By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Jan. 18, 2011 -- Original graphic novels are hitting bookshelves like a tsunami these days, but DC’s Vertigo Crime line is always welcome. They’ve released another winner, Noche Roja ($19.99), that is nerve-wracking from first page to last.
Writer Simon Oliver (The Exterminators) wisely placed his story in one of the most genuinely lawless and frightening places on Earth: northern Mexico, near the U.S. border. One glance at Google will attest to how law enforcement there is virtually non-existent, how hundreds of young women continue to disappear annually and how narcotraficante gangs battle each other with military-grade weapons. Northern Mexico is one location where ‘30s-style crime noir stories continue to work well, because it is similar to the U.S. settings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: places that fake being civilized but are incredibly dangerous.
As is typical of crime noir stories, our “hero” is a cynical outsider with a dirty past and a lousy present. Jack Cohen is an ex-policeman and occasional private eye who sells security systems to McMansion owners, and stays drunk to quiet his nightmares. He’s hired by a Mexican social worker to investigate a series of murders of maquiladoras (female factory workers) that are even more brutal than usual. Cohen’s trip south of the border is a Conradian journey into the heart of darkness – his own, and the political conspiracies, brutal class structure, powerful drug cartels and sexual perversion he finds there.
Jason Latour’s art is more stylized than I like in a book where it’s important to see expressions, postures and subtle movement, but it’s still clear (and gritty) enough to do the job. This “Red Night” will be a chilling one for the average reader on the safety of the couch.
NBM is another publisher whose original graphic novels (often imported from Europe) are usually among my favorites. But Miss Don’t Touch Me Vol. 2 ($14.99), by Hubert and Kerascoet of France, was something of a disappointment.
Maybe it’s because I had so much fun with the first Miss Don’t Touch Me, which introduced the naïve but courageous Blanche, whose poverty consigns her to a whorehouse in early 20th century Paris – but by dint of her determination remains a virgin. This is achieved by Blanche becoming a dominatrix who does not allow the customers to touch her, a curious sexual niche that becomes a sensation and the whorehouse’s biggest draw. This farcical narrative was buttressed by a murder mystery, all of which came to a happy ending, turning the novel into a sort of 1930s-style screwball comedy.
However, the second volume is more Oliver Twist than Thin Man, where Blanche is buffeted by economic and social forces beyond her control, compounded by losing her heart to a gay man. She is no heroine here, but merely a victim. Add the return of her selfish, alcoholic mother, and Miss Don’t Touch Me Vol. 2 is more tragedy than farce.
Hopefully this is merely a second act, and there will be a third Miss Don’t Touch Me that will allow our heroine to prevail. As it stands now, the second volume is just depressing.
Most people know Our Army at War as the DC title that introduced Sgt. Rock, and later took that name. With Showcase Presents: Our Army at War Vol. 1 ($19.99), we can see what it was like in its infancy.
Our Army began in 1952 during the Korean War, but also during what many consider the highlight of war comics: Harvey Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat at EC Comics. Interestingly, the stories reprinted in this black-and-white behemoth (OAAW #1-20, 1952-54, 512 ppg.) only occasionally tip their hat to Kurtzman, especially in the use of the three-panel zoom (mostly by writer Robert Kanigher, who used the technique promiscuously the rest of his career).
Most of these stories are fairly by the numbers, with heroic Americans learning life lessons during combat adventures that often border on the absurd (first in the Korean War, then after the 1953 armistice mostly in WWII). But it was interesting to see so many familiar names, especially Ross Andru, Gene Colan, Jerry Grandenetti and Irv Novick, and even more interesting that due to the consistent house-style inking – mostly by Joe Giella – how amazingly similar these divergent artists were made to appear.
Conclusion? This book is valuable for the comics history it reveals, but don’t expect much excitement.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at email@example.com.