Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Scene of the Crime

The NinthArt banner graphic for the article 'The Friday Review: Scene of the Crime' by John Fellows.

Scene of the Crime, a Review
by John Fellows with additional editorial material by Steven Williams

A Little Piece of Goodnight is that rare throwback - a genuine detective comic from Detective Comics. It's also a crime noir with a heart that isn't totally black. John Fellows looks a little closer.

A color photo of the front cover of issue number one of 'Scene of the Crime' written by Ed Brubaker, art by Michael Lark.Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Micheal Lark
Inkers: Sean Phillips, Micheal Lark
Colourist: James Sinclair
Letterer: John Constanza
A Little Piece of Goodnight, Collecting Scene of the Crime #1-4
Price: $12.95
ISBN: 1563896702
Publisher: DC Vertigo

There is a line near the end of Scene of the Crime's first issue that threw me the first time I read it. Jack Herriman, our protagonist and the requisite PI of the piece, has just tracked down his quarry and shares his world-view with her over a coffee; "People's pain is all relative, it's not judged against other people's." It surprised me as much as it surprised the young woman Jack aimed the line at. It was a little too profound for the dowdy hero to be uttering at this point in his life. I filed it away and thought nothing of it until I was nearing the end of this collection. Because, like any good whodunnit, if there's a knife presented in Act One, then you know somebody's going to get stabbed in Act Three.

Working from a small office over his uncle's gallery, Jack Herriman is a classic update of the archetypal private investigator. A recovering drink and drug addict, a man with an uneasy relationship with the police, somebody who cares just a little too much. When he's brought a simple lost person case by an old friend of the family, Jack gets embroiled. As per your expectations, things are far from simple. A labyrinthine plot weaves its way through the cast, leaving none of them unchanged.

Although this is a flimsy collection, the creative team provides more than enough entertainment per square inch of paper. The original four-issue mini is accompanied by another Scene of the Crime story found in the Winter's Edge anthology series. This short piece is just another example of where Ed Brubaker's forte lies: the short form. Whereas the normal division of a story into chapters is implied to be twenty-two page segments, Brubaker has forced the matter with his own chapter divisions. Each scene lasts a few short pages, a decision that drives the book along at a breakneck pace. It divests the monthly comic of its hold over chapter length, a fact that is of more especial import in collected reprints. It's just a shame that there's not more to this book - no introduction, no added material, just the basics.

A monochrome color image of a short quote from the text of this review.Pencils and inks are provided by the inestimable Michael Lark for the first issue, and from then on Lark is inked by Sean Phillips. While Lark's inks are far more organic and heavy, Phillips' more sketchy inks thankfully create as little contrast as possible. In fact, by the end of the series, Phillips seems to have found a happy medium between his style and Lark's own. The pencils are detailed and never confuse narrative issues. My only problem is with the occasionally stilted look of the characters. It's a problem that can often hound the more photo-realistic artists on the market, especially Sean Phillips, but it never interferes with the story.

The colours are muted in tone and suit the other visuals to a tee. James Sinclair's work is far from stunning, but the subtlety evinces the ongoing growth of a great colourist. His work on Brian Azzarello's early Hellblazer material shows a man working at the pinnacle of his art, and it's interesting to note how he has matured. John Constanza's lettering is also a wonderful mesh for the art. Having to deal with chapter headings, a large volume of captions and small panels is no mean feat, but Constanza pulls it off effortlessly.

While reminiscent of the classics in the noir genre, the story is still as vital and as modern as any other in the current crime-comics genre. It is a more grounded, focused piece, which weaves its way through a smaller cast, demonstrating a more humanistic side to the crime genre. Each of the characters has a little piece of wrong in them, a little something they hide from the world. During the course of the story, they all get the chance to shine or gutter out. While at times the lead character often feels the least developed and interesting of the cast, the slow tease of his past adds to him the weight of a great many more years of experience than he physically holds.

Support is offered by a whole array of interesting characters. In fact, the point is made that Jack is the least interesting and capable at his job of anybody he knows. His world-renowned uncle is a crime scene photographer held in high regard by his contemporaries. His father was a detective killed in the line of duty. His best friend is a well-paid, archetypal private investigator. But even they all have their flaws, however minor. It's in the sustaining of these relationships that we see how much of a good guy Jack really is. A man is measured by the company he keeps.

A color photo of a sample panel from 'Scene of the Crime' written by Ed Brubaker, art by Michael Lark.Pulling the same dysfunctional family threads that Chinatown worked on so closely, the ending to Scene of the Crime should seem obvious, and it's so easy in a work like this to get caught up in the unravelling of the mystery that the resolution itself is often a letdown. However, Brubaker's slow reveal on all the minor points of the mystery throughout the story all mesh very cohesively towards the end. It's the ties that bind that ultimately undo some and saves others.

Although each of the characters has suffered from similar crimes, it's how they all handled them that marks them, and it's our protagonist's inability to judge the guilty that leads him to confront his own past. In that reveal, we see a man who has learned the hard way that pain is a very personal thing, and that nobody's to judge anyone's but their own. In the end, it's that line dropped into the earlier coffee-shop chat between hero and damsel-in-distress that is revealed as the ultimate "clue" in this whodunit. The overt plot-driven mystery is solved, but it's the very personal journey of our protagonist that will linger in the reader's memory.

It's this use of character development as the ultimate goal of our hero over the more easily defined "solving of a crime" that marks this collection out as something out of the ordinary.

John Fellows is a television and media student at Newcastle College.

Source: Ninth Art article archives at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

Ninth Art endorses the principle of Ideological Freeware. The author permits distribution of this article by private individuals, on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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