Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Area 10" by Christos N. Gage and Chris Samnee (Vertigo Crime, 2010)

Christos N. Gage’s Area 10, with art by Chris Samnee, is action-packed, gruesome, and an all-around damned entertaining read. The fifth graphic novel in DC Comic’s Vertigo Crime series, Area 10 fuses the noir archetype of the big city cop haunted by personal demons with the splatter and all-caps adjectives of comic artistry. Frequent sightings of words like “splosh,” “whirrrr,” “crash,” and “whramm” is a guarantee that you won’t be bored reading this, and that the characters in the book will most definitely endure some visually impressive bodily harm.

Adam Kamen is a detective for the NYPD who has never been quite the same since his wife suffered a miscarriage. While stopping a maniac killer, he wound up with a screwdriver through his head. Miraculously, he survived. The side effect, however, is anything but a blessing. Now, whenever Adam looks someone in the face, he sees their future—their impending deaths and, in some cases, their impending crimes. If that wasn’t bad enough, another mad killer is on the loose, leaving a trail of decapitated corpses around the city, and Adam’s co-workers suspect him for the rampage. Adam, meanwhile, suspects that hole in his head might be the key to the whole puzzle.

Area 10’s frenetic mélange of action, carnage, and surrealism reminds me of Duane Swierczynski’s Expiration Date. Think hardboiled noir meets macabre fantasy. Christos N. Gage has the gritty tension of the urban crime thriller down pat, while Chriss Samnee’s art captures the grisly, visual splendor of the story. The detailed depictions of “trepanation”—that is, the ritual of drilling holes through one’s head—are enough to make one squirm, and Adam’s subway battle against a villain who appears only as a blinding light has all the bigger-than-life excitement of superhero comics.

What I most like about the Vertigo Crime line of graphic novels is that they’re accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with graphic publications. They’re written in such a way to draw in crime fiction fans that might not be big comic readers. This was certainly the case with me. I would read comics on and off, but never devotedly. The four Vertigo Crime books that I’ve read—Area 10, The Chill, The Bronx Kill, and The Executor (my favorite)—have turned me on to this format, and I’ve already started looking into other graphic novels in the crime genre. Expect more coverage in the near future.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The Executor" by Jon Evans and Andrea Mutti (Vertigo Crime, 2010)

DC Comics' Vertigo Crime strikes again with The Executor, and it is their biggest score yet. Written by Jon Evans with art by Andrea Mutti, the story begins with former hockey star Joe Ullen receiving a surprising letter naming him the executor to his high school girlfriend’s estate. Seizing the opportunity to escape his failing relationship with Alice and pen-pushing real estate job, Joe heads back to his old stamping ground in upstate New York in the fictional town of Elora. But instead of tying up loose ends, Joe begins to unravel the mysterious death of Mirriam Litwiller, as well as a decades old tension between the town of Elora and the nearby Native American reservation and several unsolved murders that Joe might know about than he cares to admit.

While the story could use a little more detail about Ullen’s relationship with Alice (she appears only on a few pages at the start of the book and never reappears), once Evans and Mutti land in Elora, the narrative takes off and never looks back until the final graphic panel, when all of the pain and trauma that Joe dug up finally sinks in. It’s a simple story, but all the more compelling and emotionally crushing because of its straightforwardness. Mutti’s cinematic panels match the clarity of Evans’ plotting. When action speaks louder than words, Evans and Mutti smartly choose the former. For atmosphere, nothing beats finding soggy corpses on a rainy night in the woods on the reservation, and for excitement you can’t top the shoot-out in a blazing abandoned factory.

What distinguishes The Executor is its attention to the present-day race and class issues surrounding Native American identity. Evans shows a lot of sensitivity to the subject, which too-often seems to go overlooked. Without resorting to didacticism, he points out how America as a nation still hasn’t come to terms with its complex history. This social context also makes for a gripping plot motivation, on one level showing how latent and unresolved tensions can quickly manifest as violent gestures, and on a larger level showing how society can perpetuate and escalate this violence through ignorance.

If you like your anti-heroes with a troubled conscious and an unredeemable past, don’t miss The Executor. It looks crime on the micro-level—small-town wrongs and personal demons that are worse than anything in the big cities because they are all the more real.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lester Dent on Words and Writing

Ever wanted to write like Lester Dent? Bang out 200,000 words a month for years on end without running out of steam? Well, you could dress like Dent in the photo and wear a gun around your hip, an adventurer's hat on your head, and put your hands on your hip and look real manly.

If that doesn't work, try reading "The Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot." In the article, Lester Dent tells all and reveals his very own formula for writing fiction. The article was originally published in the 1936 Writer's Digest Yearbook and is available online courtesy of Atlus Press.

Here is how Dent describes his master design, which he claims is good for any story of 6000 words. According to him, "it has worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in each successive thousand words."

While he describes the process in great detail in the article, I'm only quoting the outline of the design. For more info, be sure to read the whole article.

1—FIRST LINE, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a problem to be solved—something the hero has to cope with.

2—The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

3—Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on in Action.

4—Hero’s endeavors land him in an actual physical conflict near the end of first 1500 words.

5—Near end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in the plot development.


1—Shovel more grief onto the hero.

2—Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

3—Another physical conflict.

4—A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.


1—Shovel the grief onto the hero, who continues to fight back, most heroically.

2—Hero makes some headway, and corners the villains or somebody in:

3—A physical conflict.

4—A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad, to end the 1500 words.


1—Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

2—Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is about to dispose of the suffering protagonist).

3—The hero extricates himself, using HIS OWN skill, training or brawn.

4—The mysteries remaining—one big one held over to this point will help grip interest—are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes the situation in hand.

5—Final twist, a big surprise. (This one can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the “treasure” a dud, etc.)

6—The snapper, the punch line, to end it."
Let me know if anyone has tried out Dent's method! (Or if you try dressing up like an adventurer next time you sit down to write.)
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