I've been slacking off on reviewing graphic novels, but now that I'm taking a break from the weekly stuff, I hope to catch up! So let's check out yet another Vertigo Crime novel, shall we?
Noche Roja is published by DC, natch, and it's written by Simon Oliver and drawn by Jason Latour, while Clem Robins is along for the ride as letterer. As with all of these hardcover Vertigo Crime books, it's $19.99. And like all of them, it has some good things going for it.
Unlike the very best of the Vertigo Crime, however, it lacks the extra oomph to push it to a truly great work.
Oliver tells a noir story with a "ripped-from-the-headlines" plot - a down-on-his-luck ex-cop, ex-private eye named Jack Cohen is hired by a Mexican woman to investigate the murders of factory girls right across the border. This has been an epidemic in Juarez, Mexico, for some time, and we've gotten a few comics dealing with it, including this one. The woman who hires Jack, Paloma Flores, shows him some victims whose murders are slightly different - obviously it's the work of one person, and she wants him to find out who's doing it. Jack has some history in the border regions, as when he was a cop he worked on a task force that investigated crimes that crossed over the frontier, and he left the force eleven years earlier after a friend of his was killed under mysterious circumstances. He reluctantly takes the job, and finds out there's quite a lot going on down south. The murders are tied to a bigger problem involving local politics and the murder of Jack's friend, and Jack, of course, experiences some bad memories as he gets deeper into the world he left behind.
As you can see, none of this is particularly new or unique when it comes to noir tales. Jack is an alcoholic who lives in a motel; Paloma has a hidden agenda; there are corrupt politicians and crusading journalists; the workers and their families are terrified to speak about what's going on. One of the politicians even keeps tigers in a cage, and if you don't think someone's going to end up in there, you just haven't read a lot of fiction.
Now, that doesn't necessarily make this a bad comic, it just never becomes something more than a simple noir detective story. Oliver never throws us any curves - we can identify the bad guys, even the ones who are a bit mysterious, right away, and we know every single plot twist that comes our way. It's frustrating reading this comic, because while Oliver tells it in a thoroughly entertaining way, we're always ahead of the characters, and we just want to yell at Jack to stop being so stupid and skip to the end because it's so obvious what's going on.
If there's a reason to buy this beyond that you just like pulpy noir stories (and I do), it's Latour's artwork. Latour has gotten better over the years, and part of the reason is he's been able to blend a nice cartoony sensibility with a more gritty style. He evokes the bleakness of the Mexican desert very well, but his figure work is just slightly exaggerated, giving his characters a bit more fluidity and humanity - the stylized portrayals of the characters works to contrast the grittiness of their surroundings. In some ways, some of the characters are stereotypes, which allows Latour to play them off the more "serious" characters like Jack, Paloma, the murder victims, and the straight-up bad guys, but it also allows him to contrast their more stereotypical look with their very realistic actions - if we don't take them completely seriously, it helps Oliver make their actions seem a bit more interesting because they're playing against "type."
I mean, the fat corrupt border cop has been a cliché at least since Touch of Evil and probably before, but because Latour plays up the stereotype, Oliver's handling of Lieutenant Ortega is a bit more subtle than we might expect. Latour uses the shadows nicely, as well, as befits a noir tale.
Unfortunately, the darkness of tone in the story translates to the darkness of the art, and the major flaw in the book is the way it's published. I don't know if Latour's use of black is too overwhelming or if the transfer to the page is poor, but a lot of this book is hard to read. It's very dark, and although I got used to it, it was still difficult at times to see what was going on. I imagine the paper stock DC uses on these books, plus the fact that they're a bit smaller than a regular comic, is partly to blame, but it was somewhat vexing that we can't see Latour's art clearly in all its glory. There's a fine line between making the book dark to match the tone and making it too dark to read properly, and DC edges across that line in this book. It's frustrating.
I can only recommend Noche Roja if you really like noir fiction or if you really like Jason Latour's art. I like both of those things, so while I don't love Noche Roja, I don't regret buying it. It's a very straight-forward noir story that should surprise absolutely no one, and while the art is very nice, I wish it had been a bit brighter. So there you have it!