Summer Days and Summer Murders


As a kid, whenever we would go on an actual, honest-go-goodness vacation, my mom would bring along a used paperback mystery novel. Throughout the rest of the year she teaches literature and writing, but summer after summer, she would always have some kind of hard boiled mystery book to take with her, “nothing like a good murder to read at the beach,” she would laugh. Her love of the genre was infectious, and to this day, I have always had a soft spot for mystery/detective comics.

I was looking at my bookshelf, looking for books to write about, and I realized I had two great mystery comics to share with you. Each book takes place in cities that I have lived in, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and each uses their surrounding to tell two very different, but equally compelling, murder mysteries. 

Scene of the Crime: A Little Piece of Goodnight, by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark and Sean Phillips, has been mentioned a few times in the podcast, so I will touch on it lightly here. This is the story of Jack Herriman, a young private detective who is slowly getting his life back on the track. He takes a case to find a missing woman, and reveals a much darker mystery in the process.

I don’t really want to talk too much about the plot, it’s pretty complex and out of context not really useful for you, but this is a well told story and a great chance to see how Ed Brubaker was writing ten years ago. It’s a real pleasure to see Michael Lark’s work — his style is less sketchy than what we are seeing these days, but his technique and storytelling are just as solid. You also get a chance to see Sean Phillips inking Michael Lark’s pencils — I wonder if anyone knew that ten years later these guys would be seeing so much success in Daredevil and Criminal. It is just funny how you can see the root of these incredible partnerships, it’s a glimpse into the past and the future at the same time.

I first got Scene of the Crime at James Sime’s recommendation, it was one of the first books I bought at the then newly christened Isotope comic shop. I was living in New York at the time and just visiting San Francisco (my hometown) and James said the book was a really great “San Francisco” book — indeed, the City and the Bay Area are characters throughout the story. Michael Lark has a real knack for drawing Victorian houses (who knew?) and really captures the sights and details of the hilly city, especially during a car chase later in the story. Brubaker obviously knows his way around San Francisco (no surprise that the X-Men are there now), which really grounds the story in a lived-in world; it was nice to “see” a foggy night in the book, it’s been far too hot in LA lately!

At first glance, Murder Mysteries by P. Craig Russell, adapting Nail Gaiman’s short story (and radio play), couldn’t be more different than Scene of the Crime, but I read it last night and found myself reflecting on it well past my bedtime.  This is a really great idea, it’s a murder — the first murder — set in heaven, before (well, during, the planning stages) the creation of the universe. It’s a high concept tale that is well suited to P. Craig Russell’s amazing pencils; he did a run on Elric long ago (way long ago, from Pacific Comics in 1982) that I read as a kid that always stuck with me. Russell has a crazy stylized art form that really made Elric‘s city of Melniboné unforgettable, really otherworldly, and is a perfect artist for describing heaven; the graphic at the beginning of the article is taken from a larger page; click it and you’ll see what I am talking about.

The initial story takes place in Los Angeles (a city of angels — appropriate for the tale), where we meet a young man from England who hooks up with an old acquaintance while waiting for airplane flights that have been delayed due to storms. After his rendezvous with his friend, he finds himself hanging out in front of his motel (the narrator can’t seem to remember how he got there, but he made it somehow), he gives a cigarette to older homeless man who offers to tell a story in exchange for the smoke (“Stories always used to be good payment,” the old man muses, “These days… not so much”). The young man agrees, and the homeless guy shares a tale about what amounts to the first murder ever, where he, as a young angel named Raguel, is assigned the task to solve the murder of another angel who was researching the concept of death. The mystery is solved, but the repercussions of this first crime help shape the universal struggle between justice and forgiveness of faith and the freedom to question that faith. The book itself ends with a surprising, if dismaying twist that really stuck with me — it’s the kind of gently ambiguous ending that you just keep mulling over long after you’ve put the book down.

The nice thing about these books is that each book really has a great tone that supports the story so effectively. Brubaker’s story is set stubbornly in the real world, the characters are as realistic as the intricate backgrounds behind them. There is a weariness — and wariness — in the storytelling; nothing is at it seems. Throughout the book, we get the feeling that we are watching the action in real time, like a movie — it’s a very cinematic story, with narration that reminds me of an old noir film. Yes, Herriman is recounting the story, but he’s analyzing as he goes, almost urging you to tag along as he figures out the case. On the other hand, the action in Murder Mysteries is rooted deeply in memory, with all the failings and assumptions implied; you feel as if you are remembering the different stories as the you turn the pages, and throughout the book you are keenly aware that you are being told a story. “This is all true,” the narrator assures us, but by the end you end up wondering what “true” actually means.  What is fact, really, when compared to deeply held memory? Murder Mysteries is a narrative of lost memories; both stories reflect loss against loss. Even the gaps in the main narrator’s memory serve a purpose, both healing and scarring for characters and the reader.

From a structural side, I realized that one of the challenges with a mystery story is the sheer amount of exposition that the writer has to use to get the story started. There has to be a crime, then characters have to tell the hero about the crime, and then the hero has to do a bunch of talking with even more characters to get to the truth behind the crime. It was fun to see both creative teams address this challenge. In one scene, Herriman gets the details of the case from the missing girl’s sister while he hunts for, then finds, then wipes off, a plate she can use as an ashtray. In Murder Mysteries, the angels discuss the case with Raguel as they toy with existence, represented by waves of shapes and colors. In acting, this is known as a secondary action, which can be really useful when you have to perform a monologue for an audition — I’ve probably cleaned more imaginary dishes than real ones by using this technique! It gives you something to “do” while you talk about whatever it is you are talking about. This attention to detail is why both books succeed as compelling narratives.

So, as the days of summer start to wind down, maybe you’ll find Scene of the Crime and Murder Mysteries good reads as you soak up the sun this upcoming weekend… I should really send these books to my mom, come to think of it.

Do you have other mystery comics that you can recommend? What makes them successful?


Mike Romo is an actor and (after the web spots he is filming tomorrow actually get released next month) writer in Los Angeles. He can be reached at mike@ifanboy.com.



Comments

  1. Awesome review! I first read Murder Mysteries in a collection of Gaiman’s works and really liked it but Russell really brings it to life.  It’s one of the first comics i ever bought and I still treasure it today.  I really feel like i need to grab Scene of the Crime now too.

  2. Scene of A Crime is a real hidden gem.

  3. I own both of these, and I really like them both. Clearly, sir, this proves that you have good taste.

  4. I have a huge blind spot where Ed Brubaker’s early career should be. Scene of the Crime sounds like sweet nectar, but it did not ring a bell before now. To the Wish List!…

  5. Ed Brubaker’s early career was awesome.  But I’m surprised at how his career has gone, where he’s a giant name in superheroes.

  6. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    *sheepishly pulls unread copy of Scene of the Crime off the shelf and settles in for a great ride*

    Good call, Mike!  I’ll be back with some thoughts tomorrow.   

  7. I have to say, Mike, you really seem to be hitting your stride in these articles. Truth be told, my favorite of your work (so far) remains the Michael Turner piece, but you really seem to have established a nice rhythm in the past few weeks. And you have cultivated the IFanboy knack for recommending books. I’m totally checking these out.

    As a sidebar, have you read you read the Yiddish Policemen’s Union? There is some darn good detecting in that one, I’ll tell ya what. (Sorry I channeled Hank Hill there)

  8. good call on Scene of the Crime.  Read that a long time ago, but I just bought the trade recently.

  9. Hey guys!

     

    Thanks for the great feedback. I must admit that I am somewhat resistant to doing "review" posts since so many others do such a great job with them, but, to be honest, I am insanely swamped this week because I am filming a bunch of stuff this week and I just haven’t had time to do a more fully realized piece about the comics community, like the Turner piece (which is one of my favorites too).  Hopefully once things settle down I will be able to a few more pieces like that out.

     That being said, I am pleased that you liked the suggestions, and it’s always an honor to recommend books that have inspired me to you guys.  

     thanks again!

    mike

  10. Loved Murder Mysteries, and now have Scene of the Crime to find and read – thanks for the reviews, Mike!

    As for other mystery comics, I’m not sure if it’s still in print but I remember liking Grant Morrison’s The Mystery Play – the artwork was fantastic.

  11. Since this article came out, I’ve been trying to think of mystery comics. You know what? There are very few. Probably because most comics attempt to be series, and mysteries are, by nature, finite. Was The Fall, by Brubaker and Jason Lutes, a mystery? IF so, that’s a must-read. Brubaker’s Deadboy Detectives was just release in trade. I recall enjoying that. There was an Oni Press OGN called… Past Lies… I think? That was pretty good.

    Oh, but how can I not forget Greg Rucka’s Whiteout??? 

  12. Oh, and Sandman Mystery Theatre. Howsabout that one?