If you looked at the most common shows on TV, I’m betting most of them would be police procedurals or dramatic reenactments of noteworthy crimes. Crime is an obsession of ours, it permeates our society and much of our political conversation. It provides a wealth of story material as well.
Going back to the 1940’s and 50’s, when the Noir genre was in vogue in Hollywood, dime novels were giving way to comics and Superheroes had all but given up the fight to monsters and lurid tales of humanity at its worst. I believe EC’s horror themed books were the top seller at this time, with the crime books a not too distant second. Perhaps people wanted a topical subject to enjoy, or maybe the concept of criminals and scofflaws was still fermenting.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and every sensational EC Comics cover brought in big sales and scrutiny when the squares started asking questions.With the Wertham Scare and the comics code, horror and crime books became too sanitized and this allowed Superheroes to reclaim the top of the sales charts. It took years before comics had the leeway to start approaching topics like murder or sex in any way, but the Noir genre has been able to enjoy a renaissance in the last 20-30 years.
It likely didn’t begin in comics, but one of its leading storytellers at the time decided to make his own mark in the history books with a series called Sin City.
Almost the antithesis of what the Comics Code was created for, Frank Miller’s Sin City was a series of interconnecting stories with over-the-top violence and sex. It used alot of the conventions of cinema Noir; flawed characters, sexy femme fatales, a loose definition of a “happy ending”. Miller even drew the series almost entirely in black and white, mimicking the visual language used in Noir films. Of course the Noir genre is very tricky to define, you may recognize aspects associated with it more often than actual films in the genre. Aspects include but are not limited to: the film is entirely in black and white, focuses on crime or degradation of society as a whole, center around a murder, mystery, or both, have one character in a flawed world, or a world of flawed people.
Miller’s comic was the source of one well-received Robert Rodriguez film, another that was panned by fans and critics and lacked any of the charm or craft of the first movie. Both wallowed in the depravity of Miller’s comic, where men could endure outrageous amounts of pain and dish it out two-fold. Which is something of a trope in Noir movies, now that I think of it.
If Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez just took the genre and turned it up to 12, Rian Johnson transplanted the genre and populated it with high school students.
Less sexist and violent, Brick was an impressive first outing for Johnson as a director while also showing how malleable the genre was. Joseph Gordon Levitt speaks like a hard-boiled gumshoe looking for his former sweetheart’s murderer, moving through the upper echelons of his school’s cliques and taking a beating with every step. It was a fresh approach, especially when you contrast it not just with most Hollywood blockbusters but also the effects laden Sin City.
Although Miller and Johnson were able to stretch and exaggerate convention, there’s something to be said for simply telling a story without extra-wheels.
I had the chance to reread Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ The Fade Out, which not only is an engrossing and revealing look at the antics of old-school Hollywood, was also a superb Noir tale in the classic tradition. Dealing with a writer weighed down by PTSD and a thirst for the drink, he tries to solve the murder of the woman who captured his soul while keeping his sanity in an industry that only deals in the stories it wants told. It’s not only a great comic demonstrating the creators’ skill, but also shows why they keep dealing in crime stories.
Years after they vanished off the shelves, crime comics have come back albeit in a diminished capacity. Works like these, that embrace what’s made Noir so enduring show its greatness and frankly make-up for the dozens of derivative procedurals on network television.
I can only hopw the trend continues if not grows, and we can see a resurgence (with maybe more nuanced portrayals of women and minorities) in the stories that captivated audiences for decades.