Translated by Dan Christensen — Italian writer and illustrator Enrico Marini moves further towards the dark side with his latest graphic novel, Noir Burlesque. It’s five years or so since he released Batman: The Dark Prince Charming, and his latest work is an overt homage to the classic 1950s film and pulp fiction era.
It opens with Slick, the main protagonist, catching up with his former lover Caprice. He thinks she ducked out on him when things got tough. He’s got a gun on her but still can’t make up his mind to shoot her or kiss her… how about the former followed by the latter? That’s an option. How did it all come to this? That’s our story.
Putting aside their criss-crossing history for the moment, they met again recently when Slick pulled a job for sleazy nightclub owner, Rex. He was forced into it by a family debt and Rex, a creep and bully, just happens to be Caprice’s new fiancée. He wants to own Slick – but our antihero is a man who doesn’t consider himself to be for sale.
Slick robs a jewellery store for Rex. It doesn’t go well and it doesn’t cover Slick’s debt, so he isn’t free yet. But what really complicates the picture are his feelings for Caprice, now a burlesque performer at Rex’s club. When she and Slick reconnect the earth shakes, but Rex finds out. Now the fates of Slick and Caprice are in the balance.
Rex may kill them but first he makes an offer that Slick can’t refuse. He has to rob an Italian mobster. Rex lies about that squaring things. Needless to say, this too goes sideways and soon the bullet manufacturers of America are struggling to keep up with the demand! Lust, revenge, double-crosses, abduction and murder – all fuelled by jealousy, greed and stupidity – are the themes in a graphic novel delivered with gusto and style.
Slick has a preference for milk that draws attention in a night club. Does his hard exterior hide a heart that needs mending? Is Caprice the woman to do it? Will Slick atone for the past or be consumed by it? There’s certainly more depth to this guy than we first think. He’s back in town, on a mission, but that doesn’t mean he’s lying when he says he wants out. Can he ever get clear of this mess?
At first, Caprice is an hour-glass beauty who seems like a two-dimensional Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner clone, but there’s more to her than that. This is a woman who’s been used and hurt, with an attitude tempered by experience. She’s used to looking after herself but she’s trapped by bad men. Is Slick her way out? Can the pair survive the gang war with a price on their heads?
The artwork employs myriad grey tones, in keeping with the noir theme, and the only colour comes in flashes of red – a dress, a car, but mostly it’s Caprice’s Gilda-like locks. The imagery, action and words combine perfectly. A towering cityscape punctured by figures breaking out of dingy club interiors and seedy hotel rooms – scenes you recognise from a thousand films and the pictures pulp novels have put into your head.
Every trope is covered, all the movie clichés, all the characters who brought noir to life are here. The concrete jungle, the femmes fatales, psychopathic thugs, scheming two-bit gangsters, walk-on prostitutes, mouthy barmen, innocent woman and children caught in the maelstrom, tough nut cop and the antihero we hate to love but can’t help it.
It’s dark and sexy and, here’s the thing, funny as hell. Why? Because this is a tongue-in-cheek homage. If it weren’t it would be a bit flat trotting out dull clichés, but Marini has a sense of humour and enough knowledge of the art form to subvert it but with admiration for the original. He delivers a quip with a hardboiled edge, but it’s funny too. The woman in the jewellery store can’t resist the hunky robber’s rough charms so she shows him the back way out as the police descend. He gratefully slips her a pearl necklace and she says come back any time.
It doesn’t end the way you expect. There’s a twist that’s in keeping with the noir feel of the work. A second volume has already been published in French. You’ll be captivated if you’re a comic fan, know your noir and you like the idea of poking a little fun in praise of the original.
Also see the Babylon Berlin graphic novel by Volker Kutscher & Arne Jysch.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars