SYNOPSIS: P.I. Fernandez Britten and his partner, Stewart Brulightly, are hired to discover the truth behind the mysterious death, officially a suicide, of Berni Kudos.
REVIEW: Well, here's the hard part: reviewing a format I've no familiarity with. I can't draw any comparisons to other graphic novels because I haven't read any others. I can only tell you what I think about this one and compare it, unfairly perhaps, to all-prose novels.
The story is noir in that those characters who want or seek salvation are doomed not to find it, and those who want and find the truth are never really prepared for it and ultimately reject both truth and those who reveal it. Pacing isn't something the reader has to worry about, the book is only about 98 pages in length with fully 75% or more of the story told in the artwork. The pacing, the tension, the atmosphere, the emotions of isolation, despair, and soul-deep pain, are all captured in what I, in my admittedly untrained eye, consider to be superlative graphics. There is little color in the graphics, much of it is in shades of gray, and what color there is is muted. There are no vibrant colors ever. The drawings themselves are quick shots - sometimes half shots - from differing perspectives that lend much to the ambience. The artwork is the setting here; no need for the elegiac lyricism of James Lee Burke or the sharp-edged poesy of Ken Bruen. Pictures do indeed say a thousand words. But more on that later.
The text and dialogue, scant though it is, fits perfectly with both story and art, and Raymond Chandler wouldn't be ashamed to own much of it. Here's a small, very brief, sample:
All-night greasy-spoons -- sanctuaries for the sleep-deprived -- sat placidly out of reach of the long arm of the Waiters Union.
An oily no-man's land of drowsy static, caught between sleep and wakefulness.
The black depression suffered by PI Fernandez Britten is captured not only by the text but by the vision of his stark bedroom where he sleeps with his clothes on, by the sad eyes that appear bruised, by his hangdog expression. The old command to writers to "show, don't tell" is followed to perfection throughout a story that is original but feels like it was just found last week among the papers of a revered noir writer.
By now you may be thinking I was captured, hook-line-sinker-rod-and-reel, by this book. And you'd almost be right. Have you noticed I haven't said much about Britten's partner, Stewart Brulightly? Mm, yes, well. How do I put this... there's something about Stewart... well, there's no way to say this but to say it: Stewart Brulightly is a teabag. No, seriously, he's a teabag. Literally. Britten carries him/it around in his pocket. That's just the kind of gimmicky bit of nonsense that turns me right off a story. However, at less than 100 pages and most of it pictures, I hung in there. I'm glad I did. Whatever the author's intent in making a teabag a character, there is a purpose served by Stewart's presence - and it's not for refreshment, at least, not all the time. No, Stewart serves as a sounding board for Britten's thoughts and inner conflict when he's alone. And occasionally as slight comic relief.
Now that's one way of looking at Stewart's character. The other is that since Stewart does not interact with other characters, it's possible that Britten has gone right 'round the twist, talking to a teabag and carrying it everywhere, and that he is only a half step away from commitment to an asylum. Either way, Stewart is essentially a device that aids the author to use fewer words than she would otherwise have to while also adding depth to the story and character. No self-respecting writer of an all-prose work of noir could ever hope to get away with such a character/device, but it works here. Mostly. I don't know whether such devices are often used in graphic novels, whether this is something I should expect in other graphic novels, or whether Berry hit on something original albeit just the kind of thing that causes prose readers like me to clutch tightly to our disbelief while reading.
I have only a couple -- OK, three more small quibbles, and again I don't know whether these things are true of all or most graphic novels. I found them to be irritants though. One is that there are no chapters as with an all-text novel. That means there are no clearly defined places where the reader feels comfortable marking the spot and going off to see the man about trapping that giant opossum who wanders about in daylight and tries to get in my house. (Yes, you read that right.) Second, there are no page numbers so if I don't have a book mark handy, I can't just remember the page number and go right back to where I left off. Both of those omissions, chapters and page numbering, may be due to the flow of a graphic novel; maybe the author wants the reader to have more of a 'movie' experience than a 'book' experience, but I think it would take a lot of time and a lot of graphic novels under my reading belt before I could become accustomed to rather than irritated by that lack. Third, the dialogue balloons or whatever they're called, well, it wasn't always clear to me who was talking. Sometimes I had to read a page over again to figure out who was talking.
Now, I did say I'd get back to that bit about pictures saying a thousand words. And this is not meant to denigrate graphic novels, especially this one which I think is a remarkable book. Maybe pictures can replace words, but I think I'm a person who enjoys reading or hearing the words. I like it when a writer uses words to convey deep emotions; to place in my mind's eye a city, an apartment, a restaurant, a park; to create characters who live and breathe in my mind's eye without ever giving a physical description. The articulation does more for my imagination than pictures, however well done they may be. Those pictures will always be someone else's ideas and imagination, and they leave little or nothing for my brain to do. All the work is done for me. Imagine Elvis Cole and Joe Pike in a graphic novel. It would be just the same as Crais selling those characters to Hollywood. We'd be stuck with someone else's idea of what those characters are like. The argument to that is in this case Britten and Brulightly are original characters to this graphic novel and the art was done by the author. No problem, then, I just wish there had been more for me to do besides turn the pages and try to sort out the dialogue balloons.
So now I've rambled on, let me try to summarize it all: Britten and Brulightly is a terrific graphic novel, although admittedly I have nothing similar with which to compare it. But if I were going to make a habit of reading graphic novels I would want them all to have stories and artwork as good this book has. I'm pretty sure that with this book Hannah Berry has got a great career underway.