Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sam Noir: Samurai Detective

Suffice it to say you've probably never seen anything quite like SAM NOIR.

Sam's a "Samurai Detective," a ronin turned private eye (complete with trenchcoat and an never-ending stream of wisecracks) who nailed his own short-run mini-series from Image Comics last year, the first black-and-white title under Jim Valentino’s new Shadowline imprint.

It's a series that's hard to pin down. There's plenty of sword play (what Sam refers to as "stabby" business) and more than ample bloodshed, as you would expect from a samurai comic, but along with all the stabbing and chopping and lopping off of limbs, Sam offers a running play-by-play that gleefully pokes fun at the deeply cherished pretensions and touchstones of the very genres that will bring in the most-likely punters for this series --namely fans of the samurai and hard-boiled detective genres.

So is it satire? Parody? Or are we supposed to take it seriously? Or a little of each? Like I said, it's hard to tell.

It's even difficult to know when this story is supposed to be set. At first glance, it seems to be set in feudal era Japan. But that can't be right. Even though everyone seems to dress the part (except for Sam's anachronistic language and trenchcoat) and nobody seems to have any firearms (knives, swords, throwing stars and the like seem to be the weapons of choice), there are clues that this is supposed to be set in far more contemporary times. Besides the obvious fact that Sam speaks like he's seen way too many 1940's RKO crime flicks ("Why does every sad story have to start with a dame?"), there are numerous visual hints (venetian blinds in one scene, what seem to be skyscrapers poking through the mist in another) to suggest we're very much in the present..

And certainly, the plot -- or what there is of it -- seems to have more than its fair share of post-modern irony. Sam is totally aware of who and what he is, and prone to commenting on it. In fact, it's this very self-awareness and on-going deadpan soliloquoy by the motormouth detective that drives the series, not the cookie cutter plot that involves Sam being hired to follow a "dame" called Jasmine with whom he -- naturally -- ends up falling in love. Just as predictably, Jasmine soon turns to Sam for help, only to be killed right before his eyes, thereby unleashing a maelstorm of violence as Sam sets out to avenge Jasmine's murder.

What saves this series is that the often-stunning digitally enhanced black and white art work (by Manny Trembley) really does owe something to all those great film noirs. And given the gallons of blood splattered about here, mostly belonging to dispatched henchmen and assorted ninjas who get in Sam's way, sticking to black and white (leaning more to PSYCHO than KILL BILL) was probably a wise choice. Trembley's use of shadows and light, not to mention some genuinely creative use of frames, gives this series a strong visual hook.

That, coupled with writer Eric Anderson's obvious affection for the genres he's skewering and some truly funny lines make this series more of a delight than it has any right to be, a guilty pleasure whose pleasures far outweigh the guilt.

There's always a fine line between hommage and fromage, but Sam Noir walks that line with style and wit.

Unfortunately, it looks like I'm not the only one who got hooked on the big, pony-tailed lug. The first run of the mini-series sold out and a graphic novel collecting all those issues is already out. And a sequel was rushed into production. SAM NOIR: RONIN HOLIDAY came out just months later (in fact, I think it wraps up this week) and finds Sam in vacation mode, figuring a tropical retreat is just the thing to take his mind off the pain. But of course, trouble of the samurai kind soon finds him. Alas, the tight focus of the first arc is replaced by a everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plot (including the long-winded backstory of a secondary character) and the distinctive voice of Sam is diluted by too many other over-the-top characters (A pirate/cop? A rhino-riding asassin?).

As Sam would say, less talk, more stabby next time, please.


By the way, Chris Mills, the author of FEMME NOIR (evidently no relation to Sam), GRAVEDIGGER and other way cool comics (not to mention being the writer of the Mathew Dain P.I. stories) has a new blog on crime comics entitled GUNS IN THE GUTTER.

Check it out. Check ot out NOW.

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