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DARK PASSAGES

When comics and crime combine

Hanna Berry's graphic novel 'Britten and Brülightly' acknowledges the noir classics that inspired it even as it develops a style all its own

By Sarah Weinman

April 12, 2009

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A year and a half ago, the attention paid to crime writers like Greg Rucka, David Morrell, Duane Swierczynski and Denise Mina turning their storytelling attention to the comic book format had me wondering about the opposite tack: What happens when prose-and-picture stars leave artwork behind to concentrate solely on the words? But now, with graphic novels permeating the mainstream with greater force and attendees flocking to comic book conventions in San Diego and New York in six-figure droves, it's time to reverse course and revisit the pictorial approach to mystery and suspense stories.

The timing is especially ripe now that DC Comics has confirmed its dedicated line for graphic crime novels, Vertigo Crime, will finally launch this August, ending the arduous buildup of expectation for Ian Rankin's maiden voyage into this territory featuring "Hellblazer" main character John Constantine and Brian "100 Bullets" Azzarello's 1960s noir re-imagining. But we can also look forward to Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker novels into comic books this summer and, down the line, Oni Press' dedicated imprint of graphic novels curated by Karin Slaughter under the Slaughterhouse name.

It's not difficult to see why comics and crime suit each other well: brutal death invites a visceral response, and murder in pictures only amplifies that reaction further. Comics engage the reader with fast-paced stories and upped stakes, which fits perfectly within the boundaries of crime fiction's well-trod cadence of order from chaos. And at their best, comics and graphic novels create rich emotional landscapes through the artful mix of mood, color and line -- the approximate equivalent of a Chandlerian metaphor or a terse phrase á la Hammett ripe for multiple interpretations.

Such hopes are rare for crime in prose but are even scarcer with graphic novels, so when one comes along that hits the proverbial sweet spot of standout storytelling and ruminative reflection, the reader is advised to create a permanent space in his or her home library. That recommendation suffices for Max Allan Collins' genre-defining 1998 graphic novel "The Road to Perdition" (Pocket: 304 pp., $20.95 trade paper) and does so again for "Britten and Brülightly" (Metropolitan Books: 156 pp., $20 trade paper), 26-year-old Briton Hannah Berry's audacious, wise-beyond-years debut.

Making a correlation between wisdom and age is deliberate, since "Britten and Brülightly," with its 1940s setting and classic private detective setup, owes an obvious debt to Hammett, Chandler and the films noir that followed. But any expectation of straight pastiche dissipates with the very first panel, which depicts a dark-haired fellow hovering on the border of youth and middle age, his head lying against a neatly creased pillow with dark shadows circling his eyes, bathed in a kohl mixture of green, blue and gray that recurs throughout the narrative.

For Fernandez Britten, the sun rises each day "with spiteful inevitability," a reminder of how far he's drifted away from his 10-years-earlier self "with the glorious aim of serving humanity and righting wrongs." It's hard enough to get out of bed for anything less than murder, burdened with a moniker -- "The Heartbreaker" -- befitting a man well used to confirming the worst suspicions of his paying clients. "After a while every bombshell looks like the next," Britten comes to realize, though that conclusion will ultimately doom him.

Berry portrays Britten's lingering existential crisis beautifully, accentuating his tenuous grasp at a redemption he knows he cannot have by varying shades of gray and emphasizing London's infamous rainy mist at key moments of futility and despair. But she also lightens the mood at necessary points with the other half of the investigative team, Stuart Brülightly, whose Runyon-esque way with dialogue overcomes whatever handicaps ensue as a result of being, well, a teabag. (Britten: "Don't be lecherous: you're a teabag." Brulightly: "I'm a teabag with needs.") This isn't an outright manifestation of id versus superego, but Brülightly's caustic bluntness serves as the proper counterpoint to Britten's beaten-down sense of righteous justice.

Into the mix enters Charlotte Maughton, the diametric opposite of the Mickey Spillane villainess her name conjures up: too nervous to finish a whole cigarette, too enamored of her dead fiance Berni Kudos (and too convinced that his death by hanging was murder) to seduce Britten -- and too invested in her version of her life as a daughter of a noted publishing scion to make sense of how Britten's investigation will render her careful illusions into minuscule shards of glass that can never be put back together in quite the same way.

There will be beatings, blackmail, men who enter rooms with guns and women desperate to act in violent ways to protect those they love and secrets never meant to be shared, as befitting the best tales of the hard-boiled canon. But there will also be charming instances of eating flavored crumble, neighbors fervent in their belief in a religious road to salvation, a brutally comic loss of a finger ("the lingering ache a dull requiem for my chance of ever becoming a concert pianist") and a devastating one-page sequence that conveys the full emotional resonance of Charlotte discovering Berni's body -- with only his dangling feet visible to the reader -- in a single phrase, letting silence and lightened tones speak additional volumes.

And so it should come as no surprise when "Britten and Brülightly" closes in full circle -- Britten, again lying on a bed, his head against a neatly creased pillow, but now with his right hand holding an unfinished drink. Cycles repeat, mistakes are made again and again. Fernandez Britten may have saved at least one person from the truth, but what makes Berry's graphic novel linger long and move into a remarkable strata is how it understands the terrible price and awful sense of loneliness that comes to those seeking salvation when there is none to find.

Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (http://www.sarahwein man.com.) "Dark Passages" runs monthly in http://www.la times.com/books.