Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: Hit: 1955

Hit: 1955 Hit: 1955 by Bryce Carlson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes after you read a writer, you find yourself trying to sound just like her or him. I’ve had that with Mordecai Richler, with Kurt Vonnegut, with Wendell Berry, and probably with dozens others. You want to try to capture the prose, the rhythm of the story, and the point of the story. You want to stay yourself – you want to write from what you feel inside – but you also want to be that writer, at least for a while.

It’s not hard to see who Bryce Carlson wants to be like. This is so steeped in James Ellroy that it may be a more faithful adaptation of Ellroy’s work than the wonderful L.A. Confidential film. (That’s not to say that “more faithful” means better, just that it’s more in the thrall of Ellroy’s peculiar narrative power.) We have the familiar L.A. setting of an L.A. scrambling to fill the void left by Mickey Cohen’s arrest. We have rogue cops who recognize their responsibility to kill “bad guys” and the occasional not-so-corrupt cop who gets in their way. And we have an almost amoral consideration of what it means to grab for power in a world that grants it only reluctantly.

If you admire Ellroy’s work as much as I do, it’s generally a good thing to see someone parroting it, and Carlson does so with reasonable competence. To his credit, he doesn’t spend time justifying or explaining what his characters are doing. We’re supposed to recognize their motives and their excesses. We’re supposed to know them because, implicitly, we’re supposed to have read our Ellroy as well. This isn’t fan fiction, but it is fiction with bounded ambition. It says, “If you liked L.A. Confidential, I’ve got a good one for you.”

What separates this from simple parody, however, is that it’s an adaptation. It isn’t a novel, it’s a graphic novel, and it’s a good one. I find myself taking Carlson’s prose for granted, but that’s because he makes it look easier than I am sure it is. We get a lot of Ellroy-like dialogue, but the what’s-happening of the story has to come more subtly. (And, much as I do admire what Ellroy does, it isn’t subtle.) Carlson simply has to do more with fewer words. He isn’t stealing from Ellroy so much as – in the hip-hop sense of the term – sampling him. That is, rather than getting Ellroy’s entire song, we get enough of the familiar bits to hear it again in a new context.

And the star of that other context is Vanessa Del Rey. I could be picky and complain that some of her close-up drawings seem to dissolve into irresolution. Her faces aren’t strong, and some of her figures seem to move in unlikely ways.

But, in what becomes a generally very satisfying overall effect, she isn’t after still images. She accomplishes striking tension in almost every frame, pitting one figure against another. She does remarkable things with composition, giving us a manic feel that perfectly complements what Carlson is doing. To take the terrific cover image as an example, no one is better at cartooning the menace of a man holding a gun, and yet there stands Slater, long-armed, smoking, and alpha-male posing, as a bored Bonnie seems to wonder when he’ll tire of the tough guy act and sex her up.

Yeah, the story works, and works well, even if it’s ultimately Ellroy by the numbers. But it’s the energy of the prose and the illustrations working together that elevate this. At its best it comes awfully close to what Brubaker and Phillips are pulling off. And that is no small praise.

I understand there’s a sequel out there, Hit: 1957. It’s on my list.

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