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Review: The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker et al March 13, 2016

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Last year I got the first third of the Fade Out miniseries (12 issues reprinted in three volumes) as a free review e-copy from Netgalley. Recently I picked up all three print volumes. I’ll start by recycling the old review…

I’ve been meaning to give Ed Brubaker a try for a long time. I like noir. I just haven’t read a lot of it in comic format.

And The Fade Out is classic Hollywood noir in the vein of 1940s novels and movies like Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming and more recent takes like James Ellroy’s LA Quartet (kicking off with a reference to Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party). This is the start of a series that I’m definitely going to follow.

What we get here are the first four issues of Brubaker’s comic about murder, the Red Scare, and the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s. Nothing much is resolved by the end of this volume. To the contrary — new questions are being raised, and the scope of the story opens up. If the goal is to make you want to see what comes next, it certainly worked for me.

The story is definitely a modern, not contemporary, take on noir. The language and sexual content wouldn’t have come close to getting through the Hays Office. Readers who miss 1940s and ’50s noir movies but don’t like more explicit modern takes on noir might not care for this, but then they probably don’t read comics anyway. Speaking of comics, the art here is quite good, clear and capturing the look and feel of the era quite well.

It’s hard to say much more, given that this is only the beginning of what may be a long and complex story. But it’s a very strong beginning.

So, having read the whole thing… I loved it. It tells a complete story, albeit one that leaves some questions unanswered — explicitly, at least. As Brubaker’s pointed out in interviews, there’s a lot in there that isn’t handed to the reader on a platter.It’ll definitely stand up to a rereading or two.

The structure of the story is a murder mystery, but it’s made complex by the web of relationships between the characters, and more so by the fact that a couple of the key characters have a tendency to let booze do their thinking for them.

Many of the characters have more depth than might be expected. The art is clear and expressive, the dialogue sharp. I’d love to read more of this. But this is it, at least for the time being, so I’ll have to check out some of Brubaker’s other work.


Review: David Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier March 12, 2016

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goodisBack around 1986, having gotten into old movies, private eye novels, and Cornell Woolrich’s noir novels in the previous few years, I discovered the Prime Crime mystery bookstore in Ottawa and, through it, one of the most important developments in crime fiction that decade: the original Black Lizard books imprint. And one of the first Black Lizard books I read I was by David Goodis. I was hooked.

The Goodis books Black Lizard reprinted were as noir as Woolrich, but bleaker. Woolrich sometimes allowed happy endings. He had a romantic streak. Fate might crush your life, but love could save it. In Goodis’s books, the characters were more likely to be the cause of their own destruction, and love was generally with exactly the wrong person if it happened at all. In one novel, as I remember it, a wino goes for a walk, has a series of adventures that reveal the series of events that brought him into the gutter, and ends up right back there at the end of the book, seemingly content — or at least indifferent.

At the time, it didn’t seem that people knew much about Goodis. He started out with a literary novel that didn’t do too well, then wrote some more popular stuff that led to a few years in Hollywood working on movies, and then a return to his home town of Philadelphia, where he wrote lurid pulp paperback novels and faded into obscurity and died, possibly as a derelict alcoholic. And then Black Lizard brought him back to the attention of readers.

Meanwhile, the story went, he was one of the many American writers translated and reprinted in France in the Serie Noire line of books, and Truffaut made a classic film of one of Goodis’s books. Because the French understood and appreciated American noir better than Americans did.

Philippe Garnier had already published the first version of his book on Goodis in France in the 1980s, but it wasn’t translated and published in America until recently. He came to the USA and investigated Goodis, talking to people who knew him, following trails, and debunking myths along the way.

One of the first myths Garnier debunks is the French appreciation of noir. They definitely did like it and help keep it alive, and they helped maintain the popularity of Goodis and Cornell Woolrich and many others, but according to Garnier, the translations of these American writers left something to be desired. Books were shortened, plots simplified, writing styles homogenized, cultural signifiers (especially the glorious American cover art) missing. The French wanted to mythologize the writers of this stuff, not know it or its real context.

Garnier structures the book almost novelistically, following his leads, adding to what he learns about Goodis, but also manages it in such a way as to follow Goodis’s life chronologically. He mythologizes neither Goodis nor his work, pointing out that some of his books simply aren’t very good, and that he didn’t really make much of a mark on Hollywood. Some good movies were based on his novels, but he wasn’t involved in the screenplays. The best known is probably Dark Passage, which starred Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Agnes Moorehead, though Truffaut’s Tirez Sur le Pianiste (aka Don’t Shoot the Piano Player) is probably better known and respected than any of the Hollywood takes.

Goodis emerges as eccentric, but not necessarily as the kind of eccentric readers of his books might assume. He also emerges as someone whose life was somewhat compartmentalized — people who thought they knew him well didn’t always know about parts of his life. There were autobiographical elements in his fiction but he doesn’t seem to have been as drawn to a drunken wino existence as many of his characters were. Friends considered his books to be exaggerated and unrealistic. Garnier does suggest there are still things few people know, as when he quotes a psychiatrist who refused to be interviewed and hinted that Garnier would guess certain things about Goodis if he talked. The recurring theme of characters falling for sweet and innocent thin beauties but instead realizing they need to be dominated by big, rough women seems to have had some reality to it as well. But why give away everything? You should read the book if you’ve read this far. It’s a well written and enjoyable exploration of a unique individual, his times, and his work.

This is a trade paperback published by Blackpool Productions, which is run by Eddie Muller, who’s written several books on film noir, produces the Noir City Film Festival, publishes the Noir City e-magazine, etc etc. It’s an excellent production for a small press with only a couple of books out, well illustrated with photographs, book cover art, film scenes, and more. There’s just one or two things I could criticize. First, you have to buy this book from the publisher, here. Second, you may never find this website without knowing to look for it, because it’s an old-fashioned kind of website where each page is just one big image, no searchable text. I only found out about this book because I discovered the Noir City pdf magazine a few months back and bought a few issues. More people should be aware of this stuff.

Review: American Neo-Noir by Alain Silver and James Ursini August 24, 2015

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Another Netgalley review!

Silver and Ursini have been responsible for several of the key books on film noir over the last couple of decades, so I was glad to see this. But it wasn’t quite what I expected. Frankly, it’s not the kind of book you’ll necessarily sit down and read through for a few hours. It is, however, something you can flip through, refer to, and learn from. It covers so many movies so quickly that it doesn’t really go into depth on broader subjects. Instead, it breaks the several hundred movies that are covered into chapters by subject or movie type and races through dozens of movies, a few per paragraph, situating each within its own modern context and also pointing out connections to the classic noir era. And boy, does it find a lot of neo-noirs out there.

The book doesn’t do any in-depth chapters defining neo-noir or anything like that. That’s not what this book is for. But any classic noir fan can have a look in the index for a favourite movie and see if it gets discussed as a link to a few modern movies that may be worth investigating — and, likewise, someone who’s seen a lot of the modern movies but doesn’t know the roots can find some good pointers to classic movies they may well enjoy.

The book is well presented with a lot of colour photos — well, if you want to demonstrate an obvious break between noir and neo-noir, colour will do it. The book covers the movies you’d expect and, if you’re like me, a lot you missed along the way. Like the other books I’ve read from Silver and Ursini, this one makes me want to see a few movies. So, mission accomplished.