Book of the Month
What did the
Art by Michael Lark & Sean Phillips
Cover by Michael Lark
Size: 128 pages
A missing girl. A down-and-out PI. A mystery filled with secrets too horrible to imagine.
Is there anyone in comics right now who makes better crime comics than Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, and Sean Phillips?
If you were to walk into the office of a private investigator, light up a cigarette, and stare forlornly through the window whose shades would leave a distinctive vertically striped shadow across your face, that private investigator might say something like, “Why don’t you start at the beginning?” And so I will.
Two years after graduating college and mere months from launching iFanboy.com, Ron, Josh, and I attended San Diego Comic-Con together for the first time in the summer of 2001. The year leading up to San Diego was the year that I really started to make a serious effort to look at the creators who had been responsible for some of my favorite superhero books at Marvel and DC, and I began seeking out their work that was a bit less comic book mainstream. That was the year I discovered Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, Jinx, Goldfish, and Torso. That was the year that I read Greg Rucka’s Whiteout. And that was the year that culminated in my first San Diego Comic-Con, where I walked away with Ed Brubaker’s A Complete Lowlife, and a little softcover collection of something called Scene of the Crime.
Originally published by DC’s Vertigo Comics in 1999, Scene of the Crime was a four issue mini-series that was supposed to be the first of at least three mini-series following Jack Herriman, a private investigator and his crime solving adventures in San Francisco. The other two mini-series never happened so we are left only with this first story, and a one shot tale that appeared in Vertigo: Winter’s Edge #2 the previous year. Presumably the rights reverted back to the creators, because now Image Comics has released a gorgeous new over-sized hardcover collection of Scene of the Crime that includes the one-shot, the mini-series, and a robust extras section that features a history of the project written by Brubaker and a look at Michael Lark’s penciled pages set next to the same pages after Sean Phillips applied his inks. It’s a must-have collection for any self-respecting crime comic book fan.
On the surface, Jack Herriman isn’t your typical private investigator protagonist. Sure, some of the traditional tropes are obvious: he’s got an office with perpetual dramatic window shade shadows, he’s down on his luck, he’s got friends on the force who feed him information. And he’s got a weakness for dames. Or in this case, ladies. But that’s about where the classic PI tropes end. Jack’s young; in his mid-to-late twenties. He hates guns. He’s pretty much useless in a fight. His wardrobe consists of rumpled t-shirts and sweaters, rather than loose ties and rumpled suits. He lives and works above the photo gallery owned by his uncle—a famous and still active crime scene photographer in his late 60s—and his fiance of 30 years. Jack is a character that at once feels traditional and modern (at least, modern for the late 90s) and in that sense he feels fresh and interesting. But make no mistake—Jack Herriman is your classic private investigator through and through.
And he’s got a case.
An SFPD detective family friend of dubious distinction has sent a client his way. A beautiful young blonde’s even younger and even more beautiful blonde sister has gone missing and she needs Jack’s help finding her. Jack can’t say no to a beautiful blonde or to a case; he’s on it. The investigation involves sketchy new age communes, sketchy hippie communes, drug dealers, seedy motels, a brief case full of cash, a glass eye, Jack’s ex-girlfriend, multiple shoot-outs, fist-fights, Jack’s childhood friend who is also a PI, dark bars in Chinatown, a probable homage to Chinatown, a whole bunch of dead bodies and a not a little bit of blood.
If you’re into crime stories then how can you refuse? Ed Brubaker is a vociferous fan of the genre and it shows in this, one of his earliest published works. In the back matter Brubaker talks about how he cringes when he looks at this series because he feels that it’s well over-written, and it is. It’s a common trait in many people’s early comic book work. It takes experience to learn how to cut down on the amount of words needed to tell a story. But in Scene of the Crime it doesn’t matter. The story is so compelling and the characters are so interesting that it doesn’t matter that they are talking a lot because you want to hear what these people have to say and you’re so desperate for more clues in the mystery.
It certainly helps that behind all those word is some fantastic artwork from penciller Michael Lark and inker Sean Phillips. Most people will know these two artist for the collaborations with Brubaker that were born from Scene of the Crime. Lark on books like Daredevil and Gotham Central, and Phillips for books like Sleeper and Criminal. Michael Lark is known for the gritty urban realism in his art and that is on full display here. His San Francisco comes alive. As a setting it feels very authentic and the neighborhoods have tons of personality. As a story teller, Lark doesn’t go in for flashy layouts and crazy panel-to-panel innovations. He just tells the story in a straightforward and no-nonsense way that is perfect for a gritty crime story like this one. Phillips’ inks had a heavier and rougher line to Lark’s work that add to the overall sense in the story that Jack Herriman lives in a tough world full of dangerous people.
After the main story wraps up it’s time to visit with Jack Herriman once again in a one-shot tale (that actually came out before the main story as a teaser for the series in a Vertigo anthology) that is, if it’s even possible, more heart-breaking than the main story. Upon reading the two Jack Herriman stories in this collection I found myself sad that I would never get to follow any more of his adventures. Brubaker, Lark, and Phillips did a great job building up a world and inhabiting it with characters that felt very real and very interesting. It’s a shame that they won’t get explored any further.
For process junkies and people who find the behind-the-scenes world of comics interesting, then one of the highlights in this collection is the history of the project as written by Brubaker himself. He takes us through the pitch process (it was originally going to be titled House of Mystery, taking the classic name and using it as a vehicle to tell crime stories) through the anxiety of writing the series itself to its eventual end. Brubaker also provides some of the pages from the original pitch and he breaks down his thought process and explains how and why things changed from the pitch to the page. It’s all really interesting stuff.
In the introduction to the book Brian Michael Bendis talks about how he and Brubaker and guys like Brian Azzarello and Greg Rucka were all coming up at the same time, all writing crime comics, and how Scene of the Crime dropped on them like a bomb. If a comic book writer can produce a story this great so early in his career—it was the first comic book story that he had ever written longer than 64 pages—he’s probably destined for great things. 13 years as one of comics most popular writers, four Eisners, and two Harveys later, Brubaker has proven that Scene of the Crime was no fluke, rather it was a just a hint at what was to come.
There’s even a tie-in to Christmas!
Buy Scene of the Crime Deluxe HC at Amazon!