When Max Payne 3 comes out next week, it'll be the long-awaited return of video games' best example of work done in the film noir tradition. There's been some concern that the franchise might lose some his its shadowy edge by moving to the tropical climes of Sao Paolo. But the change in scenery for Max Payne 3 presents a great opportunity to ask exactly what makes noir noir?
While classic films like The Third Man and D.O.A. laid the foundation of noir, the aesthetic has spread to other media, too. In most places, you find recurring elements like morally compromised social system, a hero torn between bettering his own lot in life and doing the right thing and a sexual attraction that carries ethical danger as part of its appeal.
Noir's enjoying a healthy existence in comics right now, joined most recently by the first issue of the Max Payne comic written by Dan Houser and Sam Lake. The co-written comic marks a strong debut for Lake and Houser, with great pacing and dialogue that's excellently brought to life by Fernando Blanco's artwork. The next issue's out for free this week but if you've got a yearning for more noir comics, you'd do well to check out work by the writers below.
One of the reasons that Brian Azzarello's been one of comics' most respected writers is that he writes from character first. All of his work shows off the fact that the plots are driven by the characters and not the other way around.
100 Bullets This long-running, award-winning series from DC Comics' Vertigo imprint succeeded by marrying the perfect set-up to the perfect motivation. Just when random characters are at their lowest, a mysterious man shows up carrying a briefcase that holds an untraceable gun and 100 bullets and offering them the chance for revenge. Drawn in stunning high-contrast style by Eduardo Risso, a larger tapestry gets revealed as the series goes on but the whole thing revolved beautifully around the ugliest yet most fascinating aspects of human nature.
Batman: Knight of Vengeance What should have been a throwaway spinoff from the Flashpoint event that rebooted the DC Universe turned out to be one of the best, most gut-wrenching interpretations of the Dark Knight mythos ever. In this alternate reality, it's Bruce Wayne who gets killed by a petty mugger and his father Thomas becomes the grimly obsessed nocturnal avenger. The series works by exploring how different Batman would be if a different kind of loss was driving the man underneath the mask.
Wonder Woman Yes, you're reading that right. The iconic heroine who bounces bullets off her bracelets and flings a golden lasso around currently stars in one of the most melodramatic and emotionally bleak superhero series being published today. All the gods and mortals in Wonder Woman are driven by intense desires — be it lust, power, destruction — and the clashes reveals uncomfortable truths about their own histories. Diana of the Amazons is still saving the world but the cost of doing so is laid bare in far rawer fashion than ever before.
The man currently writing Captain America for Marvel also happens to power a one-man cottage industry that turns out great crime drama several times a month. Brubaker's noir output feels extremely personal and even when you know characters are going down the wrong path, you still get rocked when their reckonings happen.
Sleeper This underappreciated cult hit focuses on secret agent Holden Carver — gone undercover in a supervillain mob society — and chronicles what happens when the man who's supposed to get him out falls into a coma. Carver's superpower is to store and dish out pain and, surrounded by metahuman depravity of all sorts, he finds himself leaning on those abilities a little too much. Sleeper boasts a great femme fatale character called Miss Misery, too. The less said about her, the better. Just find this series.
Criminal This creator-owned series reunites Brubaker with frequent partner Sean Phillips for intense, sharply sad stories shining a spotlight on the hard-luck stories of a rotating cast. As the title implies, all the lead characters lead lives on the wrong side of the law but how they cope with that makes for incredibly gripping reading.
Incognito Incognito treads similar territory as Sleeper but has less of a super-espionage feel. Instead, it harkens back to the pulps, and comes packed with mad super-science and thrill-addicted characters who need to tamp down their urges to maintain normal lives. Te lead is Zack Overkill, a former super-criminal in the witness protection program after testifying against an aged mega-villain. What Incognito really gets across is how maddening denying part of your power must be and the depths to which a person would go to quell that ache.
Sin City: The Hard Goobye Legendary writer/artist Frank Miller is one of the men most responsible for bringing the gritty sensibility of noir to comics. He started off by turning Marvel's Daredevil into a tortured soul, complete with an impossible-to-forget femme fatale. But his creator-owned Sin City books are really where the influence of writers like Mickey Spillane shone through Miller's work. Lots of volumes of Sin City exist, but this one is a great place to start.
Hard Boiled Don't let the gorgeously detailed artwork of Geoff Darrow fool you. Sure, this story of a tough-as-nails tax collector looks like a dystopian sci-fi story. But peel away all the retro futurism and you get the classic elements of good noir: unbridled lust, a flawed hero bucking up against a corrupt society and a seduction too powerful to resist.
Lapham started off in superhero comics at Valiant but then branched off into self-published work. He's gone back and forth since then but tends to specialise in characters who are a little bit crazy and seem to like the chaos.
Stray Bullets You'd have to call this series decompressed noir, I think. Written and drawn by Lapham, the book follows the randomly intersecting lives of a series of strangers and shows how their everyday existences unravel when impacted by weird collisions of violence and want. It's told out of order but tat doesn't matter. The emotional takeaway is so strong in each chapter that Stray Bullets doesn't really need an overarching plot.
This best-selling novelist brings a punchy sense of pacing and visceral use of violence to his comics work, which has spanned various books from DC and Marvel.
Penguin: Pride and Prejudice The Bat-villain that everyone laughs at doesn't seem so funny anymore, thanks to Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudranski. The pair pull back the veil on Penguin's early life — which was been mined for tragedy before, but never so brutally — and show the waddling kingpin falling in love with a blind woman. The mix of cruel and kind that happens in this book makes the petty revenges shot off by the Penguin all the more revolting.