17 December 2011

The Last of the Innocent

I'm a huge fan of the work of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the writer-artist team responsible for Criminal. The latest installment (the sixth graphic novel collection) is called The Last of the Innocent and manages to continue the impossibly high standard of the previous releases. These guys really understand that noir is so much more than a two-fisted alcoholic P.I. beating people up while pursuing his twisted sense of justice. Not that that can't work--Ken Bruen pulls it off marvelously with his Jack Taylor books. But too many hard-boiled stories fall into the trap of a standard mystery camouflaged with lots of f-bombs and bar fights. That is not a bad thing, mind you, just a little tiresome. Messrs. Brubaker and Phillips are more interested in characters and the web of complications that life brings. Sure, there are hit men, mobsters, gamblers, tycoons, whores, junkies, thieves, crooked cops, and femme fatales aplenty in Criminal. But what makes the whole thing work is the humanity of the protagonists. They all have a "regular joe" side of their characters that gives the reader empathy for them and their various plights, even if they do (and they will) something stupid or evil. Moreover, their entanglements are entirely believable. They are motivated by their hopes, fears, and dreams, just like all of us. And when they get sucked into the maelstrom of violence and death the stories morph into tragedies. And I love a good tragedy. Genre fiction rarely gets the attention of the serious literary critic, and comic books hardly ever get the notice they deserve. But Criminal is the real deal--serious, poetic, profound, and thoroughly entertaining. Val Staples continues with his beautiful colors (ably assisted by Dave Stewart). Check out The Last of the Innocent and the rest of the Criminal series. You might find yourself hooked.

04 December 2011

Somewhere West of Life

It's an allusion. Brian Aldiss' 1994 novel Somewhere East of Life is a strange and terrifying book, and its images still haunt me. My notes (I've kept a log of my reading since 1990) tell me I finished it in 2000. I recently added Mr. Aldiss' Forgotten Life (1988) to my pile, I suppose I'll have to tackle that next. But this is not about his excellent work, but rather that of another writer, an American named Nathanael West. In the 1930s he wrote two short novels, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, that were ultimately made into Hollywood movies. I salvaged a Nathanael West anthology from a discard pile (he published only two other short novels) and powered my way through both dark and twisted stories. I suppose they aren't stories so much as plots. Weird guy hangs around other weird people who all go crazy and shit happens and it's all fucked up at the end. I don't mean that as a criticism, just an observation. You read these stories because these crazy people are all real and recognizable. They lie beneath our surfaces, lurking, ready to burst out when the veil of middle class respectability finally splits from the tension of accumulated injustices. None of us like to believe we have the savage beast within our breasts, but Mr. West says emphatically that we do, and we'd be fools not to accept that fact. Mostly the two tales are about the failed American Dream. Everywhere West looked he saw phonies, hucksters, con artists, bullshitters, and storytellers. And he saw the Great Depression, which shattered a lot of dreams and surely influenced a generation of writers and artists. He died in a car accident three years short of forty.