books like 100 Bullets, Powers and Criminal spent the 2000’s redefining the genre for comics, and while an entire essay or more could be written on such a topic, I’ll just skip ahead and say this redefinition culminated in 2009. It’s the year the trend caught on and died, but not before the industry gave us such things as Vertigo’s line of crime graphic novels, Marvel Noir (the nail in the coffin), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter (which is really more than a cheap gimmick, but just go with it for the fact it’s another big crime project released in the year 2009) and this: Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics published by Dark Horse.

My memory of this has mostly been of it being a disappointment, and after a revisit just this week I still find Noir to be as bad as my recollection deems it. It’s underwhelming when you consider the list of talented creators involved. I placed a lot of hope on this project at the time of its release – hoping it would somehow be the next great anthology – but really all I read was another mediocre one, which makes Noir a comfortable member of today’s usual anthology output.

Most of the authors in this collection try to place a spin on the crime story or the concept of what a crime is, but really none of them land anything but a failed attempt. It’s really the guys who stick to the classic components, like Lapham, Brubaker and Azzarello, who produce anything memorable. I don’t find this to be a point scored for the argument of classicism or anything, just that the people being ambitious didn’t have the skill to pull it through. There’s no greater theme there. Some people just blew it, is all.

But they blew it enough. Because after reading this, my unstoppable interest for all things crime noir stopped. I already knew crime did not equal quality, but the blatancy of this project – from the title to the Georges Bataille quote on the inside cover – only reassured the point. Where Marvel Noir was the ultimate gimmick, Dark Horse’s book represented this common interest of the time. It attempted to showcase the best of said interest, but in the end, Noir really only shed light on an unhealthy curiosity. Because everyone wanted to tell a crime story, everyone wanted to script that gravely narration, and everyone wanted the twist ending, but only few people’s voices and styles of storytelling were suited for such things.

Noir spotlights a handful of people dubbing crime fiction characteristics over stories strongly penned in their individual styles, and while it’s nice to see all of them attempt, what really presents itself is this weird sense of “hey, I can do it too!” that’s stated like a true six year old.  It’s really just a collection of stories confused about their identities, as a guy like Jeff Lemire attempts to meld his sullen country boy routine to a cold-blooded plot.

Or when M.K. Perker marries Turkish culture with mass murder.

Or when Paul Grist does Paul Grist but on a detective story (Kane goes farther back than this project, I know, but in here, at least, it doesn’t do much).

And there’s also the desire to land the EC Comics fucked up twist ending, but when Chris Offutt or Gary Phllips go for it, the attempts only come off as cheap and highly derivative.

What happened here was this: Dark Horse editors picked the hot contributors – or the ones they could get – and said, “tell us a crime story. people like those right now,” and the creators did, but what Dark Horse failed to realize was that even though they handpicked the “hot” creators, they did not handpick “hot” creators who were also “hot” crime storytellers. Those editors went name above suitability to the project, so it’s really no surprise we got what we got.

But, for the select few who were suited, well, those stories worked.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal insert carries the same pedigree as the all the mini series. The pacing’s on key, and even when the duo arrives at their own twist ending, things work out because throughout their however many pages, they’ve earned such an ending.

Azzarello works within a gimmick, but when Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon present it, the story loosens its grip on the safety net and trusts itself, as a story, to do the job. Plus, Azzarello’s script doesn’t exactly force the surprise ending or shoehorn the catch. Instead, his pacing and dialogue let the reader arrive at the premise, making it more of an involved short story.

But the best of the collection resides in David Lapham’s “Open the Goddamn Box,” in which a young girl widdles her way out of a terrible situation through a sharp tongue and tensions on the side of her captors. What’s impressive about it, though, beside pure visceral reaction or the skill of Lapham’s line work is the story’s ability to really place you in a world in such a short amount of time. Lapham works within ten pages, but in those ten pages you really get an idea of who the three characters are – from background to now – as well as what the world they inhabit is particularly like. A lot of this comes down to pacing, obviously, so the author adjusts his grids on each page to accommodate such a thing. If you look at it, Lapham uses a majority of eight panels per page, and while design isn’t exactly a main concern, they do fine tune all the needed  beats of the narrative. Old fashioned storytelling for a comic book, but Lapham proves that its functionality still works now more than ever.

For those three stories alone, Noir: a Collection of Crime Comics is kind of worth picking up – especially at a discount. But you do have to sort through a heavy handful of mediocre imitations. Because that’s mostly what Noir is: imitations.

As for the crime comicbook, the genre still pleases many people, and guys like Brubaker and Phillips continue to produce some of the best. The trend subsided, though, thankfully, but science fiction, with books like Prophet and Saga, may be making a comeback. Who knows where that may lead.

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