03 February 2010

An Epidemic of Noir

by guest columnist Anthony Schiavino .  Follow him on Twitter.

It seems like these days, most prevalent in comics, that the word “NOIR” is thrown around so frequently that it’s completely lost it’s meaning. As it stands now you’ll find that most times you hear the word it will relate to crime stories and nothing more. A better term for these stories would be HARDBOILED. It’s dark, unrelenting, and goes very far past just noir. But there is another type, perhaps the original intent and that is FILM NOIR. For most it’s a term that only used for certain types of films, and that is not wrong at all, but for me it’s a type of story.

A few examples for comparison.

Out of the Past = CRIME NOIR

The differences will be noticeable rather quickly. Just because a comic or movie is black and white or filled with crime doesn’t make it only NOIR. Sin City is a very good example of that. I’ll make no argument in that it takes from it. I just don’t believe it should be described as such and it hasn’t.

My complaint isn’t about the actual comics themselves or the quality therein. One of my all-time favorites is Criminal by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Val Staples. It’s a comic book that refuses to pull its punches, and makes you genuinely care about the characters - evil or otherwise.  The creators know the toys they’re playing with and which ones to avoid. Criminal can be described as both NOIR and HARDBOILED because it’s created with BOTH of those mindsets.

What has pushed it over the edge is that not only are we getting these kinds of stories but they are going over the top more and more for the sake of going over the top and nothing more.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love a good seedy crime story as much as the next guy. I am, however, a fan of the old school.  Crime Noir should not be the be all and end all of the kinds of stories you can tell within the genre.

Val Lewton proved this point in his movies - I Walked With A Zombie being a perfect example. That’s film noir. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a must.  Matter of fact - buy the entire box set with the Scorsese documentary. Some of the shots in that movie are so pitch black you need to watch at night with the lights off and there isn’t a soundtrack.  Just the blowing of the wind. There’s death without bloodshed and or somebody shooting up or getting shot in the head. Lewton’s movies were more psychological horror than anything else yet they’re still considered NOIR.

Just so we’re clear the definition of Film Noir can be found here  but if you don’t want to click on the link:

Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood's classic film noir period is generally regarded as stretching from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography, while many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Depression.

You’ll notice that it does talk about HARDBOILED stories and how eventually the HARDBOILED emerged from the early works. But if read closer it talks about how a scene is filmed, much of it through low lighting and a good helping of silhouettes.

I’d take a good smoking cigarette under a street light over a smoking gun any day.  It describes so much more and is much seedier than the firing of a gun.  It sets the mood.  It gives you character. 

NOIR is how you set a scene and it’s your mindset in writing it.  Just because a character is down on his luck doesn’t mean he wants to blow somebody’s brains out, rape them, and/or do a line of coke in between.  Those stories have their place as well as their audience, but I feel they go beyond the definition of the word.  Even in those old movies - the good ones - most times an act was alluded to rather than shown. They didn’t do this because they were afraid. They did it because it was just a better way to tell the story.  

And yes, much of the time they were considered crime stories.

I’ve written my fair share of bloodshed and hardboiled scenes in my own Sergeant Zero.  People get shot.  People die. Blood and brain splatter.  I’m not a hypocrite about it.  I think it very much has it’s place and I do read them.

An audience becomes conditioned after a fashion. There are those that are fascinated with old movies, with this film noir, and yet have never touched a comic book before.  Two kinds of media that tells a story through a visual image. It’s an untapped audience that I am personally trying to reach out to.

The term NOIR is being used so much these days it’s practically used for everything as long as it’s a crime story. I could be in the minority on this but I like to think that there is so much more. Maybe my friends that are crime writers are going to read this and shoot me down in cold blood. But that’s alright. 

At least I know they care.

 From the halls of Marvel Comics as a mutant editorial intern to the heights of the Flatiron designing book covers and straight on through newsrooms as an art director, Anthony Schiavino has seen action and then some. Pounding away at the keyboard, working well into the night, he mixes his love of old hard-boiled stories, hopeless romance and black and white movie dialogue like a good stiff drink. A writer and designer from New Jersey, Anthony’s work can be seen on a wide range of pulp and comic book publications such as “Ghost Zero,” “The Phantom: Generations,” and the “Black Forest.”

He can be found talking comics, movies, television, and all things pulp on Facebook and Twitter


moderndaystoryteller said...

Great post, totally agree. I think this epidemic and epidemics of this nature in relation to film is due largely to a lack of or cliched understanding of the type of story at hand. My fav film noir of all time - Chinatown. Cheers.

Pulp Tone said...

Thanks for the comment! My worry was that people were going to look down upon me as if I'm saying these other types of stories are bad. I just think they're the old kind marketed at this point. You pretty much said it!

I have to go back and watch Chinatown again. It's been awhile.

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