May 8, 2017

The Crime Corner: An Introduction

Noir/Crime Comics: An Introduction
by Christopher Cornejo

So I was trying to think of a witty introduction to say on this piece. How I got a serious hankering for comic books and all its glorious (and crappy) splendor. How it gave me an escape from the monotony of life and how it allowed me to explore various worlds without leaving the comfort of my bed or couch.

True as it maybe that I’ve experienced those things in comic books, it wasn’t necessarily my first love and my first foray into escapism and worlds unimaginable. I got that high first on crime. Now I know what you’re thinking “Did this guy just confess how messed up he is?” (A topic that should not be questioned, for that is between me and my therapist) but fret not, for your fears are unfounded.

I LOVE CRIME. CRIME FICTION THAT IS (who knows how much explaining me and the editor would have to do if it was the act itself, not the medium I confessed to love).

One way or another I’ve always been a fan of (almost) everything that is crime and noir. There’s always something so elegantly stylish, captivating, and dare I say it, sensual about these kinds of works that I can’t help surrender to its appeal. This article could go on and on and on if I tried to enumerate all the great things crime (and noir for I feel they almost always go hand in hand) fiction has given me in all my years growing up but since this site is about comics, I will (try very hard to) limit myself with crime/noir comics.

As an introduction, I’ll be listing down the elements of crime as I understand and appreciate it. These are the elements that give crime comics its particular style, theme, and own identity. Consider this a primer of sorts. Now, these things need not be present at all times, but they’re kind of like a guidepost on what to expect from the plot and themes when you get to sit down and enjoy a crime comic and yes, yes, yes, this is not a definitive and objective list (because, let’s face it, facts are for wimps).

Think of these things as some bloodstained comfort blanket you wrap around yourself to feel safe and secure. And in the spirit of trying to be witty (and failing spectacularly to do so, I may add), I would like to call this as my own crime comic checklist (or notable noir niche, whichever fits your fancy).

The Seedy Underground (or the City behind the City)

“The streets were dark with something more than night.” – Raymond Chandler

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Most fiction deals with the location as something or someplace people thrive and live on. At times, it’s part of their identity (like East and West Baltimore of the groundbreaking HBO series, The Wire); other times it’s just any other nameless place that stuff happens in. All those things can also be applied to crime and noir comics but the city that people inhabit in the pages of the topic at hand (or the streets if you feel inclined to call it that) is much, much more.

The city is a character in and of itself and not just a plot device. It is a like a colorful (if you feel like red, black, and varying shades of grey colorful) tapestry that shows the world as we know it and flipped it upside down. A ragged canvas that is a wonderful breeding ground for all the things that is wrong in the world. The streets get to be where bad things never stop happening and that the misery and hurt of it all becomes routine.

This is the place where businessmen sharpen their crooked ways to ensure their legitimate dealings lead to a profit often at the expense of the people they deal with and crooks act all like serious businessmen to professionally setup a score that guarantees they get to live another day.

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” – Raymond Chandler

Criminal: Coward by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The urban jungle that I’ve come to know in crime comics as the city is the habitat of people where they give in to their most basic and animalistic urges such as living (and mostly dying) by the needle and need of a fix, along with the predatory folks who prey upon the people barely scraping by. The city ensures the nights are just a little bit longer and the promise of a new day is something that is never guaranteed for everyone.

This is the place where justice is a word that has all but lost its meaning; where the only path to salvation is also the sure path to one’s ruin. There’s no law save the laws of the streets and you can be damn sure that those rules are not enforced by the police but by the thugs, dealers, and soldiers who bleed for what they claimed was theirs.


“We’re designed to be hunters but we’re in a society of shopping.” – David Fincher

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Most stories often have their protagonists overcome great challenges that pretty much redeem them in the end. This is a trait also shared by noir and crime comics. The only difference is, more often than not, our leading man takes more of a beating rather than give it and doesn't really catch a break in between. Our guy is always the fool who is always way, way, waaaaaaaaaaaay in over his head and often has to deal with various situations that he hardly (if ever) gets to get out on top. Sure, the world is unfair, but noir and crime comic makes damn sure that our guy gets to feel most of the brunt of said unfairness.

“People are lucky and unlucky not according to what they get absolutely, but according to the ratio between what they get and what they have been led to expect.” – Samuel Butler

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarrello and Eduardo Risso
That’s right, our guy who once in his life believed he can be a two-time champ gets a serious slap of reality and rude awakening that all he can be is a two-time chump, punch drunk and half dead going in to the last round with no idea how he’s gonna (or will he ever be) get saved by the bell. And just to rub it in, no one can save him, in fact, since misery loves company; no one gets to be saved.

No one.

Yes, I know I should point out the obvious here. All our protagonists (if you could even call it that) happen to be from the male side of the kingdom. Make no mistake; this theme is deliberate. Maybe to all the more ensure that the point gets across, and the point we’re talking about here is that “it ain’t pretty and it never will be”. A man’s pride and ego is what makes him who he is and what better way to serve a lesson about things going as bad as they can get than robbing said man of his identity and what makes him, uh well, him?

To the fine, fine, fine ladies reading this, don’t worry because in the world of crime, you’ll have your own woes to deal with. Just keep reading on.

Femme Fatale

“I say all the things I swore I’d never say again. She owns me. Body and soul.” 
– Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

The Black Monday Murders by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker

Imagine yourself, sitting at a bar. You’re there minding your own business, a drink in your hand and just killing time when lo and behold, this lady walks in straight out of your wildest dreams and fantasies. Everyone in the room feels it, the undeniable smoldering sensuality of her every step. You became aware of your own heartbeat because anytime now it will jump out of your throat. You feign detachment and cool disregard to the hell on high heels taking over the place, but you and I both know she knows better. She rewards you with a look that could have a corpse breathing hard. The promise of just the touch of her skin leaves you gasping for air, and why shouldn’t you be? You’re way out of your depth and breathing underwater while your mouth is filled with thoughts of her.

But like all good (and pretty) things in the wonderful world of crime, that beauty most likely is just skin deep. Underneath all the glamorous looks and amorous come-ons, hides a sly and conniving predator that ensures you take the bait before she leaves you lying on the floor, with no control of your senses and no possessions in your name, wondering what and how you get to reach the bottom this fast, wishing all that she’d given you was a dream come true but only turning out to be the endless waking nightmare that you’ve now come to know as your life.

“Yes I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty isn’t it?” – Double Indemnity

Fatale by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

The femme fatale has become a landmark character in crime and noir. She’s the foil and oftentimes the cause of our protagonist’s troubles. At best, she gives our guy something to think and tide him over while he’s spending the foreseeable future in prison or a life that will be a continuous downward spiral. At worst, she’s the catalyst that causes our hero to gain redemption but that comes at the expense of his own soul.

The objectification and misogyny these women get, they turn it to weapon that gives them the capacity to go after and take whatever it is that suited their fancy because the only way to get even is to trample every men that stands in their way and use them as cannon fodder and a means to their own ends. Cruelty for the sake of personal gain is not something that is original only to femme fatales but nonetheless the effectivity of this theme is something that keeps readers coming back for more because like sick voyeurs in awe of the accident waiting to happen, we could not avert our eyes away from this road of damnation that leads to everybody’s ruin.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, right?

And speaking of ruin, on a final note. . .

Redemption (or the Road to Ruin)

“I have to believe there’s redemption in the darkest of circumstances; otherwise it’s too bleak for me” – Paddy Considine

The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

For all intents and purposes crime and noir is a story of inherent if not preordained tragedy. A modern tragedy set in the landscape of the urban jungle where the fatalistic nightmare of the lead characters comes into vivid reality. The insurmountable odds stacked against our protagonist are only rivaled by their perseverance to get away from the problems that haunt their everyday lives. Yes, everything is pre-ordained to be doomed, but this will never stop the people from seeking reprieve whatever form it may take shape.

The superficial goal of crime comics, at least from the lead character’s perspective is that they have to get what they want. That could be in the form of a successful score from a heist or finally getting their revenge by giving the well-deserved comeuppance to the source of their seemingly unending misery. But more than that, crime comics is a story about one’s redemption.

But since this is crime comics we’re talking about, said redemption comes at a considerable cost. We mostly meet our characters down in the dumps knee-deep in trouble and not a source of hope in sight. Everything is turning bad and it will just keep on getting worst. The only way to stop or even ebb this unending stream of problems, our character needs to devise a plan to get out from under. These thoughts turn into unsavory schemes that they must execute if they want to make it. They get tangled with bent people with personal desires and not above a double cross to get what they believe were theirs.

“I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil.  Such things I do, just to make myself attractive to you.
Have I failed?” - Morissey (The Last of the Famous International Playboys)

Gotham Central: Half a Life by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Yes it’s a difficult path that needs to be taken. Despite all these problems plaguing our protagonist, they can’t help themselves in trying to do the right thing (or at least the closest thing in doing right by the people they promise to save). Because what is a person (however crooked they might turn out to be) if not for the principles that defines them?

And that’s the problem. That principle that serves as their (possibly only) saving grace is a double edged sword that they have to fall on later. The best-laid plans of mice and men have never been more destroyed than by walking the road to redemption, which also happens to be one’s road to certain ruin. This theme never loses its charm in noir and crime, because when you get a good crime story, no matter how messed up and vile the protagonist happens to be, you can’t help but root for them as they go through the paces and follow the path to redemption, regardless of our knowing too well that not everything will end up smelling roses and a happy ending is the last thing these characters will ever get.

Because our knight does not have a shining armor, they’re vulnerable from pretty much everything and they are tainted by the nature they got acclimated to as well as the people they’ve surrounded themselves. Despite the questionable things they did, our lead character can’t help themselves but behave like honor and faith has anything to do with the life they’ve lead up until now.

Like any heroes, we want them to triumph and prevail unscathed and unharmed. But that kind of ending is reserved elsewhere. That kind of conclusion will never be found in the pages of crime and noir comics. That makes it all the more compelling, because regardless of how high they manage to get up we know they’re bound to fall. In the world of crime, everything and everyone is set to fail.

So there you have it, a primer of sorts about all things crime and noir in the wonderful world of comic books. I hope you got something out of it. As for me, I’ll try to follow this up with other crime/noir comic related stuff to post in this blog because it would be such a shame if you people do not get at least a chance to pick up any of the numerous comics out there for crime (I mean crime as a story not a propaganda promoting crime), I’ll be back with other stuff but until then, take a chance and pick one up for the team, yes?

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