Thursday, April 28, 2011

Noir, melodrama, and Scalped

I smiled when I first read that the American movies later called films noirs were once known as melodramas.

That's because melodramas are melodramatic, and noir is, you know, serious. Rightly or wrongly, I'd associated melodramas with cliffhangers, and noir is about endings, the bleaker the better.

Except what could be bleaker than to keep running into bleak endings, tragedy after tragedy, loss after loss, without ever a happy ending or escape into death?

Jason Aaron's Scalped is responsible for my little epiphany, particularly a story in Rez Blues, the seventh and most recent trade paperback that collects issues of this darker than dark comic set on a South Dakota Indian reservation. The story features Shunka, previously seen only as an enforcer for Lincoln Red Crow, a chief and casino owner who runs everything on the reservation. (Red Crow's resemblance to the ruthless barons of stories like Red Harvest is not Aaron's only tribute to the Black Mask-era. One of his protagonists is named Dashiell Bad Horse.)

Give every central and significant supporting figure a doomed quest, with every apparent resolution turning into a new, more hellish species of damnation, and pretty soon the quests stop seeming like excuses to keep the story going and start forming coherent pieces of an inescapably grim world.

As in much noir, the prevailing darkness makes a marvelous, ironic background for the occasional flash of humor. My favorite here comes when Shunka confronts a casino owner whose bad-mouthing has kept the big acts away from Red Crow's casino. The bad-mouthing owner/chief replies:
"So wait, let me get this straight. Red Crow sent you all the way out here to threaten me...over Wayne Newton and Cirque du Soleil?"
© Peter Rozovsky 2011

Labels: , , , , ,

12 Comments:

Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Threaten "over"? Or were Wayne Newton and Cirque du Soleil the actual threats?

Please!!! No more gymnasts in mascara and sequins!!!

April 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm afraid Shunka and Red Crow think more highly of our city's leading export than you do. They don't want the bad-mouthing chief keeping the big acts away from Red Crow's place.

A few years ago I was walking around Place Jacques Cartier, and I saw the Cirque du Soleil's trademark tents set up at the foot of the square for the world premiere of a show.

The Cirque's two ingenious touches:

1) setting up their presentations as shows, each with a new name, the better to lure back visitors worried they'll miss something they haven't seen before.

2) routing visitors through a merchandise tent before they get to the performing area. You can feel the twenty-dollar bills being sucked out of your wallet.

April 28, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Stephen Hunter once described a noir film as "a stainless steel rat trap with a 4,000 pound spring." Gripping metaphor, and one that pushes noir from a genre into a worldview statement about existence itself (albeit one with which I disagree).

Also, I need to read more Scalped.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I'd like to see a graphic novel about the founder of Cirque de Soliel and his rise from street performer in Montreal to billionaire - there's some interesting backstory and connections there...

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, that sounds more like a thriller than like noir to me, though noir is notoriously difficult to define. Just ask Anthony Neil Smith.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, any juciy stories there, or just the heart-warming tale of a Quebecois kid who started out as a busker and ended up with a billion dollars in his guitar case?

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

I remember my kids and I riding the bike paths in the Old Port, and stopping to watch some of the Cirque out practising routines on the docks. No sequins, no mascara, no horrible remixed Beatles or Elvis crap; just a bunch of pros going at it in tights and ratty T shirts and the like. A few of 'em were even in jeans. Repeating the same rolls and falls and moves over and over -- that sort of serious professionalism, removed from the glitter and Vegas sheen, was fascinating to watch.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That must have been a sight. Your comment about music reminded me that the Cirque du Soleil uses lives musician in its act. This does much to enhance the presentation.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Crosby Kenyon said...

It's hard to beat the graphic novel and noir as a combination.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Crosby, I'm relatively newly returned to the world of comics, and I think it's easy for comics to grasp the atmosphere of noir -- the dark urban street scenes, the shadows and the fill-bleed black or indigo blue. Some of the art is great to look at.

On the super-hero side, it appears to this outsider that the theme of the dark and tortured costumed hero is played out by now.

But for stories that are noir to the core and not just on the surface, it's hard to think of much that beats Scalped.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hard to beat the comic-and-noir combination?

I dunno. Film might work too.

Too often, what's hyped as "noir" in comics is actually just pulp with heavy-handed pretension, a bummer ending and too much black ink.

The recent Marvel Noir series shows just how meaningless the word "noir" has become. "Put Wolverine in a fedora! Oooh! It's noir!"

SCALPED is an exception. It's very, very well written. The characters are more than mere playing pieces being used to set up "awesome scenes."

April 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, I'm pleased that you share my impression that noir is just an easily adopted attitude in lots of comics. What makes Scalped noir is not its dark palette, but its story.

Yeah, that super-hero noir thing -- I've read very little of the stuff, but I have to think that one reason it doesn't work for me is that the authors take a bunch of characters whose only interest is that they wear colorful costimes, then pretend that they're not wearing those costumes.

Alan Moore does just the opposite. Watchmen and Top Ten not only embrace the costumes and the superpowers, they make them the driver of all the human stories that follow. Moore knows the powers and costumes are the only reasons we're interested in these characters, and he runs with it.

April 30, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home