Monday, 26 July 2010


Ed Brubaker is one of the most interesting writers in the field of neo-noir, but perhaps because he writes for comics he doesn't seem to get the attention he deserves. When people talk about the comics medium, it's usually to express the way it allows the same sort of story-telling possibilities as film, but without some of film's limitations. A corollary to this is the fact that it allows writers to work visually, and thus to explore the original attitudes of a genre which, as it developed almost parallel in film and fiction, is itself hugely visual. And it certainly isn't a new idea to have the creator of a tough-guy detective fall into what might be one of his character's stories, but Brubaker handles it so deftly, and with such invention, you'd think it was all brand-new.

The artist in this case is Jacob Kurtz, and he draws a daily comic strip called 'Frank Kafka, PI'. The literary allusions aren't subtle, but they're not meant to be. Kurtz's wife disappeared, and he was suspected of her murder by both the police and her gangster uncle, Sebastian Hyde, who controls crime in Center City, and who had him beaten to the point of death. When her body turned up, the father, feeling slight remorse, arranged for Kurtz, by now having made a miraculous recovery to the point where he can walk again, to get the strip, and as the story starts we see him lost in the darkness of insomniac creativity, a figure in the modern urban jungle not that different from the Conrad's Mr. Kurtz. You may recognise the setting, for it's where all Brubaker and artist Sean Phllips' Criminal series has been set, and there are subtle links to other stories from the series.

One night, in the Blue Fly Diner, he watches a mean hood abusing his red-headed girlfriend, gets involved to his cost, and, leaving for home, finds her hitching a ride. Anyone familiar with the tropes of noir will know what begins when she climbs into his car, a steadily downward spiral that eventually involves the girl, the boyfriend, and even the cop who pursued Kurtz for his wife's murder, and whom he's now revenged himself on by drawing him into the Kafka strip as a buffoon.

Center City as drawn by Phillips has a certain noir timelessness, something reinforced by the very fact of a daily comic strip, already an anachronism. Kurtz himself resonates with an earlier era, say the 50s, a loser worthy of Jim Thompson. The Kafka strip provides a sharp contrast, and another neat parallel to Bad Night itself; the old story within a story, but again, Brubaker gives it another twist. And equally, although it's one we've seen before, I found its uses here original.

As I say, if you're familiar with noir you will be familiar with Bad Night, but it will still surprise, and please you. Tom Cruise and Sam Raimi were making a version of Brubaker and Phillips' Sleeper, and he won't be a well-kept secret for too much longer...

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