"Star Wars" Minor Players Reflect on a Galaxy Not So Far Away in "Elstree 1976"
Yes, it’s another fancy graphic novel from Archaia in collaboration with Before the Door, the production company set up by Zachary Quinto. As you know, I’m always a bit leery buying comics that actors help put together, because it seems like a cheap and easy way to get a screenplay written just for you, but while the writer of Mr. Murder Is Dead is a filmmaker, there aren’t any actors’ names on this sucker, so I’m willing to let it slide. Of course, all that really matters is that the book is good, right? Anyway, Mr. Murder Is Dead costs 20 bucks, and it’s written by Victor Quinaz, drawn by Brent Schoonover, inked by Stacie Ponder (and Schoonover), colored by Mark Englert, and lettered by Deron Bennett.
Mr. Murder Is Dead is a noir murder mystery, but Quinaz and Schoonover do some interesting things with it. They give us a bad guy, Mr. Murder, who is indeed dead at the beginning of the book. Mr. Murder was the nemesis of The Spook, a do-gooder (and cop, although that’s a bit fuzzy) whose real name is Gould Kane – you can see where Quinaz got his inspiration. What’s interesting is that Quinaz sets this in the present day, when Kane and the rest of his ilk are senior citizens, and we get a lot of flashbacks to The Spook’s crime-fighting career, laid out and in the style of newspaper comic strips (there’s a reason the book is printed in landscape format). So while the “present-day” artwork is in a modern style, the “past” strips are drawn in the style of the times (no one wears an onion on their belts, sadly), whether it be the 1930s, the 1950s, or even the 1970s. Yes, time is a bit distended in this book, but it’s not like Quinaz actually says any of these time periods are fixed – we just know it from how the art looks. Englert changed the paper stock for the flashback episodes and artificially aged the paper, and Bennett changed his lettering style, so not only the art looks as if it’s from the time period, the entire strip looks like it’s from the time period. It’s a neat trick, and Quinaz goes one further – the writing reflects the way strips were done back in the day, and the fact that a lot of murky stuff is going on lends some nice cognitive dissonance to the flashback episodes. We all know that there was some weird stuff going on in Dick Tracy newspaper strips, and Quinaz makes sure that that kind of subtextual stuff is present in his own work. (There’s an unfortunate side effect to making the book look like something printed in the 1930s – Captain Chung, Kane’s friend on the force, is colored a pale yellow in the “flashback” sections, and while he’s not portrayed in any racist way whatsoever, the coloring choice is a bit unfortunate.)
Whodunit is part of the fun of Mr. Murder Is Dead, especially because Kane is a prime suspect – Mr. Murder, we learn, killed his fiancée on the day of their wedding, which gives Kane a very good motive. But Kane soon stumbles across Mr. Murder’s latest crime, as he planned to return to glory by robbing a bank by tunneling underneath it from a theater next door (Mr. Murder has been out of the country for some time, but for some reason he returned). Kane, who has recently lost his pension (as I mentioned above, Kane was a cop, but he’s still kind of like Dick Tracy, where he can do pretty much anything he wants even though he’s on the force), decides to round up Mr. Murder’s old crew and steal the money himself. Sure, nothing can go wrong with that, right?
Quinaz gives us some nice twists in the story: Another old flame, Lydia, is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, and she says some things that maybe she shouldn’t; Billy the Kidd, a young “apprentice” in crime for Mr. Murder, shows up after some years with a pretty big surprise; Kane is convinced he knows what’s going on early in the book but quickly realizes he doesn’t. Quinaz does a nice job filling in the backstory through the use of the flashback strips, so, in true noir fashion, we learn that some things are not what they seem. The book becomes more about Kane trying to rescue himself from the despair he feels late in life, now that his talents are really needed anymore. He looks for classic Gary Cooper movies at the video store but ends up with softcore porn, he drinks too much, and he ignores the landlord in his building, who may or may not beat his wife. Later in the book he actually has a stroke, which screws him up even more. Kane, interestingly enough, shows us the dark side of noir survivors – we usually end the movie or the book before we see the tough guy in his declining years, and even those works of fiction that show older tough guys (Lee Marvin, for instance) don’t show the decline as much. Kane is a pathetic “hero,” and the fact that he does very little in this comic is a nice ironic touch by Quinaz. He’s not as interested in the machinations of the plot – although the plot is a bit complex – as much as he’s interested in showing a desperate man clutching at anything to make his final years a little easier. It explains why he’s manipulated so easily throughout the book.
The actual murder plot is the weakest part of the book – it makes perfect sense and Quinaz does set it up fairly well, but he also falls into the trap of the villain explaining far too much of the scheme, and because Kane isn’t terribly interested in the murder (who cares who killed such a villain as Mr. Murder, after all), Chung does a lot of the leg work, such as it is (he sits around a lot). So while the book is entertaining, the robbery plan is fairly interesting, and Kane is a fascinating character, the actual murder mystery falls a bit short. It’s certainly not enough to make the book a failure, because it’s obvious that Quinaz was trying to do other things, but it is curious.
Artwise, Schoonover does a good job, not only changing up his styles, but with the pencil work in general. He doesn’t change his style so much that it looks like a different artist, but it’s different enough that it looks like a lot of time has passed. He does quite a lot of interesting things in the book, from the exaggeration of the 1930s and 1950s strips to an avant-garde look when Lydia’s son tells Kane about his unusual visitors at the bank (he’s the president). The actual robbery is a very nice double-page spread – I don’t want to spoil it, but Schoonover makes it seem almost a lark to break into a vault, which is weird but works. There’s a clichéd “Hostess Fruit Pies” parody at the end of the book, but it doesn’t seem as out of place as it does occasionally in comics because of the way Quinaz and Schoonover have gone back and forth in time. As noted above, Englert does some different things with the “old” strips, but he also does a good job turning the modern world into a seedy, depressing place, full of wasted dreams and people waiting to die.
Mr. Murder Is Dead seems to be a standard noir comic on the surface, but it’s to the creators’ credit that they don’t follow the same script that most noir works do. The way the artists make the book is fascinating, and Quinaz does a very nice job changing the focus of the book so that Mr. Murder’s death almost – almost – doesn’t matter. While the murder mystery is probably the weakest part of the book (and it’s still not bad), the rest of the comic makes up for it, as Kane struggles to figure out what’s become of his life and why it all went so wrong. It’s a fairly complex drama playing out within the confines of a murder plot, and it makes Mr. Murder Is Dead a pretty cool comic. Don’t let the landscape format scare you!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.