Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Comics Review: The Alack Sinner Stories, José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Looking back on the 1970s generation of European cartoonists, it seems like the stars epitomized their own particular genres of potboiler fiction. Jean Giraud was the Western cartoonist. Vittorio Giardino was the master of espionage thrillers. Historical adventure stories were defined by the work of Hugo Pratt. A couple of genres had competing masters, like Milo Manara and Guido Crepax with erotica, and Giraud (under his Moebius pseudonym) and Philippe Druillet with science-fiction/fantasy.

Hard-boiled crime fiction was the province of the Argentina-born, Europe-based artist-writer team of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo. (Well, Jacques Tardi, too.) Muñoz and Sampayo’s signature character, Alack Sinner, was a lonely, cynical private detective whose experiences invariably exposed the corruption of the world around him. But Sinner ultimately proved too compelling a character for the crime genre to comfortably contain. The stories never lost their detective-fiction trappings--particularly their noir look and their hard-boiled tone--but they gradually moved away from the mystery-story format in favor of creating a remarkable character study. Seven of the Alack Sinner stories have been published in English--the first four in sequence, and three others from various points in the feature’s run. (Sinner is also a featured character in Muñoz and Sampayo’s Billie Holiday graphic novel, but the book is not primarily a Sinner story.) Even in this incomplete form, Muñoz and Sampayo’s achievement shines through. The crime genre, famous for its terse superficiality, became the setting for the sort of complex characterization typical of literature. The Alack Sinner stories are an accomplished example of crime fiction in comics, but that's not all they are.

The first two Sinner stories, “The Webster Case” and “The Fillmore Case,” are probably the least interesting. They are most notable for the contrast between them and the strip in its mature phase. The stories are conventional private-eye procedurals. The story elements are familiar: intrigue and decadence among the wealthy, the beautiful young woman to be saved, the sarcastic tough-guy detective hero. “The Fillmore Case” is the more compelling of the two. Muñoz and Sampayo originally conceived Sinner as a private detective in the Sam Spade mold. In “The Fillmore Case,” they begin breaking him away from this hackneyed characterization. The story’s opening sequence, which shows Sinner beginning his day, quietly highlights an alienated, depressed aspect to the character. We see him drag himself out of bed and force himself to make coffee and get cleaned up before heading to his office. The clutter of the apartment is emphasized--the overflowing ashtrays, the piled-up dirty dishes, the newspapers and magazines strewn all over the floor. The scene provides a counterpoint to the depiction of Sinner as an ultra-competent man-of-action. He may be extremely capable on the job, but his personal life is a barely maintained shambles.

It’s with the third story, “Viet Blues,” that Muñoz and Sampayo break free of mystery-story conventions and turn the feature into an exploration of Sinner’s character. It tells of his friendship with John Smith III, a young African-American jazz pianist (and Vietnam veteran) who has gotten on the wrong side of the Harlem mob. Sinner and Smith are contrasting studies in loneliness. Sinner’s man-of-action behavior is revealed as an escapist compulsion. He’s looking for trouble as a way to escape his disappointment with his life, whether it’s breaking up a mugging, telling off his clients, or mixing it up with the mobsters who are targeting Smith. Escapist compulsions dog Smith as well: he’s a heroin addict, he plays music to forget, and he hangs out with a pair of black militants for protection, even though he couldn’t care less about their views or their cause. Sinner acts out to escape; Smith retreats inward, although he finally lands on his feet. The story ends on a disturbing note. It’s pointed out to Sinner that his self-righteousness is borne of an impotent sense of justice. He tries to make things right in modest ways, but he’s doomed to disappointment because he inevitably acquiesces to society’s power structure--one in which the law is used as a weapon. In the story’s view, success only comes from making--and finding fulfillment in--one’s rules for oneself.

“Viet Blues” is also a leap forward in terms of the art. Muñoz’s early style clearly shows him to be among the comic-book heirs of Milton Caniff: rich blacks, detailed deep-space compositions, and loose (although highly knowledgeable) draftsmanship. In “Viet Blues,” he sheds the stiffness of his work in the feature’s first two episodes; almost every panel feels more energetic and intense. Muñoz also shows a greater dramatic range. He handles the violence in a Vietnam flashback with a virtuosity that would make the storied war-adventure cartoonist Joe Kubert envious, but he’s equally at home in the somber, understated pathos of the scene in which John Smith III goes cold turkey on his heroin habit. The Muñoz of “Viet Blues” is not yet the expressionistic master of the Joe’s Bar stories, but he’s a first-rate comics dramatist.

Muñoz’s mature style is on dazzling display in “Talkin’ with Joe,” a story from much later in the feature’s run. Longtime comics fans would probably consider “Talkin’ with Joe” the Alack Sinner origin story, but it is probably best viewed as the story in which the Joe’s Bar and Alack Sinner material converged. We first see Sinner as another denizen of the bar, drinking away his troubles into the night. After closing, the owner sits down with him, and he relates the story of how he became a private detective. It’s nothing suspenseful, much less glamorous. Sinner was a Manhattan beat cop who became so demoralized by the self-righteous thuggery of the police force that he quit in disgust. It’s a portrait of a conscience in crisis; the story’s turning point occurs when Sinner has to decide whether to go along with the department’s brutality after his sister is attacked by a gang. Muñoz’s visuals are brilliant. His expressionistic rendering of New York gives the reader the city of one’s worst nightmares: a dark, crowded urban swampland of garbage. Every character besides Sinner and those he confides in is a monstrous grotesque. His fellow police officers are like a chorus of jeering gargoyles. The hallucinatory intensity of this milieu is only heightened by the calm in the scenes of Sinner with those he trusts, such as the bar owner and his sister. Alienation and loneliness have never been dramatized so effectively. It’s a piece that fits seamlessly with the character portraits in the Joe’s Bar series.

The masterpiece of the Sinner stories in English is “Memories,” another story from a later point in the series. It begins with Sinner getting up and looking at some pet fish he bought the day before. He ends up thinking back on various times in his life. The memories are all moments of helplessness. Some are mild, such as his teenage self not knowing what to tell his sister when she first gets her period. Others, though, are horrific, like when Fairfax, one of Sinner’s partners on the police force, murders his family in despair. Muñoz and Sampayo use the pet fish to dramatize Sinner’s emotional state. At first, their faces are benign and their markings harmonious. However, the panels featuring them bookend each new flashback, and the fish become gradually more grotesque. By the end, they’re monstrous, and Sinner imagines them as his dead parents, inviting him to join them, presumably through suicide. Muñoz and Sampayo build the story to a fever pitch, and they end it with an apt metaphor for Sinner’s rejection of despair: he flushes the creatures down the toilet. Muñoz’s expressionistic bravura is superbly used as a narrative counterpoint; the images of the fish provide the beat for the melodies of the flashback scenes, and they gradually heighten the story’s pitch as it progresses. Form and content are inseparable here; “Memories” is a story that would be impossible to execute in any medium besides comics.

The strength of “Memories,” “Talkin’ with Joe,” and “Viet Blues” leave a reader eager for more, as well as willing to overlook the clunkers among the rest of the stories translated into English. (“The Fillmore Case” and “The Webster Case” are examples of the feature before it found its voice, while “Life Ain’t a Comic Strip, Baby” and “North Americans” find Muñoz and Sampayo spinning their wheels.) The knowledge that additional stories are out there untranslated is especially frustrating. The Alack Sinner stories have not done well by Fantagraphics Books, their principal English-language publisher. Low sales caused a Sinner reprint series to be cancelled after five issues, and they also presumably derailed plans for a promised trade-paperback translation of the extended Sinner story "Nicaragua." One hopes it was only because the comics market of the late 1980s and early 1990s wasn’t especially amenable to a serial reprinting of the material in magazine format. We’re in the age of the graphic novel now, and a thick book-length collection of the stories would be especially welcome.

The Alack Sinner stories published in English:

  • "Memories," Prime Cuts #4, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, August 1987, p. 1-20.
  • "Talkin' With Joe," Sinner #1, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, October 1987.
  • "The Webster Case," Sinner #2, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, March 1988.
  • "The Fillmore Case," Sinner #3, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, May 1988.
  • "Viet Blues," Sinner #4, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, September 1989.
  • "Life Ain't a Comic Strip, Baby," Sinner #5, Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, September 1990.
  • "North Americans," RAW, Volume Two, Number Three, New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 59-73.

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