The Aesthetics of Crime
My first contact with noir-style in comics was Eisner’s A Contract With God, a series of related shorts set in a crumbling inner-city tenement. I was too young to understand what the stories were about, or to feel anything but vague unease at the crude stereotypes of the Jewish characters, but the human misery that infused every deceptively unsure line stuck with me.
If a picture is worth one thousand words, Eisner’s more than collected his due for the visual epigraph to his graphic novel. He may have been my first noir graphic novel, but he wasn’t the first, not by a long shot. Later I learned that the technique of noir, heavy blacks framing and cropping, providing both focus and obscurity, was probably pulled from the wordless woodblock novels of German Expressionism, one of the forerunners of both comics and noir and the veritable visual codification of despair.
Noir has always been a part of comics. Most popularly beginning with the daily adventures of campy investigator Dick Tracy in the 1930s, from there comics co-opted the cinematography of film noir and the curt narration of dime novels. Newspaper serials such as Dick Tracy spun into widely-read monthly magazines, most published by Entertaining Comics (later merged with DC—Detective Comics; it’s even in the name). One of the EC monthlies was Crime Doesn’t Pay, infamously moralizing hack-job shorts that combined the lurid sensationalism of Victorian-era illustrated penny dreadfuls with the structure of dime novels. De-toothed by the Comics Code in 1954, these early Grand Guignols of horror and crime comics devolved into the less controversial spectacle of superheroes.
With the waning of the Comics Code and the idea that turning adult (“adult” necessarily meaning lurid rather than layered) was the way to bring new readers into the fold, the visual language of noir seeped into superheroes. Batman started as a Dick Tracy-like pulp character, and now is most well-known as a hardboiled millionaire of the night, defending an Expressionist city where the moral ambiguity of French pulp can be found, distilled into bite-size villainous icons, trapped in eternal conflict with Batman’s self-imposed moral code of American noir. It’s a long way for a Dick Tracy to come, a regurgitated presentation of noir for the modern general audience.
Even the great, or at least classic, contemporary crime comics—From Hell, Sin City, Torpedo-–can be weighted down by their adherence to pulp, relying on pastiche, workmanlike writing, and the trappings of weekly adventure serials; but what comics does in noir, it does well.
For sheer atmosphere, noir comics are unsurpassed. Whether it be Darwyn Cooke’s monochromic adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels, the saturated watercolors of Blacksad, or the shaky lines and rough textures of Mort Cinder, these stories are visually sophisticated, layered, and viscerally emotional, an emphasis that comes naturally to the medium. The art walks the lines of tension and uncertainty; fiction and truth, veracity and authenticity are blurred; after all, this is the age of the photograph, where images are documentation, but drawings are pure imagination.
Comics noir is coming into its own now, drawing on the skills of past masters and the energy of current literature to bring vibrant stories to the page, and I am very interested in what comics has to say in our increasingly image-saturated and visually literate world. I look forward to comics that plumb the bizarre, expressionist depths of internet crime, that smash together genres with visceral glee, that present raw hot takes on the past and future of noir.
I hope you also enjoy these two tales, one a wordless foray into the den of a murderer and the other perhaps a crime-in-waiting, both told with the future and the present in mind. —Rhiannon Rasmussen-Silverstein