Written by Victor Quinaz; Drawn by Brent SchoonoverArchaia; $19.95
The premise of Mr. Murder is Dead isn’t a unique one. It’s the story of a retired, Dick Tracy-like, police detective whose arch-enemy turns up murdered. As the cops investigate the crime, the detective – who may or may not have committed the act; that’s part of the mystery – wrestles with his own aging and what it means to his life that such a central part of it is now gone. Aging heroes aren’t new, nor is the technique of looking back on their lives through a series of retro-looking comics, but Quinaz and Schoonover bring depth to the concept that’s missing from similarly-themed books.
Most of the books like this that I’ve read have a strong meta-context to them about the history of heroic fiction. Depending on the author’s point-of-view, the point is often to either glorify or demonize the past in comparison with contemporary trends in adventure stories. If it’s venerating the Good Old Days (the more popular choice, I've noticed), the elderly hero will rail against the complicated darkness of modern stories by longing for simpler times depicted with clean lines and basic colors. If it takes a cynical view of Days of Yore, a younger protagonist may reflect on old injustices and stereotypes with art that highlights those elements. Mr. Murder, on the other hand, isn’t all that concerned about commenting on the past. At least, not our collective past. Its story is more personal than that and more affecting.
A better comparison for Mr. Murder would be something like Joshua Hale Fialkov and Noel Tuazon’s Tumor, also published by Archaia. The books are completely different in plot and tone, but they share an interest in looking at an old detective’s struggle to come to terms with his more exciting past. In Tumor, that takes the form of invasive memories making it difficult for Frank Armstrong to separate the past from the present. Mr. Murder’s Gould Kane (aka The Spook) is all there mentally, but has a ton of emotional crap to sort out: the murder of Kane’s fiancée on her wedding day, Kane’s later relationship with his dead bride’s best friend, the child that he may or may not share with her, his changing feelings about the law and what society owes him after so many years of service and sacrifice. Kane is a complex character and Mr. Murder rightly chooses to focus on him and his flaws. It’s not as interested in referencing or paying homage to crime noir stories as it is just being one itself. It goes about the business of doing that in a really interesting way though.
I’ve tried to deemphasize the format of Mr. Murder because it’s secondary to the story and I know how easy it is to let the presentation overwhelm what the book is actually about. But it would be a disservice not to mention how visually exciting and cool the look is. I’ve always loved Schoonover’s retro style and he tweaks it even more for the flashback sections of Mr. Murder to recreate the look of Golden and Silver Age comics. But “flashback” doesn’t properly describe the way those sections are used. Rather than segue into past events, Quinaz and Schoonover use them to interrupt the present’s storyline at opportune moments. That breaks up the flow of the narrative – visually as well as textually – in a way that doesn't slow down the story, but keeps the book interesting and propels the reader forward. There are also games and activities at the chapter breaks. These work better as interesting visual pauses than as things to actually do, but they’re still appreciated.
I don’t want to make it sound like Schoonover’s art is drudgery to look at. It’s the opposite of that and gets especially thrilling in the book’s climax when something simultaneously awful and amazing happens to Kane. But most graphic novels have a feeling of sameness from page to page and Mr. Murder purposely fights that tendency in its design.