LAST MONTH, I sat in a darkened theater, all alone, to screen a preview of “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” Rarely have I longed so much to have another person in the multiplex — anyone — to crack a joke or breathe a little warmth into this airless experience.
It’s not that “Sin City” 2 isn’t a visual stunner like its forebear; the adapted comic-book aesthetic is stylish as hell. And there are performances — particularly those of Eva Green and Powers Boothe — that command the painted green-screen. But O, for a whiff or whisper of true humor amid the Bludgeon Noir. Something to shed a little humanity amid the white-as-gesso bloodshed. Because here’s the catch, see–here’s what I got wise to:
Great noir not only thinks. It winks.
Regrettably, “Sin City” 2 is too busy depicting the visual viscera of gouged-out eyes to really wink, verbally or otherwise. Which is odd, because a few days later, Frank Miller and I talked about our love of classic film-noir like “Double Indemnity,” in which Barbara Stanwyck delivers a master class in playing the femme fatale with buoyantly delicious evil. The crisp, brisk dialogue doesn’t just bristle with relatable emotion; it pops. Like the sound of a Luger pointed at the human heart.
What I eventually realized was: What I longed for was a little less “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” and a fair bit more Trip City: A Dame to Thrill More. What I wanted was the knowing wit of Dean Haspiel’s tough-guy-with-tear-ducts character, Billy Dogma.
Part of the trick of cooking up hard-boiled fare, of course, is not to over-cook it; to trap in some of that warmth. Fortunately, Haspiel the storyteller knows not only how to simmer the ingredients in a dead-pan, but also how to control the flame.
In this case, the flame is the five-alarm relationship between “the last romantic anti-hero,” Billy Dogma, and his co-fighter in all realms, tough Jane Legit (no matter the foe, she’s forever too Legit to quit). They share crimes of passion and a passion for crimes. (Both their brawling and their, um, lovemaking are graphic; they bare knuckles one minute, then bare their souls and selves to the strains of Prince the next.)
Haspiel’s new book, “Fear, My Dear” (Z2 Comics), combines two stories: The title tale — a poignant father-son narrative about wrenching memories, powerful legacy and the way of the gun — and “Immortal,” a monochromatic, fiery-red adventure about the perils of passion run amok, as well as the uplifting power of forgiveness and heartfelt altruism.
“Fear, My Dear” — a title that has the right ring of a Robert Mitchum or Joseph Cotten noir film — is a lush, hardbound way to experience the romantic ties that bind. Billy Dogma gained traction in the ’90s as a webcomic, and the years have only deepened this character for the better.
Haspiel, the Brooklyn-based, Emmy-winning cartoonist, has said that Billy Dogma is an avatar for himself, and so it’s fitting that as Haspiel’s powers have matured at middle age, so have those of Billy the brute philosopher. The Eisner-nominated Haspiel — so known for his fruitful collaborations with Mark Waid (The Fox), Jonathan Ames (The Alcoholic), Inverna Lockpez (Cuba: My Revolution) and Harvey Pekar (The Quitter) — seems to pour a career’s worth of gathering craft into “Fear, My Dear.”
On the level of language, Haspiel deftly rides the line between hard noir and playful camp. In the book’s foreword, his former Keyhole mate Josh Neufeld (“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge”) writes that “Fear, My Dear’s” fast patter is “part hard-boiled slang, part beat poetry.” Haspiel definitely cooks his verbal gumbo with accents of Kerouac and a dash of Hammett, but there are also the best strains of ’60s Stan Lee and even ’70s Bruce Springsteen. As even the Boss knows, you can’t sing about wrapping your legs around a fella’s velvet rims without winking to the crowd about letting your metaphor run into the red. When Haspiel waxes rhapsodic about “the war of woo” and Jane pulling her hips “up to [Billy’s] bumper,” his tongue — like wild-man Billy’s — is firmly planted in cheek. (It’s just a matter of whose cheek.)
The in-our-face lingo matches the bold strokes of Haspiel’s art. Told mostly in four-panel grids, “Fear, My Dear” nods to Kirby and Ditko, but Haspiel has honed his own seductive knack for blending the sloping curves with squared-off lines — and the thick, dark hatching befits the hard-boiled. Billy Dogma’s Gibraltar of a torso, for example, is worthy of Ben Grimm or Sgt. Rock — and flexes with that same superheroic panache to match the dialogue. When a character (or even a creator) so often goes shirtless, after all, he’s got to wink slyly to pull it off.
What Haspiel mostly achieves, though, is dramatizing the height of emotion at every turn — the narrative is about leaping from peak to fraught peak. In all this madness, there is a method. The cartoonist has said that through Billy Dogma and Jane Legit, he is reflecting “the insanity of love.” And so this thrill ride must push our buttons using every storyteller’s tool, from language to line to allusion.
As Springsteen himself sang at full throat and throttle: “I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.”
May Billy Dogma never stop running.
DEAN HASPIEL will appear this weekend in North Bethesda at Small Press Expo.
MICHAEL CAVNA will appear on the SPX panel “Pro Tips: How to Get Reviewed,” Saturday at 2 p.m.