COMIC REVIEW: WesterNoir Vol 1, Books 1-3

The clue’s in the title, but I’ll lay it out plain for you – WesterNoir is a magnificent mongrel. The creative team behind it have clearly spent some time sneaking around the genre graveyard, digging up the choicest bits and pieces for their grand project. I can only imagine their maniacal laughter as they shot bolt after bolt of lightning into their creation until it leapt twitching from the slab – a mashed up monster-hunting myth set in the wilds of the American West, ruefully wrapped in the twisted plots of the bitterest noir. Don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt you. Say hello to Josiah Black. T’ain’t his real name of course, but it’ll do for now. He’s running from a long history of blood and sorrow. Trouble is, he spends so much time looking over his shoulder, he has no idea what he’s headed towards. When the woman with the dead eyes hires him to hunt down the fella who killed her family, he learns there are deadlier things than men abroad in those dusty frontier days. Ghouls, vampires, were-creatures – and who knows what else – hiding amongst ordinary people. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, stalking the innocent and devouring the vulnerable. It might be there’s no such thing as redemption, but if Black’s guns can take down a few of these monsters, save some folk that might have otherwise perished, well, at least he can begin to settle accounts. Join me after the jump where I’ll take you through each book briefly, then get into the overview.

Book 1: The Woman With The Dead Eyes introduces us to Josiah Black, Jim Wilson and the whole weird West. It’s a simple, harsh bounty hunter’s tale, made more interesting by its structure and the glimpses it affords us behind the curtain of normalcy. It’s essentially a pilot episode, but it has a distinctive narrative voice, reads smoothly and contains a couple of killer moments. The back up tale is a forgettable prequel, more mood piece than story. Book 2 is an absolute blast though, and easily my favourite to date. The Crocodile Tears of the Louisiana Swamp Men throws us into the midst of an horrific plot to create a new race. We flash back and forth between the action packed showdown and the beginnings of Black’s investigation. The narration is delightfully cynical and the black-hatted hunter is breathtakingly cool throughout. His choices may be less than admirable, but his single-minded determination makes him a compelling character to follow. What continues to draw me in as a reader though is the emotional underbelly of the anti-hero; his troubled past hidden behind an impassive façade. Book 3 brings this to the fore and, whilst it lacks much action, it makes for a more mature read. The Siren’s Song of the Mississippi Mermaids is a deep breath between adventures. Black considers the life he’s walked into, and the life he’s left behind. New opportunities present themselves and they are sorely tempting to a vulnerable man. It is gentle, gallant even, and an unexpectedly touching journey. The denouement is a little abrupt (but no real surprise) and leaves Black in a tricky predicament. I wonder if this is the true beginning of WesterNoir as an ongoing run rather than a series of one-shots. Time will tell. The provocative title to Book 4 is advertised on the final page, and I find myself itching mightily to get hold of it.

AccentUK are an independent comics publisher who place a great deal of value on intelligent stories told from unusual perspectives. Take the time to imbibe a few and you’ll be as blown away as I was. It seems to me their book covers have done them little justice in the past, but the WesterNoir series bucks that trend with their bold headers and dramatic imagery. The books are eye-catching, exciting and intriguing artefacts that demand to be picked up. You can practically smell the pulp oozing from them; and little visual touches like creases, peels and scratches complete the illusion of battered books, long-treasured. These wear-marks may be fake, but the love poured into the tales is true enough. Dave West writes with economy and style. Each 36 page volume tells a complete tale, expands the world and fills in touches of back-story too. The dialogue is peachy; ever developing character and plot while showcasing a fine ear for accent. Old-fashioned American dialogue may be formal but it’s chock full of subtlety, and West writes with considerable fluency. His greatest success is in Black’s narrative voice running throughout the stories. The cynical voice-over has long been a staple of film noir, commenting upon both the action and the dialogue to undercut (or throw dramatic new light on) what is happening. It lends a certain tone to a story, and depth to a character that could otherwise appear callous or cold.

Gary Crutchley does a similarly grand job bringing the world of WesterNoir to life with his astonishing inks. Facial features are expertly picked out, costume and scenery given recognisable characteristics and atmosphere without ever feeling overworked – which is a wonderful trick if you can manage it. This lush economy can be seen throughout the books in various forms, from both sides of the creative team and, for me, it defines the style of the book. The general sparseness of background detail chimes with the Western sensibility (as do the occasionally ornate splashes of detail, when appropriate), while the bold shadows and harsh lines occasionally evoke the nightmare noir of Sin City. He makes use of a couple of watery grey shades to bring out the intermediate depth, but little more than that is required. Sepia tones might have been more appropriate for this world, and a different colour palette would have been nice for those times we look through Black’s special glasses, but I guess an indie budget only stretches so far. The layouts are used to control the narrative pace as much as its direction, and this is so finely gauged that you only realise the sheer variety of panel sizes, density and dimensions when you consciously look for it. These are people who know how to grab you and give you a great ride. There are certain images that you do kind of expect; shots and angles that form part of the visual vocabulary of Westerns and film noir. I was exceptionally pleased to see so many of them worked in without once jolting me out of the story. WesterNoir may be a patchwork creature, but the needlework is very fine indeed.

I’ve picked up a new AccentUK title each year ever since I came across them at Thought Bubble in 2010. Needless to say, I recommend you start doing the same.

Overall Rating: 4/5  (Book 1: 3/5   Book 2: 4/5   Book 3: 4/5)

GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak

 

If you want to read about more of AccentUK’s output you can read my reviews of their Victorian mystery Who On Earth Was Thaddeus Mist? here on GS, and their Eagle Award-winning story about small-scale superheroics called Whatever Happened To The World’s Fastest Man? over at Small Press, Big Mouth.

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