Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"The Bronx Kill" by Peter Milligan and James Romberger (Vertigo Crime, 2010)

Vertigo Crime’s series of Graphic Mysteries continues with The Bronx Kill, a collaboration between acclaimed British comic book writer Peter Milligan and artist James Romberger. Playing off the double meaning of the word “kill,” the duo have found one of those perfect titles for a crime story—and they don’t waste it. They nail the New York atmosphere and populate the city with generations of closeted skeletons that refuse to stay locked away. Like the Bronx waterfront the title refers to, the characters in the story are damp with rot and decay, and whether or not they’re found floating in the river, they are, each in their own way, drowning.

Cops run in Martin’s family, a tradition he thinks he ends by becoming a writer. The past, however, doesn’t let go quite so easily, and Martin finds himself haunted by the mysterious death of his Great-Grandfather at the “Bronx Kill” across from Randall’s Island, as well as the disappearance of his own grandmother that left his father without a mother growing up. As Martin begins to explore these issues in his new book, his wife suddenly goes missing, and he finds himself the police’s number one suspect. As Martin searches for the strange man he saw outside his apartment window one night, he also begins to piece together the missing parts of his family’s history.

One of the things that interests me in crime-themed graphic storytelling is the way that language—so central to the identity of the crime genre—undergoes a transformation. The cross-currents of comics and crime fiction go way back: Spillane worked in comics (and the influence on the Mike Hammer novels is certainly clear in its hyper-stylization), as did Robert Leslie Bellem (whose Dan Turner stories was also a comic series for a while). While the syncopated, concise dialogue that characterizes hard-boiled fiction is perfectly suited to the comic format, the stylized narration (whether first- or third-person) is not necessarily. Instead, it is replaced by images that must convey the internalized vision of the characters, the lilt of their voices, and the thousand-and-one nuances that can be communicated by even the shortest paragraph. The noir paradigm must become almost completely visual—and thankfully, the evocative nature of the noir style lends itself naturally to pictorial storytelling.

Except for the occasional “AHGHH!” or other non-verbal outbursts, Milligan’s prose is decidedly understated. Dialogue moves swiftly, never getting caught up in either exposition or excessive description. This is where the partnership with Romberger pays off. The lack of color gives his drawings a monochromatic elegance, like the foggy set of an old Hollywood B-picture. Considering the story’s preoccupation with death, disappearance, and the past, the colorless characters fittingly evoke phantoms and the specter of death, which is always hiding just behind the next page.

The most interesting aspect of The Bronx Kill is not just the story itself, but the way it is told. It is a meta-narrative that gives us glimpses of Martin’s text as he is writing it. (The story-within-a-story is similarly a story drenched in murder, history, and family trauma.) We are even privy to Martin’s edits—words crossed out, others added, and assorted other jottings ranging from his own insecurities and questions about the text to connections to his own family’s past. In marked opposition to Milligan’s restrained prose, Martin’s paragraphs are full of long-winded sentences and overwrought passages. However, as Martin explains to his editor at one point, “It’s a first draft. Written under extraordinary circumstances.” By revealing the process of writing, Milligan shows the way (or one way, at least) in which narrative is constructed— or, rather, the way in which a narrator (like Martin) tries to make sense of out details that confound, confuse, and obsess us.

This is the second book in the Vertigo Crime series that I’ve read (the other was Jason Starr and Mick Bertilorenzi’s The Chill), and I continue to be impressed with their work. I’m looking forward to reading their upcoming books The Executor by Jon Evans and Andrea Mutti and Area 10 by Christos N. Gage and Chris Samnee.

And now for a couple of pieces of wisdom from The Bronx Kill

“There is surely no good place to be killed. But this kill was not such a bad place to have your life snatched away, if snatched away it had to be.”

“It’s like all the pain just gets handed on and on, ain’t it?”

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Cover art by Lee Bermejo

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Guest Blogger: Stephen D. Rogers on "Shot to Death" (Mainly Murder Press, 2010)

Today, Pulp Serenade has a guest blogger: Stephen D. Rogers, author of the new collection of stories Shot to Death, just out from Mainly Murder Press. As part of his month-long blog tour, Stephen is stopping at different blogs and sharing the first line of one of his tales, and then giving us the back-story about it. He also includes information on how to win a free copy of the book, and will be dropping by to answer any questions you have in the comments section of this post.

Without further ado, I am handing over the Pulp Serenade reigns to Stephen D. Rogers!


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"I was still three blowjobs short of rent when I was rousted and brought downtown." - ROUSTED

So begins one of the 31 stories contained in Shot to Death (ISBN 978-0982589908). Within that beginning lurks the ending to the story and everything that happens between the beginning and the end. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Confession time. That opening throws me. My problem with it is that the line seems to bring the story to fruition. Her desire was to make rent and despite her best efforts she failed. What else is there to say?

Searching for that answer, I delve into her character. She's prostituting herself not because of a drug habit or a pimp but because she's trying to make rent. That need to make rentinstead of simply crashing somewhere leads me to think she has a child.

She's a working (the streets) mother who wants to protect her child from the trauma of losing their home. She's well spoken and thus probably educated. She's down on her luck but in there swinging. I'm in her corner.

She's rousted. For soliciting? Eh. Under the guise of being rousted, she's brought downtown for another reason altogether. She's a possible victim. She's a possible witness. She's a possible suspect.

How do those possibilities tie in to her given desire to pay the rent? To the deeper desire to protect her child?

Will she be a victim, witness, or suspect? Can she be all three? We often are. Especially if we're trying to do the best for someone we love.

All that remains is the writing.

For a chance to win a signed copy of SHOT TO DEATH, click on over to http://www.stephendrogers.com/Win.htm and submit your completed entry.

Then visit the schedule at http://www.stephendrogers.com/Howto.htm to see how you can march along.

And then come back here to post your comments. Phew.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Stephen D. Rogers Tomorrow on Pulp Serenade

After a regrettable silence here on Pulp Serenade (blame grad school--I've yet to find a course that is even tangentially related to crime fiction or film noir, sigh), I am happy to report that there will be a special event tomorrow. Author Stephen D. Rogers will be making an appearance here at Pulp Serenade discussing his latest book, a collection of stories called Shot to Death, just out from Mainly Murder Press. Be sure to drop by and leave a comment for him! He will be checking in and responding to your comments in person.

For more information, visit his website HERE, or order a copy of Shot To Death here at Mainly Murder Press.
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