Delenda Est Carthago

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Murder mysteries in comics: Are they any good? (Spoilers, obviously)

I can't go a day without reminding you about my contest to give away a copy of Scurvy Dogs! Scroll down or click here for all the ugly details! Can you afford to miss it? I think not!

I mentioned the other day that the last issue of Angeltown came out, and I was somewhat disappointed by it. Because I'm not very eloquent, I couldn't quite put my finger on why I was disappointed. Somewhere I read a review that crystallized my thinking (I'd link to it, but I can't remember where it was!). It said that Phillips spent issues 2-4 wandering around, and in issue 5, lots happened because he had to wrap it up. It got me thinking that maybe this wasn't a terribly compelling story, but I think, in retrospect, that it was a compelling story. What I think now is that maybe it wasn't a well-written murder mystery.

I don't often read murder mysteries - I'm not a connoisseur of the genre, so I can't speak for hours about it, but I do like them. In my mind, a great murder mystery should be opaque the first time you read it but obvious the second time. This is really difficult to do, and it's a reason I don't write murder mysteries - my mind doesn't work that way. In my mind, the classic of the genre is "The Murder on the Orient Express," because when you re-read it, you can see all the clues and can understand how Poirot figures it out. I decided to take a peek at some comic book murder mysteries and see how they work, because to me, comics and film are perfect vehicles for really good murder mysteries.

Why? Because comics and movies are visual as well as literary, so the opportunities to drop clues, I think, are much more expanded with comics and film. In comics and movies, you don't need to have the characters talking while you drop clues, and you don't need to write narration as in books. I think of The Sixth Sense (first spoiler alert!) and how the camera lingers on Bruce Willis while Haley Joel Osment is explaining about dead people. Shyamalan does this very deliberately, but the audience only notices after we watch the movie a second time (unless you're my friend Ken, who always guesses the endings of movies because he sucks). There are lots of other examples, but I want to focus on comics, not movies.

The comics I wanted to look at are:

Angeltown #1-5 by Gary Phillips and Shawn Martinbrough
The Joker: Devil's Advocate GN by Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan, and Scott Hanna
The Maze Agency #2 by Mike W. Barr, Adam Hughes and Rick Magyar
Point Blank TPB by Ed Brubaker and Colin Wilson
Powers "Who Killed Retro Girl?" TPB by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
X-Men #138-141 by Grant Morrison, Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning (#138 has the one-page prologue to the murder)

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list - it's not even a comprehensive list of murder mysteries I own. I just thought this was an interesting cross-section of murder mysteries. If you haven't read any of these and are planning to, don't read on, because I'm giving away the murderers early and often!

First, I want to look at the two that I think are the "worst" murder mysteries of the bunch. This does not mean I think they aren't worth your time, I just don't think they do a good job of providing the reader with the means to solve the mystery on his or her own. That is the essence of a good mystery. The touchstone of a good comics mystery remains Watchmen, and Moore uses the visual aspect of the medium excellently to leave clues, especially the famous panel in Chapter V when Adrian Veidt is holding the thug who attempts to kill him and looks directly at the "camera" and says, "I want to know who's behind this." That's what I'm talking about when I mean using the visual aspects as well as the literary aspects of comic books. So, the first two "murder mysteries."

For a book with Batman, Dixon's graphic novel is weak on the detecting part of things. I really like this book, and Nolan's art is as good as it ever was, but the book is not really about finding the murderer - it's almost an afterthought to the main story, which is Batman proving that the Joker, for once, is innocent of the crime for which he is convicted and sentenced to death. Someone has been poisoning stamps, and it seems like a perfect Joker crime - random, malicious, crazy, and the dead people all have Joker venom smiles. When Batman and Robin capture Mr. Joker, however, he protests his innocence. He is sentenced to death, but Batman is unconvinced and eventually proves the Joker's innocence, much to pretty much everyone's dismay.

The problem with the book is that we first see the real murderer on page 10, when he kills his wife. That was the whole reason for the killing spree - to deflect suspicion from Ernst Kelleher, who killed his wife for the rather lame reason that she would never shut up. We see him a couple of times after his wife dies, on the television crying his eyes out. Dixon throws in a couple of red herrings - a guy who used to work with the Joker and his girlfriend, but it's an annoying red herring, because he doesn't really ever explain what they are doing. It appears they are simply using the murders to extort money from the city, but they also appear to have poisoned stamps. I don't get it. There is detective work done, but we have no way of knowing that Kelleher is the owner of the storage facility where Joker kept his venom until the moment Batman puts his hand on his shoulder. It doesn't work. It's still a good story, mind you, but it's a cheat in terms of a well done murder mystery.

You'll notice the lack of Batman stories on the list. Well, that's because most Batman stories where he does actual detecting read like Devil's Advocate - there are clues, but not enough for us to figure it out on our own. I'm waiting to see what Lapham does with his opus in Detective Comics.

The first storyline of Powers, "Who Killed Retro Girl?" is also a big failure as a true murder mystery. It irked me when I first read it, because I was expecting a lot better from this title I had heard so many good things about. It's not a bad story, it just doesn't work as a mystery, and maybe Bendis wasn't really going for that. He may have just been going for a introduction to the whole Powers universe, getting the players in position and showing the relationship between Deena and Walker starting, but if he was doing that, couldn't he have come up with a better story? Sorry - this isn't a review of the actual story of "Who Killed Retro Girl?" It's a review of the murder mystery aspect of it. We don't even start getting a sense of killed our heroine until midway through issue #5, when some random dude comes in to tell our heroes about Jon Jackson Stevens and his hatred of "capes." Walker and Deena go pick him up, and he confesses - just like that. Then Wolf kills him. Nice detective work, lady and gentleman! There are no clues at all - even the "Kaotic Chic" clue tells us absolutely nothing. This is a lazy kind of murder mystery, because it doesn't even allow the detectives to do any actual detecting. Maybe this is how "real" police work gets done, with random people coming off the street and pointing the cops in the right direction, but I hope not.

Okay, moving on, let's look at some "actual" murder mysteries - comics where the mystery is front and center, and the writers want them to be solved by the characters in the story. The most "obscure" comic on my list might be The Maze Agency - this particular issue came out in 1989. Barr's comic is really excellent - Hughes on art is brilliant, and the "Moonlighting" feel to the flirting between Gabe and Jen is spot on. Issue #2 is a murder mystery in the classic sense - it's a personal crime, and Gabe and Jen solve it in the "all-the-suspects-in-one-place" kind of way that Christie always used to use. However, it doesn't really work as a murder mystery. The set-up is this: 9 episodes of a classic sit-com, "Lefty," have been found. The creator's son, Stephen Milner Jr., and the show's co-star, Carter Andrews, are going to distribute the new material through Glenn York, who also distributes porn. On the first page, we learn that these episodes, since they are not covered under Andrews' original contract with the network, are going to be extremely profitable to both Milner and Andrews. On page 9 we learn that Milner has been killed, and Gabe's friend is in jail for the crime - he was discovered standing over the body by Milner's wife. The clues in the issue are very helpful at pointing the reader toward the reason for the crime, but not the actual murderer. The reason for the crime is that the episodes were fakes, filmed in a secret studio with an actor who looked like the young Carter Andrews, and Milner filling in for his father. The clues are actually placed pretty well throughout the book. However, when the actor who played Andrews panics and demands extortion money to keep his mouth shut, he too is killed, and the original three suspects - Milner's wife, Glenn York, and Carter Andrews - are all on the scene when he is killed, so any one of them could be the killer. Gabe figures out that Carter Andrews is the killer because he's wearing his shirt inside out, so the bloodstains from bashing in a head wouldn't be seen. The problem with that is: blood would seep through the shirt, so it wouldn't matter if Andrews turned his shirt inside out, and we never actually get to see the shirt very clearly, so when Gabe makes his pronouncement, it comes as a surprise. On page 21, we see the three suspects rather clearly, and although Hughes draws Andrews' shirt, it still looks like he's wearing it the right way. We see his shirt only one other time (on page 25) and again, no evidence that it's backward. It's a typical polo shirt with what appears to be a pocket on the left breast, so you would think we would see stitching or maybe a cleverly placed tag on the back. Because of this lack, we can't really figure out that it was actually Andrews until Gabe reveals him. It's a good issue, but not a perfectly done murder mystery. Still, it's a fun read.

That's the only issue of The Maze Agency that I want to look at (some day the first 5 issues will be a subject of Comics You Should Own, and I'll get more into depth then), so I'll move on to Morrison's X-Men, and "Murder at the Mansion." Now, let's ignore that it's not really a murder, since Hank McCoy jigsaw puzzles Emma Frost back together again like she was Humpty-Dumpty. It was intended to be a murder (Point Blank isn't a murder, either, but it was supposed to be), and that's what counts. The problem with this story is despite its title and the presence of Bishop, "mutant detective," Morrison's not really all that interested in allowing the reader to solve the mystery. It's annoying, because it ties in with the grand storyline he was writing on X-Men at that time, but because of Marvel's new idiotic policy of "writing for the trade," he had to boil it down to a short story with no real resolution. There are a few clues about who shot Emma - most particularly Sage saying "The sun in a box!" over and over in issue 141 - but no reason why exactly she was shot (besides being telepathic and possibly being able to pierce Magneto's disguise, but why wasn't Jean, a much more powerful telepath, shot too?). Esme pretty much admits to the crime, but we learn at the end of the story that it was really someone male and much taller who pulled the trigger. We learn later that it's Xorn, or Magneto, or whoever he's been retconned as, but we don't find out now, and Morrison never intended us to find out now. This is a part of an excellent story, but it's not much of a murder mystery.

I just picked up Point Blank this week, and it partially inspired me to write this post. It also, more than the first Sleeper trade, which I bought a while ago, made me want to buy the other Sleeper trades that are out there (yes, I know Sleeper is coming to an end, but if you think about it, Brubaker has had 29 issues to tell a story - not bad). Point Blank is the "prequel" to Holden Carver's saga, and it's really a good book. There's no murder, since John Lynch is simply in a coma, but he was supposed to die, so that's that. We learn at the end that Cole Cash shot Lynch, but he was under the mental domination of TAO, so TAO is really the bad guy. Does Brubaker leave us any clues to point us in either Cash's or TAO's direction?

Well, sort of, but not really. We don't ever really get clues that Cash shot Lynch, but we do get plenty of clues that Cash is fucked up in the head, and that TAO is responsible. Whenever Cash is in the bar where he was supposed to meet Lynch the night he got shot, he talks about his thoughts being messed up and he feels like he's forgotten something. When he leaves the bar because Lynch never showed up, he tells Yvonne, the bartender, "If Lynch shows up, tell him I waited." Yvonne says, "Uh, sure, Cole ... but I thought ... Nevermind." She says this because Lynch actually did come in, and Cole left with him and shot him, then returned to the bar. She isn't sure what happened because TAO is fucking with her mind as well. When you look back, it becomes obvious that TAO has his hand in it from the beginning, but that doesn't make it a good murder mystery - Cash learns that TAO is running a criminal organization, but he only finds out he shot Lynch because TAO tells him. The reader has no idea that TAO is behind this unless they have some previous knowledge of TAO and his abilities - Alan Moore created TAO for his run on WildC.A.T.s, and there's that great sequence where TAO totally destroys Fuji's mind, and Brubaker echoes that ability. However, that shouldn't be necessary to read Point Blank, and it's not really, since we get that information as we go along, but it also means that this is not a true murder mystery, since we can't figure it out ahead of time.

Finally, we get to Angeltown. In issue 5, we learn that the killer is Toasty, Paul Teddy's daughter, who killed Burnett's wife because Alison was going to expose her past in porn movies and put the kibosh on Toasty's chance at real stardom. Let's look at the so-called clues.

We first see Toasty on the set of the horror film she's making, which is her big break. Nate Hollis got her name from one of Burnett's teammates, and Nate finds out from her that Burnett had an apartment not a lot of people knew about. Nate goes there and is accosted by thugs sent by Paul Teddy, Toasty's dad. Paul Teddy is involved in this because his daughter asked for his help after she killed Allison. Teddy becomes Nate's biggest suspect, but he, like everyone else in the book, is a red herring. I have nothing against red herrings - we need suspects, but the problem is, the next time we see Toasty, it's in issue #4, and she gets only a page and it doesn't tell us anything new. On the very next page, Nate has her name with a question mark after it written on a page, and then he goes to a book of "Horror Flick Chicks" and finds out her real name, presumably - it's how he knows she's Paul Teddy's daughter in issue 5. In that issue, Nate finds out Paul Teddy had an alibi for the night of the murder (why no one found this out earlier is not explained) and that he didn't care that Allison was going to expose Toasty's porn past. Nate finally draws Toasty out and she gets caught.

The problem with this series is there's a lot of sound and fury, ultimately signifying very little. As in the other books I've looked at, Phillips isn't only concerned with the murder - he wants his book to be a saga of L.A. and a story of Nate trying to make up for letting his murdered father down - but it should at least be a mystery that we could solve on our own. We find out Paul Teddy's real last name in issue 2 - it wouldn't have been that difficult to show the page Nate was reading in the horror film book with Toasty's real last name, and then we could have at least put that nugget together. Similarly, Nate tells Toasty at the end that he noticed she had large hands, and Allison was petite, so people thought a man killed her. Couldn't that have been a plot point somewhere?

Anyway, that's all for now (finally, say some of you). What have we learned? Well, it appears that talented writers are not taking advantage of the comics medium to tell a really good mystery as well as they could. There are so many opportunities to fill panels with clues and random bits of dialogue and background information, but writers and artists are failing at it. I'm sure there are "real" mysteries in comics, but this little essay makes it clear that it's a lot harder than it sounds, and it's something that writers should take a look at. I would say that comics is an excellent place to do really clever murder mysteries, and I hope for more of them.

Sorry for the excessive geekiness of this post. Let me know if you know of any really great murder mysteries in comics. I'd be interested in your opinions.


Blogger Woody! said...

Don't know if it would be considered "great" but a Nova-Spidey crossover revolved around a murder mystery. (Amazing Spider-Man #171, can't remember the Nova issue) Nova thought Peter Parker was a suspect cause he was acting suspicious when he went away to change into Spidey. Also, the pages of the calender that were found near the victim were actually intentional. The first letter in the last six months spelled out the killer's name: JASON D. When I was a kid, I thought it was brilliant. Hope I didn't spoil too much for you.

20/3/05 3:36 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Now that sounds like someone who put thought into it! Calendar pages spelling out the killer's name - that's what I mean by saying we can go back and understand how the mystery was solved. Good stuff. Did Nova actually have a series back when ASM was in the 170s? Ah, the Seventies ...

20/3/05 4:12 PM  
Blogger Woody! said...

Yeah, #1 was his first appearance. Lasted all of 25 issues. I think his character got written off in Fantastic Four #210 or something and didn't get touched upon again til that great first panel of New Warriors #1.

20/3/05 8:52 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

As soon as I saw your list, I was like, DUDE, you're not going to find anything good on that list!!!

As for good ones, how about the issue of Detective Comics where the killer used the Dewey Decimal System?

By the way, Greg, E-MAIL ME, DARNIT!!

21/3/05 3:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Brian: I knew this wasn't a terribly good list - I just wanted to look at them because 1) they leapt to mind; and 2) all of these titles claim to be mysteries, and I don't think they used the medium terribly well.

I love Milligan's few issues on Detective (which includes the Dewey Decimal System killer). I'll have to go back and see if those are actually mysteries that the reader can solve.

21/3/05 3:53 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Well, it seems a tad pointless to be commenting on this entry now, but maybe you'll look at ti again ro something.

Anyway, one interesting mystery, that's intended to be a mystery, is The Long Halloween. It's interesting because by the end, we know who Batman thinks did it, but we don't actually know for sure who actually did it.

I also think it's a bad mystery plot for the same reason. As you say, the mystery should be easy to solve on the second time through, but in TLH's case, it's just as murky and vague.

25/8/05 4:35 PM  
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