Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Comics: Hell is other people, but the demon roommates don't help any.

Hellish urban settings are a fixture of noir writing and films. Even the titles suggest that these tainted burgs are essential features, sometimes almost characters, in the genre: Miller's Sin City, Hammett's Nightmare Town, Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, Thompson's Pop. 1280, Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem, and on and on. Hellcity, the clever new three-part mini-series published by Gigantic Comics, takes the archetypal noir conceit of the demonic urban landscape and makes it literal.

Scripted by Macon Blair with art by talented new comer Joe Flood, this series is a gleefully mean romp through noir clich├ęs by way of Dante's inferno. Like all good hardboiled detectives, Bill Tankersly is down on his luck. You could say definitively down on his luck. Tankersly's is dead and living in Hell. In life, Bill didn't have it so bad. The detective gig was regular work and he had a good girl, the angelic Allie. Bill wasn't a bad guy. Detective work is almost inherently morally compromising and Bill had the unfortunate tendency to chase extracurricular nookie, but for the most part he was a stand-up guy. One day, while Bill was out, some nut in a Bela Lugosi-style Dracula outfit gave the long suffering Allie the business end of a shotgun, sending Allie to Heaven. In despair, Bill ate a bullet, ensuring his residence in the afterlife's least attractive address. There he must punch the clock as a short order cook in one of Hell's least sanitary diners and attend regular sessions with his case worker, a demon who reminds him of all his failings and reminds him of how he earned eternal damnation. Into Tankersly's dead-end afterlife saunters a hot incubus named Mary D'Metre. This demonic hot tomato has a proposition for Tankersly. Seems the Big Boss of Hellcity is losing it. He's not his old Satanic self. Is he going crazy? Is he being pushed out? If Tankersly will investigate and find out what's going on with Satan, D'Metre will pull some strings and get him moved to a slightly nicer part of hell. With nothing to lose, he takes the case. Tankersly immediately finds himself hip deep in the political back-channels of Hell. And what does Satan's apparent mental deterioration have to do with an underground humans-only anarchist rock club and a secret pathway between Hell and Heaven?

Despite superficial similarities to The Damned, another supernatural crime series I gave the thumbs up to, I'm giving Hellcity the CRwM Seal of Good Housekeeping. The mystery plot is standard stuff. It is neither compelling nor annoying and it keeps things moving along, which is all it needs to do. The real pleasure of the series comes in the details of Hell itself. There's an old Elvis Costello song called "This is Hell." In it, he describes a Hell that is not flames and bloody torture, but is instead simply an endless piling up of discomforts, unpleasantness, and petty humiliations. Hellcity is just such a place. The choicest torture is the assignment of roommates. Every human in Hell is assigned a roommate. This demonic roommate makes your stay unpleasant by simply being the world's worst roommate. He'll always find and drink your last beer. He'll eat all your food and never replace it. He'll leave stains on the furniture. He'll deface your personal possessions. You get the idea. Part of the joy of Hellcity is in these delightfully mean-spirited details, all capably rendered by Flood in the sort of detailed but cartoonish-style that seems to be the official style of crime comics these days. Blair's dialogue, which has some of the ol' noir crackle without becoming an exercise in vapid imitation, is also worth noting.

Hellcity may not rise to level of essential reading, but it is a fun read that delivers the goods. Check it out if you get the chance.

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