Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Hey, everyone! Before I get started, I thought I’d take the time out to give a brief wave and also thank the Robot 6 crew for inviting me to be Robot 7 for a week.
My name is Jamie S. Rich, and I am a crime junkie. Movies are my major poison, particularly of the classic film noir variety. You know, moody black-and-white flicks from the 1940s and 1950s featuring tough guys in nice suits slapping bad guys in even nicer suits all because of something going on with a girl who may or may not be nice, but who cares, because she dresses better than both of the fellas combined. That said, I also like crime comics, and thanks to some gentle urging from my artist, Joëlle Jones, I decided to act on that love and write my own. My week amongst the CBR blogosphere is meant to promote just that–the newly released Oni Press hardcover comic book You Have Killed Me. Written by myself and illustrated by Joëlle, it’s got all those things I mentioned above–including the slap!–and more. It’s been about two years in the making, and we’re excited to be getting it out on the shelves.
I realize that, for many, the idea of me writing a hardboiled crime comic book seems like a departure. I’m known as the goopy romance guy who likes to write dark relationship stories full of references to excellent bands no one has ever heard of. It’s a fair reputation, though a limited one, and soon to be shaken all to pieces once You Have Killed Me drops its foot on the collective neck of the reading public. I think followers of my work will be a little surprised that I have more range than they might have expected, but also that what I have done with Joëlle is exactly where my other work has been leading all this time.
Folks would also do well to remember that I spent a decade editing comics, starting at Dark Horse in 1994 at the tender age of 22 and then moving to Oni Press in 1998. In my time, I naturally gravitated to certain crime-related books. I assisted on some comics starring the Shadow, as well as Paul Pope’s futuristic con The One-Trick Rip-Off. I was part of the team on the Whiteout books by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber, one of the more straightforward crime/mystery series you’re likely to find in comics, as well as editing Scott Morse’s more off-center Volcanic Revolver and Spaghetti Western. I even worked with Ed Brubaker, long before Criminal, serializing stories he and Jason Lutes were doing together and separately in Dark Horse Presents.
What I’m saying is, I have a pedigree. This dog is ready to show!
For this inaugural column, I have decided to write a little about four of my favorite crime comics that I was lucky enough to be editor on. That way, I can pretend it’s not entirely about me, when really, it still kind of is. (Egotists are cagey creatures.) The first three comics on my list are all books that, like You Have Killed Me, have a classic or historical setting; the third is a more innovative take on traditional noir tropes.
To lead, I’d like to resurrect what I consider to be one of the great lost comics of the 1990s and one of my favorite things I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching go from pencilled idea to inked masterpiece. As a longtime fan of Grendel, I was familiar with Pat McEown‘s work but not entirely hip to what a good cartoonist he really was. That started to change when we were doing Grendel Tales: Homecoming and I got to see him go with a more personal style than the one he had used on War Child, but it really struck home when he submitted a little short called “Wanted Man” to Dark Horse Presents.
Printed in DHP #130 (March 1998) as the cover feature, “Wanted Man” is at once an homage to private detective stories, both in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Chester Gould, and a clever send-up of the same. In eight story-packed pages, Pat tells the tale of Frank Glock, a private dick who one day goes into his office only to discover that his all-important secretary has vanished. Determined to find his gal before anything bad happens to her, he goes around town shaking down friend and foe alike looking for information.
Sounds like a pretty standard plot, I know, but most crime story plots are at this point. It’s in the telling that a comic like this really shines, and Pat McEown’s technique is a sight to behold. (When the story came out, we got enthusiastic fan letters from both Mike Mignola and Mike Allred.) Drawn with a clean line that fills out the roundness of Ernie Bushmiller with the lush inkwork of Dave Stevens, “Wanted Man” is taut with masterful cartooning. Beyond the quality of the story, it’s the quality of the storytelling. Pat boils standard pulp fiction devices down to iconic panels. When Frank Glock is racing against the clock, he is a mere shadow on the timepiece’s face, a puff of smoke trailing behind. “Going back to square one” ends up being Frank on a board game. When he has to give a rundown of his nemeses, it’s done as a diagram to show all of their nasty parts. In fact, the way he gives us the scoop on some of the possible suspects is part of the ingenious satirical device Pat employs to deconstruct the average detective story. “Wanted Man” is less a tale of an investigation and more the image of a gumshoe running through his mental rolodex. Any peeper worth his weight has picked up a cast of characters over the years, each with his or her own story to tell, and thus a P.I. of Frank’s years becomes burdened in the yarns he must relate. Every person, every object, has a history. If Frank can’t handle it, he’d better move to another town–though he’ll be sorry if he does before he reaches the punch line.
Far more serious in tone is the docudrama Union Station by Ande Parks and Eduardo Barreto. Originally published by Oni Press in 2003, the book is just now returning to print in a brand new edition, most likely to make sure that there are plenty of copies around now that the Michael Mann movie Public Enemies has hit theatres. You see, the two stories contain some of the same characters–the real-life lawman Melvin Purvis and outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd–and they even cover some of the same events. Ande Parks has a weird way of predicting movie trends. We had his Capote in Kansas book underway before either the dual Truman Capote celluloid projects, Capote or Infamous, had been announced. I am hoping to convince him to write his next book about how I get married to Public Enemies lead actress Marion Cotillard just to see if he can make stuff come true in real life, as well.
Union Station is a semi-fictionalized account of a massacre that occurred at the train depot in Kansas City in 1933. It was a messy story, no one sure who fired first. If it was the feds, then a cover-up could be underway; if the crooks set it up, it’s a dangerous fraud; and what price will be paid by the reporter and the honest public servant who want to make sure the truth comes out? Ande heavily researched his story and approached the script with an exacting detail, and when Eduardo came on board to draw the book, we couldn’t believe our luck. Eduardo and I were pals from our time together on a comic series that is best left unnamed, but we had made the most of a bad experience. Within those scripts, there were chances for him to draw brief western and 1950s sci-fi sequences, and I knew those were his favorite parts. Honestly, I think doing a book like Union Station, an old-fashioned story about men with jobs to do and the gangsters who get in their way, was a dream come true for both of us.
The realistic style of Union Station couldn’t have been farther away from the cartoony aesthetic of “Wanted Man,” but the two approaches would meet and meld in a fantastic way in J. Torres and Scott Chantler’s Scandalous (Oni, 2004). Set in Hollywood during the Red Scare, this tale of backbiting, blackmail, and even some sex and violence exposes the dirty underpinnings of an alleged golden age. Torres’ story tells the tale of two scandal sheet rumormongers battling it out for the top of the celebrity gossip heap. What they forget in their rush to be the big cheese is that real lives are at stake, and if you threaten them, there will be a price to pay.
Scandalous reminds me of another favorite cinematic genre of mine: Hollywood movies about Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart playing a washed-up screenwriter in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Kirk Douglas’ unscrupulous producer in The Bad & the Beautiful (which is also how we referred to J. and Scott), or the entire cast of L.A. Confidential would have been right at home in this story. Like Pat McEown, however, Scott Chantler draws from a classic tradition of cartooning, which in its way gives Scandalous a feel more akin to the golden age of Hollywood it depicts by making it look almost innocent. Don’t be fooled, however, as any hardboiled anti-hero who has ever run into a femme fatale knows, the sweeter the package, the deadlier the aim.
My last choice of a book to highlight is not one that will immediately come to mind for most people when they think “crime fiction;” in fact, the writer and I even got into an argument about it at the time. When the photographic cover for the book came in, he thought it looked too much like an old paperback novel. I told him I thought that was a good thing. In my mind, Neal Shaffer, Christopher Mitten, and Dawn Pietrusko’s Last Exit Before Toll had the ultimate noirish plot, the story of a criminal on the lam–only there was no crime.
One morning, fatigued business man Charles Pierce decides that, instead of taking his usual route to work, he will turn his car and go in the other direction. He will drive as long and as far as he can and eventually stops when his car goes kaput just outside of a small town where no one knows who he is or likely cares. There, Charles sets up a brand new life, meets a brand new girl, and begins to find the peace he has lacked. Even so, for as happy as he becomes, there is always the sense that what he left behind might catch up with him. He’s like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or Burt Lancaster in The Killers, two hoods who hide in the rural middle of nowhere to try to escape the criminal underworld after double-crossing their old bosses. Charles has no stolen loot and the mob boss is now an abandoned wife, but it’s still life or death for the poor sap. Having to go back would be just as bad as paying the piper in a hail of bullets.
I love Neal Shaffer’s writing. I am sure the more obvious pick for this column would be his seedy card-sharp comic One Plus One, but for as much as I liked that series, Last Exit Before Toll has more resonance for me. The script had the sparseness of an Antonioni movie (more on him in a couple of days) while also recontextualizing what to me was a standard man-on-the-run story and making it something more existential. By doing so, it revealed the philosophical structure that is often obscured by the glister of the ill-gotten gains in your standard cops-and-robbers tale. Plus, it was the debut book of Christopher Mitten, one of my last great finds as a comic book editor. No one knew him then, but people are paying attention to him now. His book Wasteland with Antony Johnston is soon to be Oni’s longest-running ongoing. All of that started here.
And in a way, all of the above informed You Have Killed Me. Editing these books helped me cut my crime fiction teeth and showed me how the stories I loved could be tackled in the comic book format. More than ten years after Pat McEown’s “Wanted Man,” Frank Glock now hands the P.I. license to Antonio Mercer, the latest bloodhound to pick up a lost dame’s trail. When and if he finds her in You Have Killed Me, it’s likely to be in a different kind of place than Frank found his missing secretary, but if Joëlle Jones and I did our jobs right, it will be just as sexy and just as fun.
Guest blogger Jamie S. Rich is the author of many fine books, the latest of which is You Have Killed Me, reteaming him with Joëlle Jones. They previously collaborated on the acclaimed romance comic 12 Reasons Why I Love Her and have also co-created the forthcoming Oni comedy Spell Checkers. Rich is a novelist and a film reviewer, and his work can be followed at his blog, Confessions of a Pop Fan.