Scene of the Crime: back in print at last

The NS comics review

Scene of the Crime
Ed Brubaker (W), Michael Lark (P/I), Sean Phillips (I), James Sinclair (C)
Image, 112pp, £18.99

Scene of the Crime has been long out-of-print, an uncomfortably common state of affairs for comics. Sometimes, that happens for understandable reasons: Alan Moore's Miracleman is unlikely to ever see the light of day because no-body is quite sure who owns the rights, but everyone is happy to sue everyone else over attempts to reprint it; Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Flex Mentallo was off the shelves for years due to unpleasantries involving Charles Atlas, whom the main character is a parody of. But many more become unavailable simply because the various collected edition departments of the major publishers seem to be unable to keep track of their backlists. These aren't minor books, either; when a comic published just three years ago, in the process of being adapted into a major Hollywood movie, is unavailable and selling for ten times cover price on Amazon, something's wrong.

So, rejoice! that Image have secured a reprint of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark's 1999 crime thriller, after more than a decade of unavailability. The book is one of three Brubaker – now returning to creator-owned comics off the back of an extraordinarily well-received eight-year run on Marvel's Captain America – credits with launching his career, and also represents his first collaboration with Sean Phillips, who inks Lark's artwork for the last three of the four issues.

The book tells the story of Jack Herriman, a Californian private eye, who takes a simple missing person case as a favour to an old family friend which, inevitably, turns out to not be so simple after all. Herriman finds himself embroiled in a family feud stretching back through the decades, and bumping heads with a hippy-throwback cult with a dark side.

The plot ticks along at a fair rate, and when the various threads floating around come together with a pleasing, if slightly over-foreshadowed, congruity, you'll find yourself just a few pages ahead of the protagonist.

The same isn't quite so true of Herriman's backstory, which betrays the book's roots. Brubaker drip-feeds information about him: we find out he lives with his uncle, a famous crime scene photographer, and aunt; we learn about his hero-cop-father's untimely end; we meet his ex-girlfriend, and they discuss his junkie past. But while these revelations fit thematically with the main plot, and bring Herriman closer to the family he's investigating, they are dripped out with little logic.

The reason seems to be the expectation, until relatively late in the creative process, that Scene of the Crime was to be an ongoing series; it even had a sequel-baiting subtitle, "A Little Piece of Goodnight". And as Brubaker reveals in the behind-the-scenes essay at the end (which upgrades the book from "hardcover" to "deluxe hardcover", apparently), even when it launched, the plan was that it would be a series of mini-series… "but that never happened".

The end result is a strange sort of character overdevelopment. It's not particularly problematic, but it weakens an otherwise strong stand-alone story.

Brubaker himself, looking back on his early work with the benefit of time, identifies one other glaring flaw, which is the sheer number of words on every page. It reads as though he didn't quite trust his artist to get across Herriman's turmoil – or that he was too caught up in writing hard-boiled P.I. inner monologues to remember that it's a comic, and things need to be played differently.

It's a shame, because Lark – who was frankly the senior member of the partnership at the time – pulls off his role with flourish. In collaborative comics it's always tricky to precisely apportion praise and blame, but some things – particularly an entire strand of plot revolving around mistaken identity, always tricky to do in a visual medium – were definitely his to make or break, and he succeeded every time.

Although Sean Phillips' name is on the cover with equal billing to Lark and Brubaker, his role was comparatively minor. Inking Lark – and not even for the entire book – was a job he was always perfectly capable of doing, and, judging by both the making-of pages in the backmatter and the lack of a noticeable difference from Lark inking himself, a job he carried out in a professional but workmanlike manner. It's pretty clear Image decided to big up his role to ride Scene of the Crime on the coat-tails of the later Brubaker-Phillips books.

Which is rather the elephant in the room. Since Scene of the Crime, Brubaker and Phillips have gone on to revolutionise crime comics with their creator-owned series Criminal (the second deluxe edition of which came out last April). Scene of the Crime is a perfectly good book, and contains moments of greatness, but there's little reason to read it now that its natural successor is available. By surpassing it so thoroughly, Brubaker and Phillips have consigned their (sort-of) first collaboration to the realm of "for completists only". That's a shame, because Scene of the Crime is a far better book than that label makes it sound; but given what it's naturally being compared to, it could never be anything but.

Photograph: Sean Phillips/Image Comics

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear