Noir: With writers like Brian Azzarello doing their best to reinvigorate the crime genre, and publisher Vertigo dedicating an entire imprint to such books, it is no wonder that “noir”—the oft-misunderstood French term used to describe a particular breed of crime drama laced with cynicism and sexuality—is making a major comeback.
Noir: A Collection of Crime Stories is the latest anthology in an ongoing Dark Horse series, and it comes just in time to capitalize on that noir momentum with an unlucky 13 short stories collected in a sexy, thin paperback at the reasonable price of $12.95, less than $1 per story.
The cover is pitch black, except for the off-center lettering of the title, which is in white. A gray cityscape is seen in the letters, which cast shadows leading to the subtitle. The book features established writers the likes of Brian Azzarello, Dean Motter, and Ed Brubaker along with up-and-comers M.K. Perker and Jeff Lemire, highlighted by the India ink artwork of Eduardo Barreto, Gabriel Bá, and Fábio Moon.
As to be expected with any wide-reaching collection of comics creators, Noir is a mixed bag. Some stories are exceptional, while others read as though they were written by a creative but still inexperienced high-school student. The art, however, never falters in the collection. There is a wealth of styles on display, but all of them serve their stories and bring something fresh to the table.
Starting backward, Azzarello’s short closes the collection and is easily the best written of the bunch. Without spilling the beans, the ending of “The Bad Night” offers a great twist. The story starts with a conversation in a bar between a lowly con and his boss. It seems they are planning a simple heist. The ending may seem dull to readers wholly unfamiliar with comics, but for those with even the slightest inkling of comics history, especially of one of its biggest heroes, it is an incredibly sinister twist that makes for a great way to end the book. The unique art of Bá and Moon elevate it as the best short in Noir.
Brubaker’s “21st Century Noir” is incredibly well-drawn with dynamic shadows by Sean Phillips. But that’s only the first thing the comic has going for it. Brubaker and Phillips construct a tale that incorporates all of the key points of noir—sexual deviancy, manipulation by a bombshell, and an ultimately violent twist to send it off. And the results are fantastic.
“Tru$tworthy,” written by Ken Lizzi and drawn by Joëlle Jones, offers a nice break from the traditional comics comprising the rest of the book. Lizzi’s story is mostly pages of prose, with only limited illustrations by Jones. It is a nice change for the collection, and also takes the traditional arc of “guy meets gorgeous woman, woman uses him” and twists it in a different way. It is fun, though the explanation of things at the end is a bit too procedural to flow really well.
On the other end of the spectrum of Noir is Alex de Campi’s “Fracture.” In little boxes drawn by Hugo Petrus, de Campi unfolds a mind-boggling story of “what if” fantasies in layered scenarios of a very likely deranged girl standing in a subway station. The problem is, little makes sense by the end of it and it seems to serve no purpose other than an experiment in muddied storytelling. Dean Motter’s “Mister X: Yacht on the Styx” also falls flat. It may hold some relevance for fans of Motter’s series, but it doesn’t have the legs to stand on its own.
Everything else lands somewhere in between, with both problems and standout elements, much like the collection as a whole. Luckily, the positives of Noir far outweigh the negatives. Even the low points are introductions to new writers, artists, and techniques. Fans of crime fiction and great art should not hesitate to pick up the latest anthology from Dark Horse.
Reviewed by William Jones on July 10, 2012