The Fall by Brubaker and Lutes
A Review by Nick Brownlow
Can comics do short fiction? Are anthologies worth your time? The answer lies in the pages of The Fall, an essential crime noir from the people who brought you Scene of the Crime and Berlin.
If there's one genre that doesn't seem to do too badly in comic books outside of superheroes, then it's crime fiction. Ever since Frank Miller's Sin City appeared in Dark Horse Presents in the early nineties, the market for this type of story has seen a steady rise.
Today, a large number of the high-profile mature readers titles from mainstream companies are crime-oriented, and many of the fresh young crop of US creators working in the mainstream made their mark writing crime books. It's not entirely surprising, as the visual and often action-oriented bent of the genre lends itself well to comics. And of course many superhero stories are really just thinly veiled crime stories as well; fans of one aren't going to have too much trouble getting into the other.
While the industry is hardly facing a glut of crime fiction titles, however, I often get the feeling that many of these books - even the really good ones - are all just a bit 'samey'.
And then along comes something like The Fall.
The Fall is a collaboration from several years back between the then well regarded but not particularly well known indie creators Ed Brubaker and Jason Lutes. Brubaker, of course, has gone on to write the likes of Batman and Catwoman for DC after several critical rather than commercial successes at Vertigo - notably Deadenders and Scene of the Crime. Lutes, meanwhile, has been busy with his epic Berlin - an ambitious, elegant work that often gets mentioned whenever enlightened people come together to talk about whether or not comics count as literature.
Another crime story originally serialised in Dark Horse Presents, The Fall was brought out in collected form last year by those good people at Drawn and Quarterly, along with five extra pages of material and a new ending.
The Fall is lo-fi suburban noir in the same vein as the novels of Jim Thompson and James Cain. It's also a mystery thriller, and while Brubaker gives a nod to the classics, there's also a very seventies deconstructionist feel to it as well.
The story begins when naive young gas station attendant Kirk decides to supplement his meagre income by committing fraud using a lost credit card found out on the forecourt one night. Unfortunately, his first act of petty theft is not a successful one, as he discovers that the woman who handed the card in is his boss's wife, June.
Realising what Kirk's done with his find, June subsequently blackmails him into performing various menial tasks about her house for free. One day, a despondent Kirk is pottering around in her garden raking leaves when he discovers a woman's handbag buried beneath one of the flowerbeds. Deciding to investigate the contents, Kirk soon finds himself embroiled in a ten year old unsolved murder case; one that someone clearly wants to remain unsolved...
Like many noir tales, The Fall is extremely moralistic in spite of the largely amoral and flawed cast of characters. The title superficially refers to the story's being set during autumn, but it also evokes a sense of Biblical justice that's particularly appropriate. The story begins with Kirk committing a relatively minor misdemeanour, followed by his gradual descent into a dark and dangerous world in which he must either redeem himself at great cost or damn himself further. The whole plot is driven by long buried crimes finally being brought to light and accounted for; it's not any kind of human law that's at work here, but rather an inevitable, cosmic justice that operates through chance and coincidence. This is a convention that's as old as the genre, but Brubaker and Lutes handle it well and aren't so stuck in it that they can't make it work for a modern audience.
In many ways The Fall is the stylistic link between Brubaker's early, autobiographical indie work and his current output at DC, combining both the former's quiet, down-to-earth storytelling with its everyday characters and settings, and the latter's more commercial subject matter. His writing here is typically lean and precise, and his preference for short, snappy scenes keeps things moving at a tense, clipped pace, with no room for self-indulgence.
The well-crafted plot serves to keep the reader guessing, and for the most part refuses to pander to expectations. Some of the twists are a little conventional, but in the main Brubaker keeps his audience on its toes, and the story manages to stay above the level of simple genre pastiche. The work is very neatly structured, and while the ending isn't entirely unexpected, it does avoid taking the obvious way out, and works well because of that.
Brubaker has also clearly written a script that works to Lutes' strengths, and the artist has run with that beautifully. Despite his hailing from New Jersey, there's a very European feel to Lutes' artwork; simple, black and white art with bold, clean linework and no shading. He also has a typically European preference for elaborately detailed, realistic backgrounds; his take on the seedy, small town California setting is every bit as evocative as his portrayal of Weimar Germany in Berlin. The panelling follows a rigidly defined, linear format, and there's a definite art deco influence that serves to somewhat wistfully recall an earlier time. At forty-eight pages, it's even the traditional length for a work from the Franco-Belgian school.
However, Lutes is evidently also influenced by the cream of the American alternative scene. He has a classic cartoonist's eye for mannerisms and body language, his 'headshots' being particularly expressive. Also interesting is his use of different perspectives and angles; it's a very cinematic approach (I have to fight the temptation to refer to his 'camera-work'), and it's particularly appropriate here, echoing the on-screen traditions of the genre.
Overall, The Fall is an excellent and very assured piece of early work by two now high-profile creators very much on top of their game. Brubaker and Lutes' tale of suburban hypocrisy and desperation is exactly the sort of accessible yet polished work that could easily appeal to a wider audience, but unfortunately the book's slim size means it probably won't make much of an impact outside of your local comic store. For those looking for something a little different from the average crime comic, however, it's definitely worth a look.
Nick Brownlow is an IT professional and writer.
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