“Noir to its very bones” is a phrase that sticks in my head. It pops up when I think about noir, or when I think about great turns of phrase from popular criticism. That’s Roger Ebert’s take on Rian Johnson’s film Brick, the noir-fidelity of which was initially in doubt because it’s set in a high school, with teenagers as its main characters. The 21st Century is the age of pop culture mash-ups. I suppose the idea is that everything original that could be done was already done in the 20th Century, so now we just take things apart, put them back together in different combinations, and see what works.
Sometimes that leads to trite, uninspired nonsense. But sometimes it leads to really great stuff, like Brick. It turns out there’s a surprising amount of originality to be found in the recombining of old tropes, if it’s by a skilled enough hand.
Noir is an easy component for this sort of thing. Its tropes are so recognizable: The bitter, morally compromised protagonist; the woman who comes looking for help but has her own treacherous agenda; the literal dark alleys that represent the moral darkness into which the characters descend. Traditionally, when we talk about noir in comics (unless we’re specifically addressing that over-the-top noir pastiche Sin City), we’re thinking of noir elements being added to superhero comics, to varying success. This was basically the fuel that comics in the late 1980’s ran on. Daredevil had his life deliberately ruined by a crime boss. Wolverine wore a suit and hung out in the seedy nightclubs of a foreign city. The Punisher relentlessly pursued his bloody revenge against the very concept of crime in multiple titles. Batman was Batman, but with more dirty cops and gangsters.
Over the years comics, especially independent comics have worked even harder to move beyond the superhero. That has led to straight-up noir comics, beyond just Frank Miller’s Sin City, from creators like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka. But inevitably, it’s also led to noir being mashed up with even more genres. One such mash-up is the Monkeybrain title Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective, written by Matt D. Wilson, with art by Kevin Warren. (In the interest of disclosure, I have a professional relationship with Wilson; we’ve worked on podcasting projects together.)
The title seems like a joke, and the art, at first glance, does nothing to debunk that notion. Upon examination, however, the first six-issue storyline is pure noir. It would be noir to its very bones, in fact, except that Copernicus Jones is built of metal, and has no bones within him.
The series makes its position clear from the very beginning. The opening splash page of the first issue depicts Jones, with dents in his head and his metal jaw askew, one eye barely open, tied to a chair with his feet in a bucket of water. The first caption of his first-person narration reads, “They keep asking me where the girl is.” Before we know anything else, we know that our robotic protagonist is fallible. We see that he’s been captured and beaten up. His captors are trying to extract information from him—information, we quickly learn, that he doesn’t have but has been working hard to gain. Copernicus Jones is a hardboiled robot in a noir world, and this story doesn’t waste time in getting that across.
In fact, each issue of the series opens with a recognizable trope that harkens back to the comic’s noir roots. Issue One opens with Copernicus beaten and captured. Issue Two opens with the female lead of the series betraying him. Issue Three opens with a police officer owing him a favor, even though the force as a whole distrusts him. Issue Four opens with a murdered man’s funeral at which his killer delivers a eulogy. Issue Five opens with Copernicus and an uneasy ally being caught in a police dragnet at the worst possible time. And of course Issue Six, the final chapter, opens with a flashback explaining the motives of the crime and why it was committed.
Despite being a robot, Copernicus Jones himself is a deeply complex character, with a lot of secrets yet to be revealed. He used to be a police robot, but left the force for reasons that alienated most of his fellow cops, except for his partner who understood. He has gambling debts and generally seems to be wrapped up in shady underworld dealings, and has a pretty questionable reputation. He comments at one point that his testimony in court would prove worthless, which in this world seems to be unrelated to his robotic status.
The exact nature of his world is never exactly explained, but that’s not a failing of the story. Robots seem to have the same legal status as humans (presumably thanks to the Robotic Freedom Act, which is mentioned in passing), and are paid for their work, but they’re still not really regarded as equals most of the time. Naturally, this leads to a large robot presence in the underworld, and organized crime seems to be dominated by the robot-run M.O.B. What those letters stand for is never explained, but the implied acronym adds a fun dimension to a word we’re used to seeing in these types of stories.
Other than self-aware robots, other computer technology, and the occasional ray gun, the world of Copernicus Jones looks and feels very much like the 1930’s. The cars have big fenders, the men (and some of the robots) wear hats, and the buildings have an art deco look. Much of the action revolves around a club called the Beach, run by a robot gangster named Paulie Ocean, which features a large neon palm tree over its door.
Kevin Warren’s art contributes quite a bit to the book’s genre-blended tone. Even the robots look clunky and old-fashioned, fitting right in to the retro world around them. Everything is rendered, quite appropriately, in shades of gray, which feels like a stylistic choice since color doesn’t add to the production cost of a digital comic. There are scenes in which Copernicus runs internal simulations of past events as he pieces them together (the robotic equivalent of using his imagination, basically), and those are done in shades of green, to differentiate them from the present reality. Those scenes, as well as MS Windows-esque panels of his “investigative software” that show connections being established between characters, serve to simultaneously give us a sensee of how our robot protagonist’s brain works, while also enabling a very tidy method of keeping the reader up to speed on the complex story.
The other key element in making this a noir story is, of course, the femme fatale. Jeanette Windstone comes into Jones’ office and makes a mess of his life. She presents herself as a wife worried about her husband, but she turns out to be something very different. I’m reluctant to give away all the twists, but Jeanette takes “isn’t what she seems” to a whole new level by the end of the story.
Despite including a classic femme fatale, Wilson’s story avoids the sexist pitfalls of much classic noir (the sort of thing Frank Miller deliberately wallows in). Jeanette is a pretty powerful character, with her own motivations, even if things don’t work out in her favor. Additionally, Copernicus’ former partner from the police force, who plays a prominent role in the last two issues of the arc, is a woman of color named Shale.
One of my favorite things about the book, and one of the things that makes it feel the most like a classic detective story, is the pacing. Once Copernicus takes the Windstone case, he doesn’t really stop moving, except when he’s being held by police or tortured by criminals, until the story ends. His battery is slowly running down, and his outer shell is dented from beatings, but he doesn’t have time to recharge or do self-maintenance. He can only keep moving, pursuing the next lead, and then the next, until the case is resolved.
And of course, when the case is resolved, it’s not entirely to robot detective’s satisfaction. He feels compromised and a little dirty because of the things he’s let happen. Nothing feels more noir to me than the last line of the story, spoken by Paulie Ocean to Copernicus: “How else did you think this would turn out?”