Review time! with Mumbai Confidential
Archaia continues to send me comics in the mail, and most of the time, I get around to reviewing them (I can’t get to them all!). This time it’s Mumbai Confidential, which is billed as “Book One,” but it tells a complete story, so I’m not sure if the creators are planning to tell stories set in Mumbai with new characters or if they’re going to bring some of these characters back. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see! The book is written by Saurav Mohapatra and drawn by Vivek Shinde, with additional art (for some interludes to the main story) by Sid Kotian, Saumin Patel, Vinay Brahmania, and Devaki Neogi. It’s 150 pages for a nice $24.95 hardcover.
As Ron Marz points out in his introduction, Mumbai is a very good place to set a noir story because of the contrast between the super-rich and the abject poor and the clash between the modern and the ancient. It’s a sprawling city, too, so it offers a lot of real estate for the characters to move through. Mohapatra gives us a bleak noir story, too, where there’s really no hero, just corrupt cops, even more corrupt cops, and gangsters. The least corrupt cop, Arjun Kadam, is actually no longer on the force when the book begins, and we gradually learn why not. But while Kadam is corrupt, he’s not completely soulless, so that makes him the hero. The story is based on a real situation in Mumbai – the crime was so bad in the 1990s that a special police force called the Encounter squad was formed, and they were given the authority to straight-up murder the bad guys. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they began to move in and take over the criminal activities of those they had gunned down, and the worm eventually turned. Kadam is part of the Encounter squad, and he thinks he’s doing the right thing early on, but as he has a shred of decency left, he’s not as on board as the others. Mohapatra also gives him a backstory, as his wife is pregnant but she develops tumors in her Fallopian tubes and both she and the baby die. Kadam, perhaps not surprisingly, becomes a heroin addict, which only makes him more corruptible but also more sympathetic. The inciting event of the book, like a lot of noir, is a seemingly random occurrence – Kadam is struck by a car, but more importantly, a girl who just gave him a flower in a rare act of kindness is also killed. Kadam tries to investigate the hit-and-run, and finds that it’s a more complicated crime than he originally thought.
On the surface, this is a standard noir story, and if you like that kind of thing, it’s a good story. Mohapatra’s tale is as bleak as it gets, as the only two “good” characters – Kadam’s wife and Laali, the flower girl – are killed by a brutal, uncaring world. Like a lot of good noir, he jumps back and forth in time nicely, and it actually leads to the one weakness in the book – Mohapatra never gets around to explaining what happened to Kadam’s wife and why he’s no longer on the force. We can infer that she died and his addictions led to his dismissal, but when we reach that point, Kadam is well into his investigation and Mohapatra becomes more linear, moving beyond the events of the “past.” For the most part, however, the way he structures the book works well, because he gives us short scenes that eventually link up nicely, from the chess game Kadam plays with his only friend on the force to the criminal they bust. Mohapatra makes good use of the setting, too, as he ties in the Hindi film industry and the giant gulf between the rich and the poor in India. As a noir story, this is quite good. By making it an interesting sociological examination of Mumbai, Mohapatra makes it a bit more compelling than your average noir. The “interludes” that come between some of the chapters are vignettes about some of the characters that don’t necessarily tie into the main story but allow Mohapatra to show some different facets of their personalities. It’s a nice device.
Shinde’s style is not my favorite, but he does a nice job with the digital painting – it’s obvious that he’s good at it, and it’s just a “me” problem that I don’t love the style. What works well is the mood, because he can drench parts of the book in darkness and rain, which highlights the bleakness of Kadam’s present life. The dream sequences are really nice, as Shinde colors everything blue and makes the things Kadam sees eerie and weird. In the “past” sections, he makes everything brighter and harsher, as if Kadam was living in a hotter place then and after his life fell apart, everything got cooler. Shinde uses light extremely well, which goes hand-in-hand with the darkness of the book. Characters are always lighting cigarettes in dark places, which helps spotlight them. He also does a good job contrasting the rich of Mumbai with the poor – we can tell the subtle differences between the way certain characters dress, while the posher parts of town are definitely cleaner and brighter. The other artists have nice differences in style, which adds (perhaps inadvertently) to the wide variety of life in Mumbai. They’re nice palette cleansers.
Mohapatra gets bleaker and bleaker as the book goes along, and the last page is a nice twist on the “sound-byte” epilogue that we get in a lot of movies. This is not a book to read if you want to be happy, but it is a good noir story. The ultimate plot isn’t the greatest, but with these kinds of stories, that’s almost beside the point – what makes them interesting is the atmosphere the creators create, and Mohapatra and Shinde (along with the interlude artists) do a good job with that. The novelty of setting it in Mumbai (for American readers at least; I don’t know if the Indian comics scene has a lot of noir stories set in the city) never wears off, because the creators make the city so much a part of the book. If you’re a fan of noir, this is a good book to read. I’m curious if the creators are going to return to this “universe” in the future. Should be keen to see.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆