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Review of The Dark Night Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Crime Comics

By Derek Parker Royal

Wandtke, Terrence R. The Dark Night Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Crime Comics.. RIT Press, 2015.

When it comes to genre comics, readers can turn to a wealth of critical studies exploring horror, romance, science fiction, autobiography, documentary, and, of course, superhero comics. Until recently, however, one would be hard pressed to find any sustained examination of crime or detective comics. This is an issue addressed by Terrence R. Wandtke, whose genre bona fides have been demonstrated in his earlier works on superheroes, The Amazing Transforming Superhero! (2007) and The Meaning of Superhero Comic Books (2012). In his recent book, The Dark Night Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Crime Comics, Wandtke goes a long way toward filling this critical gap in crime narrative scholarship. As he mentions in his introduction, the only other full-length study of this genre is Mike Benton’s Crime Comics: The Illustrated History (1993), a text that focuses on the classic, pre-Comics Code era of comics from the 1940s and 1950s. In his work, Wandtke investigates the more contemporary manifestations of the genre from the 1980s to the present, arguing that the initial wave of American crime comics all but ended in the wake of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings and the industry’s subsequent retreat into “safe” (primarily superhero) fare. The contemporary revival of the genre, his thesis goes, is largely the result of the direct market, the demise of the Comics Code Authority, and the efforts of a few key creative figures. The convergence of these factors resulted in the release of several notable crime titles in the 1980s, thereby opening up, if not a floodgate, then a commercially viable path for the genre in ways that had not existed in comics since the 1950s.

In fact, Wandtke structures most of his manuscript around these seminal creators. After a quick survey of early twentieth-century crime narratives—largely informed by pulp magazines, hardboiled fiction, noir film, and pre-Code comic book series such as Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay, Comic Media’s Dynamite (or Johnny Dynamite), and EC Comics’ Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories—Wandtke centers his investigation on the 1980s work of Dean Motter and Howard Chaykin (chapter 2), Frank Miller (chapter 3), and the more recent efforts of Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Azzarello, and Ed Brubaker (chapter 4). His analyses of these key figures are largely based on close readings along thematic and narratological lines, highlighting what is arguably the defining style of each author. More contemporary writers are also discussed, such as Max Allan Collins and Greg Rucka, but these authors are referenced in passing or, as in the case of Collins, used as springboards into broader analyses. There are both benefits and potential drawbacks to this creator-centric approach. On the one hand, Wandtke is able to present a structured and cohesive chronicle of recent crime comics as expressed through its most celebrated practitioners. As the author points out, we could not appreciate contemporary crime comics today without Miller, Chaykin, and company.

On the other hand, Wandtke’s emphasis on major artists runs the risk of marginalizing, if not entirely ignoring, the significant works of creators who do not make it into his pantheon. For example, David Lapham’s Stray Bullets and Jason Aaron’s Scalped are never discussed, Greg Rucka’s non-mainstream crime writing (such as Whiteout and Stumptown) receives no attention, and the efforts of lesser-known creators—e.g., Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s Resident Alien series; John Wagner, Alan Grant, and Robin Smith’s The Bogie Man; and Joshua Hale Fialkov and Noel Tuazon’s Tumor—are never a part of the conversation. To his benefit, though, Wandtke is well aware of the monograph’s parameters, and in the final chapter, he maps out other possible scholarly trajectories and makes an appeal for further studies into this comics genre.

Given the direction he has chosen to take, Wandtke provides a cogent analysis of what are arguably the most defining writer/artists in crime comics today. His discussion of Frank Miller is, by far, the longest and most thorough in the book. Indeed, his chapter on the creator sits, both figuratively and literally, at the very center of the text which is only appropriate, given Miller’s place within Wandtke’s “resurgence” thesis. As the author states, “Sin City undeniably paved the way for a new wave of crime comics: an extremist and counter-cultural return to crime comics roots,” and equal significance is assigned to Miller’s superhero noir, particularly his run on Daredevil and especially on The Dark Knight Returns (94). In fact, one of the strengths of Wandtke’s study is his analysis of crime comics as they mash up against other genres and how these overlaps have contributed to the recent vitality within noir narrative. He points out that the crime stories of Bendis, Azzarello, and Brubaker eventually, and naturally, led to their successful runs on various superhero titles such as those surrounding Daredevil and Batman. Much of his discussion on Motter and Chaykin is centered on their retrofuturistic and science fiction-infused series, Mister X and American Flagg!, respectively, and how such genre crossing helped to distinguish more contemporary crime comics from their 1940s and 1950s counterparts: “By blending crime fiction with science fiction [both artists] reconsidered and revitalized crime fiction in the midst of the new phenomenon of direct market comic books” (59). Also regarding Chaykin, Wandtke explores (albeit briefly) the unlikely crossroads of crime, horror, and erotica in Black Kiss.

Chaykin also serves as the springboard for the author’s investigation into gender and contemporary crime comics, a discussion thread that is woven throughout The Dark Night Returns. Wandtke devotes a fair amount of space critiquing Chaykin’s hypermasculine tone and his depiction of women—along with the creator’s dogged defense of his representations—especially as it relates to the visual tropes of pin-up art and what is a centrally defining feature of noir narrative: the femme fatale. Wandtke explores similar tendencies in other writer/artists whose crime comics, some might argue, “intentionally walked a line between gratuity and cultural commentary,” such as Miller’s Sin City (48). At the same time, there are other creators who present a more nuanced or alternative approach to depictions of women, and even deconstruct gendered identity within the context of crime narrative. As Wandtke points out, Max Allan Collins’s Ms. Tree and Bendis’s Jinx and Alias, the latter functioning tangentially within the Marvel superhero universe, are just a few examples of more feminist, or at least female-centered, rewrites of classic noir conventions. In addition, Azzarello’s Isabelle “Dizzy” Cordova transitions quickly in his 100 Bullets series from a bitter ex-con into a ruthless noir enforcer. Although Wandtke persuasively dissects gender representations in the texts he actually does cite, it is a shame, in this context, that he never discusses Rucka’s Stumptown, whose female protagonist, Dex Parios, represents many of the interrogative impulses he describes in the most recent crime comics.

“Noir” lies at the heart of Wandtke’s examination, and early in the text, he is careful to define his terms and contextualize his specific genre focus. Not all crime stories are noir stories, which could exclude certain intellectual detective mysteries—à la Edgar Allan Poe or Wilkie Collins—heist narratives, and even police procedurals from his analysis. In his introduction, Wandtke defines his intended subject matter this way:

[N]oir is a story of a crime that explores the desperation of industrial and post-industrial life through visual design that essentializes and distorts. In addition, comic noir not only dialogues more openly with noir traditions of the past but also expands the critique typically associated with noir, reworking noir with an aesthetic approach that reveals the conventions of the genre and the medium. (xxi)

This is a definition that he adheres to throughout his text and even revisits (and critically underscores) in his final wrap-up. One may not necessarily agree with Wandtke’s conflation of crime (as genre) with noir (as genre)—just as one may question his choices of essential contemporary creators and comics—but there is no argument that he does a thorough job of laying out his parameters and then delving deeply into his chosen texts so as to pull out the most illustrative examples.

That being said, The Dark Night Returns is not without its limitations. Wandtke’s discussion of Bendis, Azzarello, and Brubaker reads slightly claustrophobic, with too much information being forced into just one chapter. Breaking up his analyses of these writers into more than one section—perhaps treating the first two authors together and then including Brubaker with Rucka in a separate chapter (the two did work together on Gotham Central)—would have allowed for an even more extensive discussion of these important writers. Azzarello’s Filthy Rich gets only a passing mention, and a discussion of Brubaker’s Scene of the Crime does not even warrant a full paragraph. What is more, the manuscript could have benefited from more thorough in-house editing and closer attention to visual production. There are typos and grammatical problems, such as dangling modifiers, that appear throughout the text, and, in places, the graphics appear blurry and poorly scanned (e.g., the images on pages 10 and 13).

Nonetheless, Wandtke’s work is an impressive contribution to comics studies in general and a major voice in genre analysis. His focus on defining artists and key texts functions as a binding element over the broad field of noir crime, providing cohesion to what could have otherwise been a sprawling survey. While The Dark Night Returns is far from exhaustive—and by the author’s own admonition, this is both a practical and a strategic decision—it clearly points the way for future investigations. Without question, Wandtke’s text stands as a touchstone for subsequent crime comics scholarship, as well as a call to arms for rigorous, ongoing study into one of the medium’s most historically significant genres.

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