I love it when a book for which I have huge expectations lives up to my own hype! Whoo-hoo!
A few years ago, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Noel Tuazon brought us Elk’s Run, which is a damned fine comic book. The world wondered: Would these two dudes work together again, and would it be as good as that? Well, the answer to the first question is “yes” and the answer to the second question is “yes.” In fact, Tumor is a bit better than Elk’s Run.
And that’s a very good thing. Tumor was released on Kindle last year, but this “real” version is published by Archaia and costs a mere $14.95. It’s like you’re stealing from them! Oh, and the inestimable Richard Starkings and his cohort Jimmy Betancourt lettered this bad bear. And yes, you should read it. Don’t even worry about reading this review, just go get it!
Frank Armstrong is your protagonist, and we can’t even think he’s a stereotypical seedy private investigator before Fialkov throws us the curve: Frank has a brain tumor that will kill him fairly soon, and there’s nothing he can do. He’s hired by a gangster to find his daughter, Evelyn, who has disappeared. He finds her easily enough, but of course there’s a lot more to the case than just a simple missing girl. Evelyn believes that her father is going to kill her because she stole money from him and was going to run off with her boyfriend (who doesn’t survive very long), and Frank believes he can protect her. So they begin a somewhat harrowing journey through Los Angeles, as Frank tries to figure out if he can trust anyone and how he can save Evelyn. He’s being trailed by a crooked cop, of course, and things keep getting worse and worse. It’s not too big of a spoiler to tell you that Frank dies at the end – he has a brain tumor! – but the question is, Does Fialkov give Evelyn a happy ending? Who can say – it’s a noir tale!
Fialkov does some very interesting things that make this so excellent. Giving Frank a tumor is a stroke of genius, and Fialkov does a fantastic job showing how it would affect someone.
Frank keeps fading out of the present and experiencing events from the past as if they’re happening right now, and it’s very disorienting for both him and the reader. He was once married, and his wife was killed under mysterious circumstances – well, mysterious to us, but we learn about them in the climax of the book. Evelyn resembles her, so Frank keeps believing that Evelyn and his wife, Rosa, are the same person, and it freaks both of them out. This is the emotional center of the book – Frank is trying to atone for things in his past, but he wonders if he should be forgiven. Fialkov doles out information about Frank’s past slowly, as we learn that he has often skirted the limits of the law, so while he’s sympathetic here, we also understand his guilt. The parallels between the past and the present are done rather well – the coincidences between the two time lines aren’t forced, which is nice. Frank seems to be reliving his past because his tumor is screwing with his perceptions, and so he finds comfort in a period when he was in full control of his faculties if not his fate. Fialkov does a really nice job blending the two time lines, and he also slides into Frank’s trips to the hospital to get diagnosed easily as well. The actual mystery isn’t bad but it isn’t OH MY GOD WHAT JUST HAPPENED!!!!! either, and as always with these sorts of things, it’s the way Fialkov tells it that makes it work so well. We really get a sense of how hard it is for Frank to deal with what’s going on in his head, and it makes the book an impressive achievement.
The second thing Fialkov does, which ties into Frank’s tumor and his time shifts, is give us a sense of nostalgia for a lost city.
It’s interesting how he does this – Tumor takes place in the present, and Frank is in his mid-60s, so his nostalgia for Los Angeles is the nostalgia for the city of the 1960s/1970s, not the city of Dashiell Hammett and Jake Gittes. As Frank moves through the city with Evelyn, he comments on how much and how quickly Los Angeles changes, and Fialkov gives us an interesting tour of a vanished place. It’s not quite as evocative as many noir stories set in the 1930s and ’40s, but what it does is give us a sense of loss, as Frank’s life and city has passed him by and he doesn’t really know how to handle it. It’s a poignant book in more ways than one, as Frank is dealing with the guilt from his past, trying to protect Evelyn to atone for his sins, and finding that his world is becoming more and more unrecognizable. Fialkov does a fantastic job with all of it.
Tuazon has a very rough style that works very well in this book, as noir-ish as it is. The art is more complicated than we might think, as Tuazon begins the story with a very thick, heavily inked line that captures the tough-guy ethic of noir, but then, when Frank has his first seizure of the book, he suddenly switches to a much lighter line and palette, as the flashback scenes in the hospital become almost dreamlike. His depictions of the seizures are well done, too – in some, it appears that the panel is a photographic negative, while in others, Frank is entirely in silhouette while the background goes crazy on him. I deal with someone who has seizures quite a bit (not grand mal ones, but they’re still seizures) and Tuazon seems to understand what it might be like to seize and the terrifying way it takes over your body for as long as it lasts. The flashbacks to Frank’s deeper past are more solid than the hospital scenes, but Tuazon eschews panel borders to give it a hazier, looser feel, and when the past and present start to collide, he makes sure that the “present” remains solid while the “past” is more ephemeral. The book looks wonderful and Tuazon really helps the way Fialkov chooses to tell it.
Tumor is a very nice collaboration, showing how a writer and artist can create a gestalt that showcases all that’s great about comics.
I kind of wish Fialkov had played around with chronology a bit more, perhaps starting Frank’s rescue operation in the middle and then slowly revealing how he got involved with Evelyn. But that’s just a minor thought I had, especially because he’s already fooling around with the time structure anyway. I really can’t recommend Tumor enough, though – it tells a great story and the art looks fantastic. I’m glad it did well on Kindle and I’m glad Archaia was able to publish it in the real world. With the advent of the iPad and Kindle, maybe this is the wave of the future. Dinosaurs like me can wait for the print edition, and you youngsters can read it off a screen! So Tumor isn’t only excellent, it’s trailblazing! Onward to the new world!
Tomorrow: Phew. I’m done for a while. Since the beginning of May (52 days), I’ve published 32 of these reviews, including the last 16 days in a row. I need a break! From these, at least. There’s manga to re-read!