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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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.