Michael Carlson

Carlson's American Eye
Each month, Michael Carlson, Britain's hardest-boiled American critic, brings to Shots a distinctive look at the detective genre, with an eye toward those aspects of it which reflect its development (and his!) on the other side of the pond.....the overlooked, the out of print, and of course, the best of the new....
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The Dead And The Dying by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips Coward
Titan Books, £9.99 ISBN 9781845766105
The Dead And The Dying
Titan Books £9.99 ISBN 9781848561519
By Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Ed Brubaker is one of the best writers of hard-boiled urban crime out there, but he may have flown under your Shots radar, because Brubaker writes for the comics, and hasn’t yet, like, say Brian Vaughn, who provides an introduction to The Dead And The Dying, made the jump to classy TV like Lost. On the strength of writing like this, there’s no reason he couldn’t be churning out TV (the introduction to Coward comes from Tom Fontana, of Homicide and Oz) or maybe those little straight to video movies that star Mariel Hemingway or Marlee Matlin with young actors needing a break.

Coward is the story of Leo, a young man who’s grown up in the world of thieves, and who can plan a perfect heist better than anyone. When he’s strong-armed into a job he doesn’t want to take, he sees the double-cross coming, but not the way it’s going to happen. Other people get involved, and Leo finds himself having to break all his own rules, knowing that the rules are the only thing that keeps him safe in his life of crime. It sounds simple, and it is, and it sounds somewhat cliched, and it’s that too. But it works partly because you can get away with revisiting familiar tropes when you’re working in graphic stories, in much the same way you can in the movies: it’s the way the scenes unfold, and the new insights you get from the art that makes the revisiting satisfying. Here Sean Phillips’ art seems influenced far more by the small screen, television like The Wire, than, say, by film noir movies of the forties, but that’s keeping in the tone of the story: times have changed even if crime remains the same.

It also works because of the skill with which Brubaker delineates his characters: the real sounds within their thought balloons. Leo‘s specialty is getting out before he gets involved, and that applies to life as well as theft. Brubaker keeps the focus on Leo; the real battle is within him, and he has to fight it out for himself. He moves in a corrupt world, and he’s trying to keep from getting caught up in it, just stealing enough to get by. But we all live in a corrupt world, and it’s hard just to keep getting by. It can quickly become cowardice, and that’s what this excellent graphic novel is really all about.

The Dead And The Dying also plays with familiar elements, and this case Brubaker acknowledges the inspiration of the classic noir film Out Of The Past (aka Build My Gallows High, which was also the title of Daniel Mainwaring (aka Geoffrey Holmes) novel). It’s a story taking place in the 1970s, but told in flashbacks, starting with boxer Jake ’Gnarly’ Brown, and his childhood friendship with Sebastian Hyde. Jake’s father was a hitman, but20he spared the life of Sebastian’s father, and joined him in a take-over of the local mob, becoming his right-hand man. The boys grew up together as best friends, but Jake is black, while Sebastian is white and privileged; his dad is the boss and he will be the boss one day.

Into this mix comes Danica Briggs, daughter of Jake's boxing training. Although he's drawn to her, when Sebastian shows interest in her, Jake defers to his friend, with tragic consequences. Brubaker tells the story first with Jake in the (1970s) present, seeing Danica back in town and remembering the past. Eventually, there will be a falling out with Sebastian (the Whit Stillman/Kirk Douglas figure to Jake's Jeff Bailey/Robert Mitchum, if you remember the movie). The circumstances behind that falling out are detailed in the second part of the story, which revolves around Tegg, a damaged Vietnam veteran, whom Danica uses to set up Sebastian’s crime operation. And the final part of the story is Danica's, told in flashback, and then to the present.

It's that last part that makes this take on an old movie trope work so well: it changes the ultimate point of view. In Out Of The Past Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) has no backstory to speak of, she exists as a classic film noir femme fatale, most interesting for her role in the dynamic between Whit and Jeff. Brubaker's focus on Danica does more than just reveal the mechanics of the plot; it makes her the heart of the tale, and it makes the story more tragic and telling as a result. Again, Phillips' art adds a fresh dimension to some familiar material; he captures some of that dirty, grainy look of 70s crime and exploitation movies, and mixes it with some classic norish shadow, the mix works well. He and Brubaker complement each other well, and The Dead And The Dying is one of the best noirs I've read in a while. Why not try it on TV?



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