Without Fear

Ryan K Lindsay – Writer

Tag: brubaker

NOIRVEMBER 002 ~ CRIMINAL: BAD NIGHT

Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker make the best comics. Why? because the only four colours they use are black.

Their partnership had been bubbling along for years, slowly refining, seemingly waiting for their true mindmeld moment of resplendent glory. It’s so truly rare for a comics partnership to have this time, and breadth of projects in which to percolate. And it’s even rarer for the two in question to obviously use that time wisely, preparing, and then striking with ferocity.

They spent a few years on SLEEPER at Wildstorm and it is one of those comics that holds a special place for me. It exists in one of those golden bubbles of beauty within your life. I had finished my broke ass time as a university student, I had excess cash as a working man, and I was stepping back into comics. There was a big gap of quality work to choose from so I caught an LCS while on holiday and I spent a few hundred bucks. I returned home and in my bedroom/office devoured a few trades and out of that my love for SLEEPER was born. I can still remember the view, the way it felt like I hadn’t been about 5 years away from the four colour page.

SLEEPER was brilliant, and it’s certainly a noir in the sense that Holden Carver is definitely walking down a finite path and you feel it with every issue. I devoured that series more than once and it all felt like delicious entree to the coming of CRIMINAL.

For me, CRIMINAL is the main course of the Phillips/Brubaker banquet feast. It’s got all flavours, it’s the thing you waited for, and it is the book all else is judged against. It is crime perfection. Brubaker has stated a view of noir that very similarly rests in the same stone cold cradle as my own held thoughts/beliefs. Noir is about the fact you know you are doomed and you walk straight into it anyway.

With their opening mini [because CRIMINAL had not arcs but rotating minis within the same world] titled COWARD, we watched a very dark heist tale unfold and something special was transferred. But this was just a warm up. Because while it’s good, hell, pretty great, it isn’t their masterpiece. And when you can be as good as these two, you don’t settle or stop at a plateau and set up camp when you could be hitting that next tip a little higher, until eventually you are floating above the mountain and finding footholds in the ozone layer.

Next came LAWLESS and it also ends with a downbeat ending, though in a way a polar opposite to the first story. COWARD has our getaway lead caught by the cops whereas LAWLESS has our hard-hitting lead getting recruited by the wrong criminals. All bad things. All just priming the pump. And while the next go around brings us 3 one-shot tales of woe, it’s the fourth story of CRIMINAL that showcases a perfect noir and is my personal favourite of the entire run, though actually not their masterpiece [which we’ll get to, all in good time – don’t worry, a good noir eventually gets to everything, burning all to the ground, none are safe].

BAD NIGHT is the most pure noir Phillips/Brubaker deliver in CRIMINAL. It is liquid noir, it is the black hole resultant from a Large Phillips/Brubaker/Hadron Collider, it is so damn good. For me, it’s the noir manifesto taught through narrative.

criminal cover - bad night

We are presented the tale of Jacob, a down on his luck cartoonist with a nasty insomnia habit. He does his best to illustrate/write a little serial strip called FRANK KAFKA P.I. [a background Easter Egg throughout CRIMINAL which here finally gets unpacked more as we finally meet its creator] and he wanders his city by night and into the dawn where rest finds him as he passes out. Already, we can see his lifestyle isn’t conducive to making the right decisions and Jacob certainly doesn’t seem to understand what those are, nor does he seem to overly care. He talks about seeing his world “from the other side of the vanishing points.” He’s a broken and lonely man.

He meets a girl in a diner and things go pear shaped around her aggressive boyfriend and after a fight, and his flight from the scene, his internal monologue talks about why he had to jet, and it’s the perfect way to view the choices made so often, and so poorly, by noir leads:

“You never know what’s going to happen when you let chaos into your life…suddenly, just like that, someone is dead and your whole life is going to hell.”

And that’s exactly true, this is how it happens. It’s incremental. One bad choice begets another in the hopes to solve or rectify the first. It’s a progressive slide that doesn’t just land you dead, it gets you dying.

Jacob’s creation, Frank Kafka, has a square-jawed role to play in the story because he’s like a noir Jiminy Cricket on his creator’s shoulder telling him how he should have handled it. Which Jacob knows is the wrong way, he knows it’s absurd, because he even states that “In the strip, of course, Frank takes far more punishment than he dishes out, but that’s kind of the point.” Here we have Brubaker illustrating the core tenet of a great noir story in his own noir story, through his creation’s creation [yes, also his creation, you follow?]. Jacob is following muddy footsteps even though he knows, hell he engineers the fact, that “Frank is always in over his head, always making the wrong decisions.”

But who hasn’t chosen a little wrong before to let their life get a little wrong? Jacob bumps back into the woman, Iris, and takes her home after she passes out in his car. She then creeps into his bed and the night they spend together can only be hinted at. This is why we all choose the wrong, because the little wrong we get in return is so lascivious that it can only be intimated in hushed tones, making it all the more desirable as the brain fills in gaps it didn’t even know could be created.

Jacob picks up Iris, he takes her home, he lets her into his bed, he steps out to procure some coffee/pastry breakfast [what passes for nutrition on Planet Noir], in doing so he allows her the opportunity to rob him, but not before he brags about a counterfeiter past, which then prompts her boyfriend to return to enforce a ‘favour.’ And who is to blame? Jacob understands straight away, “My stupid choices, my stupid bragging. / My general stupidity…had brought this on. I had done this to myself.”

And there is your tombstone quote when the noir finally walks up behind you and knifes you with your own blade. I had done this to myself. That’s what always makes it so heartbreaking.Look back at every single step he took, all decidedly poor choices. All dominos in his slow demise.

Very quickly the heartbreak turns to a moment of allowed insanity as Jacob finds himself held hostage in his house by Iris and her boyfriend. When the boyfriend leaves one night to do some jobs she’s left guarding Jacob alone and they instinctually flirt, and he’s instantly smitten with her. This lady is holding Jacob hostage, she’s sleeping with her boyfriend in his house in wildly rancorous ways, and then she’s still flirting with him and he wants to believe that deep down she’s hostage in her situation and life, that there’s something real between them, that he can save her. Jacob is a fool and you know he knows it, he’s written himself before no doubt, but he can’t help himself. This is why femme fatales work so well in noir, there’s nothing like a pretty lady to make a man commit to the worst decisions.

“Soon I was even more lost than before…I was a primal urge. / With no thought, no fear, just naked desire. / But I didn’t care. / I didn’t care about anything but how she felt under me…”

As the thoughts above play through Jacob’s head, as he tears Iris’ clothes away in a sequence that’s just pure regret waiting to be understood, Frank Kafka stands beside and watches it all and it’s difficult to tell if he’s grimacing in tortured understanding or if he’s clenching his jaw tight to cheer it on in the only restrained way he knows how to party.

Once Jacob gets sucked into the undertow of the heist being pulled and starts to think he might be killed once it’s over [a thought seeded and fertilised by Iris], he considers killing the boyfriend to set them both free. She certainly makes it seem like she’ll be stuck if he doesn’t, which is a perfect way to play on that saviour chord to make Jacob pull the trigger on the wrong call, again. But like any good noir lead, Jacob is mostly good for getting pistol whipped and lead around on the collar by a woman, so he doesn’t take the opportunity. But Iris does. The hole he is in gets deeper and deeper and he’s hoping there might just be quiet salvation down below, so why not keep digging. Noir is such a fool’s game.

The second half of the story only gets harder to observe as you constantly see off ramps where Jacob could get out, but he continually pushes forward because he’s sure there’s a promised land at the end. Why would they build a highway straight down into oblivion? Why, because that’s the cruelest joke of all, you have the illusion of progress.

We see Jacob continue to mentally pursue Iris, they sleep together again just so he’s really on the line. They then go separate ways until, like two magnetically charged elements, they come crashing back together with force. Is Jacob being played by her? Do I even need to answer that question by this stage?

As the story winds up, we discover a number of home truths about Jacob that make us better understand just how responsible he is in his own demise. He was a terrible husband, who drove his wife away, who would have mental episodes, who was made of nasty things. It’s probably the way he still sees himself as the hero towards the end that drives the final nail into his coffin. He discovers a cop with a grudge and Iris have set him up, and in discovering this he gets an opportunity to turn the tables. Except he only wants to upend one half of the table, which obviously means everything just spills awkwardly, and mostly on himself. All because he continues to think there’s something real there with Iris. Delusional until the end, where his lens shifts and he finally sees the truth. Is this revelation too late? Again, look inside, you already know, man.

Jacob is the protagonist of his story and yet he is the strongest antagonist he faces. Such is noir. There might be cops beating on you, women exploiting you, your car careening off a cliff, but it’s all on your shoulders, and every heavy burden only serves to drive you down over time. In those final moments Jacob understands the velocity of noir, “there was no stopping.”

The story should end with Jacob dying in a fiery inferno, but you get the feeling that might be an end to all the tension, so instead he’s dumped into traction, alive with his disturbed thoughts, and everyone else abandons him. “I’m all alone.” he thinks as we leave him and the fact he finally also understands this is the very worst end that could come from him.

For my money, and it’s always good round these parts, BAD NIGHT is my favourite CRIMINAL storyline whereas THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT [which comes later, after THE SINNERS] is probably their masterpiece [though it’s an inverted noir, one where all the wrong choices work for the asshole and we desperately don’t want them to, and he lives happily ever after, bastard]. But if you are digging this post, or most anything I ever bang on about, and you haven’t sampled CRIMINAL then just get it all. Hell, get every single thing Phillips/Brubaker have done together because it’s all amazing from SCENE OF THE CRIME right up until the recently wrapped FATALE.

But for this one night, imbibe, and know BAD NIGHT is your narrative guide through the darkly invisible terrain of noir.

What To Do Next

There’s always that moment where you stop and wonder to yourself, “Huh, what’s next?”
You’ve just wrapped a script and it’s off to the editor/artist brainhive, or your pitch is off to the publisher and you have to wait for a greenlight, and you know there’s nothing ‘next’ that needs your immediate glance.
So, what’re you going to work on? What’re you going to dream up?
I mean, there’s always revisions to do, snark to drop on twitter, fractions of something in your future in ideas and lines and fun, there is always ‘something’ to do but some days you gotta start prepping the materials for the next gig.
There’s lots of ways to break new ideas into your headspace but here’s something to consider.
Widen your scope. Stretch yourself. Be bold.
You just did a crime book, try a romance book. You’re waiting for art on that sci fi horror book, try some slice of life on the side.
I got thinking about this idea when I was considering the chronology of some of my favourite creative minds. Let’s have a look at the progression of genius. Because you don’t need to limit yourself, and maybe you don’t know how well you’re going to tell that steampunk bromance.

JOEL and ETHAN COEN

I love the Coen Brothers. So many of their films sit high atop my must see lists and I find it inspirational to look over their career path and see how insanely headstrong they quite clearly are. Look at the fact they never pander, they don’t make Oscar Bait – though I’m sure it seems that way these days but cast back to a time where they were the kooky uncles of quality cult cinema.

Look at how they would conquer a genre and then move onto another genre straight after it. It never felt like the Coen Brothers were colouring by numbers, they were telling stories they absolutely had to tell. Genre be damned. Audience demand be damned. Never let it be said they phoned it in, these guys delve right into their narratives like it’s Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.

The Coen Brothers started with a simple bang, a crime story. BLOOD SIMPLE put them on the map with this visceral noir punch. Brutality, death, terrible people. This was a huge stake to drive into the ground as a debut.

So, how did they follow it up? With a slapstick gonzo trip about babies, and a mythical bikie bounty hunter, and how far we’ll go for true love. While RAISING ARIZONA is centred around a crime, it is miles away from BLOOD SIMPLE.

It’s such an incredibly bold move to just go from this black crime flick to something that’s bright and innovative and zany. Consider this, Quentin Tarantino debuted with RESERVOIR DOGS, a darkly comedic straight crime flick. How did he follow this up? He made the darkly comedic straight crime flick PULP FICTION.

It’s natural to want to replicate success, and feed the beast, but sometimes you gotta follow your heart.

Now, the Coen Brothers followed RAISING ARIZONA with MILLER’S CROSSING which is a little closer in heart to their debut. But whereas BLOOD SIMPLE was very new wave, MILLER’S CROSSING is very much more classical. This is Dashiell Hammett opposed to Gold Medal paperback pulp – both crime, each different.

From here, we can see the common vein in Coen flicks – besides vomiting fat men – is crime. But the crime is always tinted with very different lenses, and even genres. The Coen Brothers like to study flawed people, which nearly always strays to crimes of various levels, but the way they attack these narratives changes so often in fantastic ways.

Look at BARTON FINK, there are certainly crimes committed but it isn’t a crime flick. This is a deconstruction of a creative mind breaking in its own heartbreaking way. Then they roll into THE HUDSUCKER PROXY – a flick whose title alone tells you these guys just don’t care – and the farcical approach to this flick is genius but almost defies definition.

It would take over a decade before the Coen Brothers would tell another story close in tone and theme to BLOOD SIMPLE as they allowed people to end up in woodchippers, and wives to be kidnapped. And with FARGO they finally cracked the code and were allowed into the winner’s circle. They became touted as something we’d known they’d been for years – genius.

They dial it back with THE BIG LEBOWSKI – the sort of tonal fall from grace that saw them once more shunned at the Oscars, despite making the flick that would now have the deepest and most avid fanbase. You’d think once the brothers got into the Oscar Auditorium they’d scramble to stay there? Nope. And not for some time.

O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? is kind of genre insanity in that it’s a loose adaptation of a classic text via the film tropes of the 20s. It’s Clooney looking weird and acting weirder. It’s so well put together and yet those who came for/from FARGO or even THE BIG LEBOWSKI were going to have no idea what would hit them. A film with layers, that’s aged well, but not the sort of surefire follow up to anything. Because what the Coens want to do is explore genres, which they then show with their next two outings.

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is straight up James M Cain (you can see them slowly go through all their favourite crime authors in good time) and in doing so it’s staying so close to the original tone of those flicks from the 50s that you know it turned some people away, but no doubt lured in the purists, who they have to have shunned by that final scene. It’s like they didn’t want anyone in particular to be the core for this flick, and yet the people they’d get, the few, would be there for life.

And as for INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, well now we can just see they want to play in genres that are about as close to box office poison as you can get without trying to replicate the magic of a GREASE2/TEEN WITCH double bill.

I guess we can all forget THE LADYKILLERS – which is a shame because a Coen/Hanks jam should’ve been better, but I guess all this navel gazing genre crushing fun leads us to…

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – a film so far removed from the past five outings – count ’em, FIVE – that it’s like they were putting that cattle gun to the past decade and wiping it out. And it worked. Everyone forgot THE CAREERKILLERS and the golden siblings were back. This is nowhere near their best flick, and it certainly didn’t deserve to beat THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but it’s straddling that line of tight storytelling, brutal Coenesque world views, and commercial appeal without asking for it that this was the revival they needed/deserved. FARGO worked, so did this, the data shows the formula, and so then they instead stay true to heart and make…

BURN AFTER READING – because apparently every BLOOD SIMPLE needs a RAISING ARIZONA, in the same way THE BIG LEBOWSKI clearly cleanses the palette after FARGO. They go deep and dark, and then they become bioluminescent. It’s a wonderful skill, but I get their agent – trying to skim from profits and not street cred – hates it. This flick is another genre mess. Crime, yes, but totally wacky and weird and Malkoviched out.

The brothers sink really deep again for A SERIOUS MAN, a flick more towards BARTON FINK in that it defies genre or audience expectation or dollar drive. And you could never foresee this flick leading them towards TRUE GRIT, a Western, a remake of a classic, an adaptation of a classic. Or by now, maybe we should see that coming. Maybe we should know when we are in the weird calm before the bombastic storm. Because this is what the brothers do, they defy you to guess their next step. I guarantee no one saw INSIDE LLEWELYN DAVIS coming.

And true, they haven’t done horror, or war, or every genre, but you can see each project stretches them in new ways. That’s clearly a good thing when you look at the quality they produce, and that there’s no burn out on what they do. You can barely compare flicks because they’re all so different.

Whereas if you look at the godfather of ganster crime flicks, I sometimes struggle to compare because they’re all playing strings on the same harp. But let’s try, just quickly, to look at the diversity of:

MARTIN SCORSESE

You’d think Scorsese’s flicks would all be the same, and so many of them are. After some rough and tumble early indie credits, Scorsese lands on the scene with MEAN STREETS, a very street level view of crime on the streets of New York. And while he follows up with the dramatic romance of ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, he’s back into the NY filth with TAXI DRIVER. He’s tried and been shown that his dark NY crime flicks are going to work, and going to work exceptionally well. So how does he treat the news of having a guaranteed successful genre on his hands?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK might reference his useful location but it doesn’t hold the same flavour at all, even with the screen stand in of Robert De Niro yet again taking the lead. You could call this flick a mistep and not many would argue. From perfect crime to some music/romance/slice of life hybrid, the flick just didn’t register as the usual Scorsese goods and so it flopped. From there, we get nearly the whole decade of the 80s with Scorsese hiding inside the genre that works.

Sorta.

Scorsese packs a lot of crime into the 80s, but it’s skewed through different genres. RAGING BULL is certainly a step removed from the mean streets, a boxing flick with black heart, and it’s a raging success on all levels. THE KING OF COMEDY defies expectations and reflections, a genre Frankenstein’s monster that’s ultimately a failure but stands proud because it shows Scorsese was happy to play the game, but on his terms. He’d do dark people – none of this saxophone playing anymore – but he’d still be trying out new irons on the green to see how to get the ball to move.

AFTER HOURS is the black mirror version of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, and while again a flop, it’s certainly worth its place in the back catalogue. It just also marks the end of the slide for Scorsese, as he accepts a sequel, THE COLOR OF MONEY, and while it’s good enough to land him his next flick – the very personal THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, about perhaps man’s greatest crime – it all swirls inevitably towards the next flick that will define Scorsese’s name for an entire generation.

GOODFELLAS.

This flick is the obvious next step from MEAN STREETS –> TAXI DRIVER, and yet Scorsese took a decade and a half to get there. Those many years were spent looking at romance, and sporting flick as introspective downfall, to the Greatest Story Ever Told. Scorsese didn’t rest on his laurels, he didn’t go back in for the easy beat, he worked his ass off to do things that mattered to him. Maybe this is why he came back stronger and defined the genre with GOODFELLAS?

CAPE FEAR follows, then we dovetail into THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, before hitting GOODFELLAS-lite in CASINO. Scorsese knows how to game the system and he delivers one for them so he can do one for him. KUNDUN is his exploration, BRINGING IN THE DEAD, and to some lesser extent GANGS OF NEW YORK is what we expect but it’s not a carbon copy. He’s pushing niches into the crime genre he now owns. THE AVIATOR is for him, then he gives them THE DEPARTED and by this stage he’s doing the same genre but in a totally different way. It’s not the 70s anymore and this flick is the clear signifier of his growth.

SHUTTER ISLAND is such a fun pulp paperback, dropping down to HUGO which is a beast unto itself, and WOLF OF WALL STREET is something new in a myriad of ways – tone being a huge slice of it.

I know I think Scorsese just did crime flicks, with a few personal puff pieces between, but upon inspection you soon see a Coen level of differentiation.

And these are just two examples. You can look at so many creatives and see them stretch themselves constantly.

BKV did weird sci fi/travel/growth story, while doing political cape book. A masterful slice of life anthropomorphism allegory on war (PRIDE OF BAGHDAD), or the slice of life book about comic creators and what it is to create (THE ESCAPISTS). Now he’s doing romance as sci fi and dystopia sci fi as a PI commentary on social media on the side. You can see his throughline, sci fi, but it’s always something new, always pushing himself.

RICK REMENDER is currently doing a hard sci fi book, a weird school of assassins book that’s navel gazing into his teen years (and is absolutely brilliant), an underwater sci fi journey tale, and an upcoming weird looking sci fi book. This is all on the side of a mammoth Marvel event. Again, see the throughline, but see how it’s constantly different. BLACK SCIENCE might be a true sister title to FEAR AGENT but DEADLY CLASS is like nothing else.

MATT FRACTION is writing SEX CRIMINALS, to defy genre because it sounded like some warped sci fi time stopping tale but is really one of the sweetest relationship breakdown stories going. He’s also writing some crime homage to the early days of television, and a Marvel book that’s really just this lazy PI tale, and he has upcoming Odyssey meets sci fi book coming on. And all this atop a history of a talking gorilla, the greatest superspy fu comic ever, and a variety of Marvel books from wacky to straight up cape style. He’s constantly expanding his horizons, and is always better when he is.

The exception that proves the rule, for me, is ED BRUBAKER. He’s writing crime fiction, always crime fiction. He has a dash of spy in one of them now, and in the past injected capes into the mess, but otherwise, Brubaker, mostly with Sean Phillips, just rocks the mic for crime and rightfully so because he’s become a master of it.

So while looking at all this, I consider myself. What’s next?
I’ve just done this sci fi/thriller mash up, as well as an anthropomorphic/journalism/crime tale. I’ve tackled fatherhood, as well as a sci fi/Australian political/thriller mash up. I did boxing noir for my Vertigo short. So what’s next?

A PKD-sci fi/thriller about depression

An all-female Viking ghost story

An intergalactic espionage sci fi

An all ages sci fi romp

A hard sci fi journey periodical

A straight up lady kung fu bonanza

I hope an Australian warped historical thriller

And hopefully more anthropomorphic/journalism/crime, too

Maybe eventually that beach noir surf crime tale…

There’s other stuff, but let’s not prognosticate beyond our abilities.

My point is – I have a throughline, but I’m constantly poking what I can get away with. All ages, hardcore fight fu, devastating ghost tales, depression. I have a lot of sci fi, but it’s nearly always a different level of it. I’m also interested in looking into different emotions, themes. I’m not necessarily doing it perfect, the Coen Brothers are the true masters of diversification, but I know I want to knock about a bit, try lots of everything before I, hopefully, settle into mastering one or two of them very well. I’m keen to continue to ape that PKD style I dig of tone and a warped reality but I’m also excited to see what else I might do well. I have yet to do war, or cape, though I have a prison take in the works, and I’d love to try my hand at a western of sorts. All in good time, just gotta make sure I don’t get bogged down spinning the same wheels I am now.

Lord knows I’ve yet to get deep into my Cronenberg romance book. Yet.

tl;dr version – as a creator, are you trying brand new genres, or mash ups, or takes on genres, or are you doing the same old formula every time? Expand your horizons, most of your heroes do.

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