BookNoir: February Graphic Novel Round-Up

Article published on February 17, 2018.

From next month, a crime graphic novel round-up will become a regular feature on BookNoir. Paul Allard, who knows his stuff, will take a look at the new releases and give us his ones to look out for. As a prelude, we are kicking off with a special on Hardcase Crime’s new collaboration with Titan Comics. Their new series promises to bring us some serious noir. The inclusion in the series of some graphic interpretations of popular modern crime novels sounded exciting, so I took a look and I was impressed with what I found.

Peepland by Christa Faust and Gary Philips, with artwork by Andrea Camerini

Writers Christa Faust and Gary Philips have collaborated on a noir crime story to fantastic effect – they really clicked. There is a nostalgia for the old vanished New York, particularly the ‘sleazy’ working class district around Times Square. As people who lived there in the 80s they have an insight that outsiders don’t. As Faust says in her afterword, Peepland is a labour of love. The bad times were never as bad as you might think and there was a sense of community and real solidarity. So, it may seem strange to say that you can feel that love when reading a tale of murder and mayhem, but it is true. The characters from the street are just ordinary people trying to make a living, sometimes they have to graft and hustle, just like the people the writers must have known back in the day. It wasn’t the safest place but is gentrification better?

Christmas 1986 and there’s not a lot of good will around. Dick Durbin hunts the streets of Times Square hustling young women into showing flesh for the camera. Roxy works a Peepshow, while looking after her uncle, Leo, who has AIDs. When Durbin accidentally films the murder of a girl in Central Park he finds himself on the run. He dumps the tape on Roxy before splitting. Two detectives, March and Alvarez, want to know what Roxy knows because Durbin just went under a subway train. Roxy turns to her old boyfriend Nick when it becomes clear how hot the tape is – someone with real clout has hired two guys to retrieve it. City bigwig Simon Went is looking to clean up the area. Aiesha is looking out for her son and falling for A.J., who pulls small heists with her brothers. The cops look set to frame Aiesha’s boy for the murder in the park.

Philips tells us in his afterword that the story is partly a nod to the Central Park Five and The Preppie Killer, real murders in New York at the time. Peepland is an impressive noir, a world of darkness, which packs an emotional punch. I have read Faust’ brilliant novels and this is right up there with them. A sharp tale of corruption and real people stoic and brave in the face of harsh living. The action is non-stop, the dialogue sharp and the tone just right; don’t expect a happy ending. All beautifully illustrated in the character of the city at the time by young Italian artist Camerini. A visual treat. Hits the notes in the right order!

ISBN: 9781785851193 ****

Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher and Arne Jysch

Babylon Berlin is based on the Volker Kutscher novel (also recently filmed by Sky), as interpreted by writer/artist Arne Jysch. The artwork is beautifully rendered in black and white, which gives it an authentic feel because the action is set in 1929. In tune with the vibe of the cosmopolitan capital, Gereon Rath arrives in the city to a warm welcome. A drunken mad man bursts into his flat demanding to speak to Aleksey Kardakov, the last tenant. After a scuffle, the landlady cleans Rath up. A tot of rum later and they are in bed together – quite a first night!

Rath has come to Berlin from Köln, having left under a cloud. The press in Köln are hounding him for shooting a man, he still has nightmares about it. As a favour to his father, Rath has been given a detective job in vice by Police Chief Karl Zorgeibel. A body is pulled from a stolen car dumped in the Landwehr Canal, Chief inspector Gennat investigates but the man has no I.D.; Rath is desperate to get onto the case.

Rath agrees to help the landlady find Kardakov and get the back rent. The address he has given belongs to an actress Kardakov was obsessed with. He also starts working for vice, raiding a film shoot. Actor Krajewski becomes a snitch. Despite lots of busts there is no offer for Rath from homicide but they do need men to do the leg work identifying the body. Rath recognises the man in the photo and starts his own hunt. It’s complex but well laid out. A big cast includes a cocaine dealer Dr Marlow, Lana Countess Sorokina (missing singer and connected to the Sorokin gold), the beautiful independent Miss Ritter and a host of colourful villains, including Nazi gun runners.

Simple elegant artwork complements the downbeat nature of the story. Clever and thoughtful, nuanced adaptation of the novel. A sexy, intelligent noir tale that draws you in and keeps your attention. Brilliantly renders a complex novel into a condensed format. Maintains the character of Rath from the novel and very good on conspiracy. Stylish, entertaining, tense and classy.

ISBN: 9781785866357 *****

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adapted by Sylvain Runberg, with artwork by Hom

Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson (translated by Rachel Zerner). This is a clever retelling of the first in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy. As a rendition of a complex story it has simplified some of the elements of the tale and removed others that just complicate matter unnecessarily. The distilled story flows smoothly, although you have to pay attention and the feel of the original is there. I don’t think the published novel would have been as it was if Larsson was alive when it was published; it is over long and there is a legitimate worry about the gratuitous nature of some of the violence to women. Both problems are solved here without detracting from the dark force of the story.

The author has kept the focus, as did the novel, on Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist, with Salander coming into her own as the story unfolds. The pacing is very good.

Mikael Blomkvist has just lost a court battle for defamation against powerful industrial magnate, Wennerström, and he faces jail. The future of Millennium magazine is in the balance. Lisbeth Salander has had the childhood from hell and even as an adult is subject to the guardianship of the state, when her protector dies the man appointed to replace him is a beast. Meanwhile, Salander works for a security company as an investigator. She has cleared Blomkvist for a client who then employs him to publish the Vanger family history but really wants the decades old murder of his granddaughter solved. Harriet went missing and only one of the family could be responsible. The sweetener for Blomkvist is information on Wennerström that will save Millennium magazine. Eventually, Blomkvist teams with Salander and their investigations get darker; the sadistic murder of several girls is uncovered – the past hangs over everyone. Chilling and thrilling.

ISBN: 9781785861734 ****

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest adapted by Sylvain Runberg, with artwork by Manolo Carot

Again from the novel by Stieg Larsson. The weakest of the batch – slightly less convincing. The artwork is great but the major problem is the source material. The original story stretches credibility and is bogged down with detail (it’s weak because it reads like a draft; again, I really don’t think it would have been published as was if Larsson had been alive to edit his own material). So, to be fair, this is making the best of a bad job. It’s solid noir with a cracking pace but doesn’t quite thrill.

Lisbeth Salander is recovering from a near fatal encounter with her father and brother. She is now in custody and fighting for her freedom against those who want her locked in a mental institution for the rest of her life. Mikael Blomkvist’s lawyer sister Annika is defending Lisbeth but as with all things she not that easy to get on with. The sinister Dr. Teleborian is trying to convince the court to put her away. Meanwhile, Victor Goransson keeps books for the Svavelsjo motorcycle club, and Niedermann has stolen their money. Mikael Blomkvist is working hard to help Erika Berger, who is being blackmailed. They will need to beat a conspiracy aimed at protecting a Russian spy; Sapo and a right wing political group are undermining Sweden’s constitution. Lisbeth does not want to work with Blomkvist, but they settle into an uneasy alliance.

A quick read and more for the completists.

ISBN: 9781785863455 ***

Normandy Gold by Megan Abbott and Allison Gayling, with artwork by Steve Scott and Rodney Ramos

This beautifully drawn story gives off a fantastic 70s vibe. A genuine homage to the art and movies of the time. It’s sexy fun, a tale of non-stop action. The seedy world of drugs, prostitution and political corruption are in the spotlight. Normandy Gold is a sheriff, a position she took over from the man who brought her up and taught her to look after herself. She’s a bit feral, her father died at Normandy or she’d have been called Victory, and her mother then faded into a drug oblivion. She hasn’t seen her younger sister for 12 years but Lila calls from Washington to say she’s seeing a married man and he’s going to leave his wife for her. While they are on the phone Normandy can hear a struggle before the line dies. So she has to leave Oregon to head to Washington to find her sister. It’s obvious that the local DC cops don’t care. Turns out Lila was working for Felicia Vane in a high-end agency supplying girls to the rich and powerful. Normandy wants to go ask questions but things don’t work that way in this town. So Normandy finally becomes Victory and joins the agency in a hunt for her sisters attacker. Victory/Normandy is a woman of few words:

“You start talking people steal your words….You never get them back”.

The story is full of irony, prescience and rattling good story telling. Normandy may be a sheriff but she’s no detective, she’s a instrument of vengeance. Great nostalgia in the art and the words.

ISBN: 9781785858642 *****

The series is edited by Charles Ardai, no mean exponent of hard-boiled pulp himself. I will be keeping an eye out for future output. As a novel reader, I loved this sojourn into the graphic novel sphere.

Paul Burke
February 2018



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