"Where no one seems to mind if you string your words together with Kool cigarettes and sparkling wine; keep the conversation light, wait until the girls get under-dressed and then the talk gets less polite"
I read the first three issues of San Hannibal, but not the final two, so when Pop! Goes the Icon released a trade, of course I had to get it! (I didn't buy the three issues, as the company's guru, Pj Perez, tends to send things to me - he sent this to me, too, after I bought it, so now I have two copies!) I was pretty keen to see what happened, because the first three issues were darned fine comics.
The first issue was drawn by JD Faith, but by the time it came around to doing the rest of them, Faith had moved on, so Dan Schkade, who writes the book, also drew the rest of it, while Jesse Snavlin does the wonderful coloring and also letters the book, just for the hell of it (you can see Schkade's art in Dynamite's relaunch of The Spirit, which comes out this week, in case you're interested). The trade costs a mere $14.99, which is not a bad price at all.
San Hannibal is an excellent comic, and it's great without even being about the plot. The plot is fine, of course - it's hard to have a great comic without one - but the plot is not essential to its greatness. Schkade wants to write a neo-noir, pulpy detective story, and so he does. It involves a missing photojournalist and rich, powerful men, which are two fairly standard plot points in these kinds of stories, and our protagonist, Ira Mallory Avery ("You have three girl's names," a character tells him at one point), is very much like so many other hard-bitten and hard-boiled detectives. Schkade's plot twists and turns, but Avery is focused on the missing woman, and so we never really lose the thread. Avery, like so many of his spiritual brethren, is cynical, but he's not hopeless, as he talks his way out of every situation and never actually uses violence. He's lucky in that regard, as he has a guardian angel looking out for him who has no problem using violence, but it's interesting that Schkade writes Avery that way - he cares about the truth and won't be deterred from finding it, but he also feels that he can figure more things out by observing and talking than beating people up.
He's looking for Savannah Loy, who had discovered that the rich people of the city of San Hannibal were up to horrible things (well, more horrible than the usual horrible things rich people get up to), and who then disappeared. Early on, Schkade implies heavily that Michael Falk, who's running for mayor, is involved in said horrible things, and of course he is, but not in the manner we might expect.
So it's a standard plot, but wrapped in such gonzo packaging that it rises to another level. Schkade, uninterested in just doing the standard plot, decides to add an urban vigilante modeled on the famous pulp hero the Spider, a different quasi-vigilante modeled on the Shadow (complete with his own, totally messed-up versions of the Shadow's agents), a terrifying gangster who kind of gets the Ned Stark treatment, a punk rock singer who's far more than she seems, and a pervy reporter (not the one who's missing). Despite going off on plenty of tangents, this is very tightly plotted, so Schkade brings everything full circle and gives every character time in the spotlight. Schkade is interested in the main plot, but he also wants to examine the rotten core of the city and the people in it, so San Hannibal becomes a character in the book, as well (in the introduction, Perez writes that the book was originally named after its protagonist, but the name change was good, as it's about far more than just Ira Avery).
The people in power are ruthless and borderline insane, and the only people fighting against them are insane as well. The only mostly decent and sane person in the comic is Avery (unless you count Loy, but she's only decent because we find out what she was working on), and he constantly needs the insane people to rescue him (when they're not trying to kill him). Schkade doesn't try to explain these people, either - there's a brief caesura where one character remembers her past as she tells Avery to forget about trying to discover who she is, and another character has a flashback to a traumatic childhood experience, but Schkade doesn't care about the psychological underpinnings of the characters' neuroses or psychoses - we know they made choices, and those choices led them to this moment. They are almost fully defined by their actions. Schkade does a very nice job, not necessarily with the mystery, because Avery figures out pretty quickly exactly what's going on, but with clues about who the characters really are and what they might do. How does Avery get into the exclusive club in the mountains, for instance? Schkade doesn't draw attention to it, but when you read the entire book, it makes sense. There are a few clichés of the genre, but it's clear that Schkade is embracing them partly to subvert them, and I don't want to go into them too much so I don't give too much away.
The style of writing is nice, too. Schkade writes like a pulp writer, so there are plenty of pithy turns of phrase that sound great in your head when you read them.
"It's one of those places where it's always nine thirty on a Saturday night" is my favorite, but there are many others, as well. "What is my business? To look at your life until I see the shape of the hole you left and figure out how to get you back in." "In the city, you give your secrets away for free. New ones are so easy to come by you throw them out like pennies. Here, secrets get passed down like old jackets." "Look at my edges. I am the absence where your future used to be." There's a lot of just cool writing in the comic, so that everything feels tinged with meaning. It's a clever story, made better by the way Schkade writes it.
A big part of the comic's success is due to the artwork, which is wonderful. Faith's art in the first chapter is terrific, as he makes San Hannibal a scuzzy, seedy kind of place, full of interesting, weird shops but also full of shadows. His characters are a bit more realistic than Schkade's, which makes Diane Thrax a bit more intimidating and "M," the tiny woman who rescues Avery from a beating, a bit weirder. Faith does great work with the blacks on the page, using them really well, especially in the political advertisements for Michael Falk. In a few of the more violent panels, he uses the blacks to create a photo-negative kind of view, highlighting the violence really well. Schkade's art is a bit more rounded than Faith's angular style, and it's very reminiscent of Tim Sale, which isn't a bad thing. His characters are a bit more expressive than Faith's, and he introduces a lot of minor characters that are memorable simply because of the way he draws them - Russo the pervy reporter has thick lips that you can imagine him licking more than is normal, No Christmas the gangster has a glorious Roman nose, Temple the butler has a wonderful look of disdain as he interacts with Avery. The Black Hare, who tries to break Avery's spirit, is an old woman, all bones, but even though she appears decrepit, Schkade draws her with enough awful strength that we believe she's capable of what she's doing.
Schkade also uses blacks well, as he likes to throw faces into shadow and he uses silhouettes cleverly. The final issue is a tour-de-force of revenge and violence, and Schkade keeps everything moving nicely and never confuses us with where we are, even as he jumps from character to character. He's able to make the city as real as Faith does (it does look a bit nicer when Schkade draws it), but also move into some flights of fancy, as when Avery hallucinates when the Black Hare is messing with him. And, as we've seen colorists become more important in comics art, perhaps the real star of the art is Snavlin, whose palette is tremendous in the book. Issue #1 is all pink, and issue #2 begins all blue before splashes of pink begin to infiltrate it. Issue #3 is mostly yellow, but when Avery is tortured, Snavlin introduces blues, pinks, and some orange into the mix, creating a nightmare world that makes Schkade's weird drawings even more terrifying. As the comic moves along, she uses the colors very specifically - pink remains M's "color," for instance. She continues to use mostly primary and bright colors even in issue #5, where the colors become more riotous, and it makes the book really beautiful to look at. I love her use of red, for instance - she uses it sparingly, but because red is both a violent and sexual color, where she uses it is very telling. I don't know how much research Snavlin did into the meanings of color, but the way she uses them is very clever. She uses some neat effects during Avery's torture, and she even colors some of the lettering to emphasize it. The art is very nice on the book, but Snavlin elevates it even more. She likes working with Schkade, and it's too bad she's not coloring The Spirit (even though the colors - by Brennan Wagner - look better than many of Dynamite's books).
Pop! Goes the Icon has released some very neat comics over the years, but San Hannibal is the best one so far. If you can't find it at your local comics shoppe, I'm sure Perez would not mind at all if you head to the Pop! Goes the Icon web site and buy it there. I assume you can find it on-line in other places, too. Go check it out!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆