Reviews: Art Deco Dredd in Megatropolis

Megatropolis Book One,
Kenneth Niemand, Dave Taylor,
2000 AD/Rebellion

The “What If?” approach is, of course, not new in comics – indeed Mighty Marvel have had their “What If?” comics for years (with them also recently making the jump to an animated TV series), while DC have long had their Elseworlds. Over the decades these have freed creators to reimagine stand-alone tales featuring famous characters and setting in a new way – what if Agent Carter was the one to be given the Super Soldier serum? What if the Batman was actually a real creature of the night, a vampire? It’s a chance to let imaginations fly, unencumbered by the normal continuity issues of ongoing series.

Originally serialised in the Megazine, issues 424 -431, Megatropolis takes that opportunity to reimagine a well-known series – in this case the world of Judge Dredd, arguably Britain’s biggest comics character – and puts it into visually dazzling, sumptuous, Art Deco inspired alternative reality that’s as infused by the legacy of Lang’s 1920s classic film Metropolis (as you might infer from the title) as it is those fabulous 1930s and 1940s Hollywood Noir films, or the works of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and a dash of Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis.

Rookie cop with a cloud over her career (taking the rap for something that didn’t actually happen the way it has been made to look) Amy Jara is transferred to a new beat and partnered with Detective Joe Rico, perhaps the only badge in the precinct not on the take from the rich and powerful figures in this glittering but corrupt city. Attempting to investigate a growing string of hits on figures, both society, underworld and even police department targets, Rico knows they are linked to the corruption that permeates every level of the city like a cancer, but special departments inside the police, headed by Captain Calhoun with his sidekicks Quincy and Slocum (yes, look at that blonde hair and arrogant approach, it is indeed a version of Judge Cal and his SJS) are doing their best to head Rico and Jara away from their investigations.

However, they’re not entirely on their own – District Attorney McGruder is leading a crusade to clean up the city, and also gunning for the likes of Mayor Bob Booth (yes, “Smooth Booth”, here drawn with something of the Richard Nixon about him), and investigative journalist Bernice Hershey from the Defender is out to open the lid on the sordid secrets of the top members of Megatropolis society (Hershey, still sports her trademark Louise Brooks bob haircut as she does in the regular Dreddverse, and unsurprisingly it fits very well into the Art Deco version).

(is it just me, or does this version of Filmore Faro have a passing resemblance to Ken Dodd?)

There are many other alternate versions of Mega City One characters, from the small to the major players, and while part of the fun is seeing those connections, if you’re not overly familiar with the four and a half decades of Dredd history (although I would guess most of those reading this will be Dredd fans already), it will not harm your reading or enjoyment of the story at all, in much the same way you can enjoy the Marvel movies without having read all the relevant comics, for example (but if you have then naturally there’s a whole other level of Easter Eggs and references for you to enjoy spotting, such as a barman called Murph running a pub called The Tight Brogues).

And what of Old Stoneyface himself? Where does his alternative fit into this strange, 1920s/30s infused take on The Big Meg? Perhaps rather fittingly the Dredd analogue here is only seen mostly in small bursts, in the dark shadows, striking out at corrupt police and politicians and businessmen (our first glimpse is simply a gauntleted hand clutching a very familiar firearm). As his surgical strikes on the cancerous corruption in the city mount, this shadowy figure dispensing his own brand of justice earns the nickname “Dredd” because of the fear he instils on the wicked who have had their own way for so long with the town. But who is he? Where does he come from, who is supporting him? Is he linked to the reclusive Fargo, the father of the city who now hides away in his secretive estate?

I shall say no more – there’s murder and mystery here, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say there’s plenty to sink your teeth into here – occasionally some “What If” stories are too slight, the idea fine in itself but the story not enough to hold up on its own without the concept of the alternative world idea. Not so here, Niemand and Taylor are too experienced for that; yes they want to play with the alternate worlds and versions ideas, but they also know the story and characters also have to be powerful enough to work in their own right, and they do.

And then of course there is just the simple pleasure of the sheer visual spectacle on offer here. Let’s be honest, we’ve all had comics we’ve loved for story and character, but also sometimes the art is just so damned wonderful we find ourselves pausing the reading to drink in details, or go back over some pages to feast on the visual banquet. P Craig Russell’s “Ramadan” story in the Sandman, Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, Colin MacNeil’s artwork in Judge Dredd: America, or Schuiten’s art in Les Cités obscures all spring to mind as examples where I’ve found myself going over pages again to savour the artwork, and now I am adding Dave Taylor’s depictions of Megatropolis to that roster (and why not? Comics is a visual medium, after all, I see no shame in celebrating outstanding visuals).

Megatropolis is a visually stunning piece of comics work, yes, but it has the character and storylines to back up those elegant, Art Deco themed visuals too, and clearly delights in drawing as much on those 1930s/40s Noir tropes as it does the science fictional elements. A beautiful piece of comics work.

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes

We Read Comics podcast

Radio Summerhall, which operates a small studio for podcasting from Edinburgh’s very splendid Summerhall arts hub, boasts We Read Comics among its show, a new monthly series of podcasts discussing comics and graphic novels. Jenny Mayhew, Martin Zeller-Jacques, John McShane and myself follow a book group style format, where we take it in turns to choose a graphic novel to read then discuss.

Jenny, Marty and myself (sadly John couldn’t make it this month) recorded the May show this week, discussing Archer Coe: the Thousand Natural Shocks, by Jamie S Rich and Dan Christensen, published by American Indy outfit Oni Press. It’s a very Noir-style tale of a masked stage hypnotist who also takes on extra work for rich clients. When a wealthy banker asks him to use his mental powers to help cure his wife of her sexual problems, it seems straightforward, but in true Noir fashion of course it is anything but, and our man soon finds himself lost in a conspiracy and potentially framed for murder. Everyone has a secret and he can trust no-one – including himself and his own memories.

Is he being set up or has he been acting like a split personality and committing acts he has no conscious awareness of? Why does Hope, the business man’s wife, seem to know him when he has never seen her before? And what’s with the talking cats (who warn him not to get involved, smart kitties!)? Warning, there are some possible slight spoilers during the discussion, although given the twisting nature of the narrative I doubt they will spoil anyone’s rading of the book. You can find the previous three episodes on Mixcloud and on the Radio Summerhall site here.

Parisian Noir: Malet & Tardi’s Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge

Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge,

Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi,

Translated by Kim Thompson,

Fantagraphics

I absolutely love the work of Jacques Tardi, from his crime tales to fantastical Jules Verne-esque yarns like the Arctic Marauder or the bitter, powerful anger of It Was the War of the Trenches (see here) and Goddamn This War (reviewed here), he is, for me, one of Europe’s great masters of the ninth art. I also have a fondness for a dash of Noir, so combine Tardi with a Noir murder featuring Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma and oh yes, you better believe I wanted to get my little ink-stained paws on it. And rather a handsome edition it is too, a slim hardback album, with some nice metallic highlights on the front and back cover (sadly not so obvious in the scan above, but quite striking when you see it with your own eyes), a nice addition to Fantagraphics’ Tardi library on my shelves. It even comes with nice end-papers detailing a map of the relevant part of Paris, marking the location of the main events; in conjunction with the actual comics art it gives a great impression of the place, you can feel your way around the mean streets.

Nestor receives a letter from Abel Benoit, claiming to be an old comrade who desperately needs his help, “a scumbag is planning something dirty.” He addresses Burma as both “comrade” and a “brother” and hints at their old days in their youth. There’s one problem – Burma doesn’t recall ever knowing an Abel Benoit at any point in his life, the name means nothing to me. But the detective is intrigued, and so he ventures off across a rainy Paris, the trademark trenchcoat collar turned up, heading to the hospital this Benoit is being treated in. And he’s being followed, by a mysterious, dark-haired woman; she’s behind him right from his office, on the train and the station, before finally approaching him.

It transpires she posted the letter for the ill Benoit and she tells Burma that he is wasting his time – Benoit is dead. This gypsy woman, Benita, refuses to accompany him when he insists on still visiting the hospital – he clearly doesn’t trust this stranger, for all he knows she was sent to divert him from his appointment with Benoit. But she does promise to wait across the road from the hospital for him. Benoit does indeed prove to have given up his breathing rights, just as Benita told him. And on being taken to view the body in the morgue he meets an old associate, from the police, waiting for him. Why are the police interested and why do they think Nestor know something that they want to know? It seems several people have an interest in this mysterious man and case, and they all seem to think Burma already has the inside track, while he’s left wonder who Benoit is, why he thought they knew each other and why the cops are staking out the morgue waiting on his visit…

I don’t want to get into much more plot detail – I’d rather not potentially spoil any twists and turns, after all those are part and parcel of the fun of a good crime story. I will say that it involves elements from Burma’s own mis-spent youth, and mixes in the police (who have a fairly chequered past with Burma), an old case, a femme fatale (naturally) and more, in a very satisfying ratio. And this being Tardi, the visuals and layouts are just utterly superb. 1950s Paris, the streets tramped by our rumpled detective, usually in the rain (of course), the streets of the rough XIII arrondissement – now a bustling place with a large Asian community and shiny new business cenres on the Rive Gauche, but in this period it’s a down-at-heels, tough neighbourhood that Burma sneers at (fancy street names can’t hide the poverty and shabbiness), and yet he also clearly has some dogged affection for the area.

Drawn in monochrome, which suits the very Noir atmosphere, there are some gorgeous visual throughout this book. Many scenes follow Burma in his trenchcoat, scowl on his face, through those XIII arrondissement streets, the “camera” angle often directly behind of in front of him – the effect is reminiscent of those cool and stylish handheld camera shots through the Parisian streets by film-makers like Goddard, and makes the reader feel as if they are walking those street with Malet’s detective. The rain-lashed 1950s streets are grey and chill, the pacing and sizing of the panels changing to reflect the story, smaller, more frequent during sequences where Nestor is being tailed, larger and slower for more dialogue-heavy character moments, while Tardi uses variable lettering sizes to convey emotions, shouting and other effects, a device he’s used very effectively before.

An afterword by Malet confesses he was never a fan of comics, but he saw one of Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec books in the Casterman shop, and was taken by it, and then later by Tardi himself, leading to their collaboration, with Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge first appearing in serial form in A Suivre. Malet was impressed, he describes Tardi as approaching his novel like a film director (which I found interesting as I had the same impression prior to reading the afterword), and how he felt disappointed in attempts to make a film of Fog, but he had better than a film he had Tardi: “No one else can so perfectly enshroud the setting with such a dampness and thickness. No one else can bring the underlying depression to the surface.”

A gripping mystery, executed with some of the finest comics art Europe has to offer, mysterious dames, tough guys with a moral centre, an old case knocking insistently on the door of the present, and an atmosphere that oozes Noir so much you’d think the fog itself could wear a Fedora. This is one to curl up with, and like a good Raymond Chandler, or Malet for that matter, this is a book that you know you are going to go back and revisit.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

The dark side of Tinseltown – Angel City

Angel City #1,

Janet Harvey, Megan Levens, Nick Filardi,

Oni Press

angel_city_1_harvey_levens_onipress_coverHollywood. Tinseltown. The land of glamour and possibility. Show up on the bus. Get a soda at Schwab’s. Become a star. That’s the dream of a thousand pretty girls across America. A lot of them have bus fare. Frances Faye was a good kid. She had lousy taste in guy, sure. But in this town that can be an asset. We were friends, a log time ago. I always wondered what happened to her. Now? I wish I didn’t know.”

That opening dialogue takes place over the first three pages of Harvey and Levens’ first issue of Angel City, and, lover of Film Noir and classic-era Hollywood that I am, I imagine it delivered in a world-weary voice of someone who once aimed for the stars and was hit repeatedly by how low down and dirty the reality behind the screen magic actually was. A perfect Film Noir opening voice over, really, overlaying image of Grauman’s famous Chinese Theatre, but here silhouetted against an ominous bloody-red sky and long shadow, a hint of the gruesome scene we’re about to find just yards from where those oh-so-famous and glamorous film star hand prints are in the sidewalk by the cinema. the 30s/40s newsmen in their Fedora hats, flashbulbs (remember those?) popping brilliantly in the dark alley behind the movie palace, where a young, battered woman’s body lies among the garbage of the dumpster.

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It’s a chilling opening, within two pages establishing that Golden Age Hollywood setting and glamour then tearing back the curtain to show behind the scenes and the way so many young would-be starlets were eaten up by Tinseltown. One of the newspapermen, Joe, develops the photos in his dark room (a nice dramatic scene, the slow reveal of the image appearing on the paper under the red light, something you don’t get with digital, that pause, that reveal). And realises as he looks more closely that battered face in the press photo is someone he knows. Or rather now someone he knew… He goes to call on Dot – now re-branded as Dolores (identity is plastic in La-La Land), who at first appears to be living the film star life – big house, palm trees, pool, lounging around in her swimsuit and oh-so-chic turban sipping a cocktail in the sun. And he tells her their friend is dead, brutally, dumped like yesterday’s old trash. She affects not to care – it was a long time ago they came out here to California seeking fame and fortune like so many others – and he leaves her angrily, informing her the funeral is tomorrow, as he departs.

All those hopes. All those dreams… It hits too close to hime. Frances Hallmeyer. Faye was her middle name… We came in together on the goddamned Greyhound bus… We ran out of money in a week.

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But Dolores – who was Dot when she and Frances Faye arrived on a Greyhound bus with their cheap suitcases and no money but a pocket full of dreams of making it in this town – can’t stop the memories. In sepia-tinged flashbacks (in contrast to the colour-drenched present day scenes, nicely crafted by Levens and Filardi’s artwork and colouring) we see them trying for everything – the cattle-calls of an open audition (let’s see those legs, toots!) to all the creeps and lechers in bars and clubs, full of promises of connections to famous producers and directors, in exchange for some companionship, in a city where pretty young flesh is the cheapest and most readily available commodity of all (and all some have to trade). And eventually Dot, before she becomes Dolores, in her bunny costume as the cigarette girl in the clubs. Except when one guy gets too fresh with her, Dot doesn’t take that pat on her bum, oh no, she turns around and clocks the guy with her tray. Catching the eye of the gangster who runs the club and who can use a feisty dame like her (although to be fair he does seem to develop genuine feelings for her too).

No that first impression isn’t right, Dolores as he now calls herself is no movie star in her luxury home and pool, she’s working for a gangster. It’s a clever bluff and reveal by Harvey and Levens and given how closely the gangsters and the film set were often intertwined abck then in LA (and Vegas, come to that) it’s pretty appropriate to see her seemingly glamorous lifestyle comes from violence and crime hidden behind a veneer of respectable, wealthy living, a mask, just like those the directors and actors and producer who live in neighbouring big homes all wear too.

This opening issue is dripping in nods to Golden Age Hollywood, right down to the presence of Eddie Mannix, the famous/infamous “fixer” for the old studio system (which could mean anything from hushing up and paying off old, undesirable boyfriends or an abortion for studio starlets to much darker and heavier actions to protect the carefully managed public persona of those stars), and it also oozes that Noir mixture of style and disturbance. The reveal of poor Frances in the dumpster recalls the horrid, wretched fate of poor Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, one of the most infamous and macabre unsolved murders in Hollywood history (later immortalised by the great crime writer James Ellroy as part of his LA Quartet).

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And that’s no accident as is revealed by the creators in an afterword, the Dahlia’s gruesome fate was an inspiration, along with the always-hushed-up but well-known knowledge of the systematic abuse of young starlets to be for the promise of a chance at silver screen fame (terrifying how many of those rumours were actually true, creatures like Trump would have been in their element back then). And that theme of the use and abuse of women – especially young, impressionable and desperate ladies – and the lingering threat and often actuality of the violence men hold over them pervades the story. And as recent events remind us – as if we needed reminding – that’s not something that vanished with the Hollywood of the 30s an 40s, it still lingers, it is still there, from the vile misogynistic rantings of someone like Trump to the internet trolls who try to silence women who dare to voice opinions with the threat of sexual violence. No, it’s still here, sickeningly here in 2016 when we should know better, and that makes Angel City not just an atmospheric period crime thriller, it makes it disturbingly pertinent to the modern day.

If you enjoyed Brubaker and Phillips’ superb The Fade Out (reviewed here) or enjoy classic Film Noir then this is an ideal companion to read. And if you love that intoxicating and now vanished Hollywood of the period with its mix of glamour and sleaze I’d also recommend the quite excellent You Must Remember This Podcast by Karina Longworth.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Hollywood Noir, the glamour and the sleaze in The Fade Out

The Fade Out Volume 1,

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,

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Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.

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And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.

Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…

He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”

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Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.

It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.

As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.

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Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Nocturnal street mirror

I wandered around in the cold taking a bunch of night shots recently – street scenes, historic buildings of Edinburgh at night and the like, but sometimes you just find the most everyday things and they look different at night. Especially if you zoom in on them and decide to shoot in black and white. And so After shooting some buildings I turned around in a cobbled back street, saw a puddle, the dirty water no looking jet black and perfectly reflecting the world above, like a black mirror, lying in a depression in the cobbles. So on the spur of the moment I moved the tripod round and framed a shot of it:

Turned out to be very popular on Flickr – funny how something so mundane can become an interesting photo subject just because it was now night and it was shot in black and white. By day a dirty puddle of rain water in a dip in the cobbled lane, but by night it is now a Noir puddle, the sort of puddle Raymond Chandler might call upon if he needed one in a scene…