COMIC REVIEW: Murder Me Dead

When does a comic become a graphic novel? A question that many may debate. Subtitled A harrowing tale of love and murder, Lapham’s Murder Me Dead is a proper story told over nine chapters with a beginning, middle and end. In a comic-book world saturated with superheroes, science fiction and worthy realistic comics, it is refreshing to read a different kind of story. A novel told graphically, sequentially. Murder Me Dead is probably as close to classic noir without being a film. Of course, what is noir? Why does this tale qualify?

David Lapham is one of the most experienced artists and writers of comic books currently working, perhaps best known for Stray Bullets. He has produced work for everyone; Marvel, DC, Vertigo, Dark Horse, Wildstorm and a bunch of indies too. And his own imprint, who originally published this book. The art is familiar, with his black and white style, bold lines and stylised characterisation. So that isn’t what is noir about the book.

It is the feel of the story. This is what Lapham himself describes it as “an eight-issue tale of murder, greed, cute little babies, mean old women, lost souls, con men, dirty dealin’, music, violence, gangsters, back alleys, resort hotels, prison, love, lust, and murder.” He continues, “Murder Me Dead is my modern-day love letter to the great noir films of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. It’s every bit as emotionally twisted as Stray Bullets, but in the guise of a traditional femme fatale noir.”

Steven Russell is our protagonist. He comes home to find his estranged wife hanging from a ceiling fan. If it looks like suicide and the cops say its suicide, in noir, no way is it suicide. His wife’s family think so too and blame Steve – doing whatever it takes to make him pay. They hire a nefarious PI to destroy his life, but in attempting to do so a series of coincidences ensue, leading to a chance meeting with an old friend, a downtrodden neighbourhood he had long left behind and a fateful reunion with a woman who once loved him. Much of the story in the middle section of the book is about Steven trying (and failing) to rebuild a simpler life with this woman, Tara. She is drawn with huge eyes and long eye lashes and looks continually either sad or surprised. She is, however, our femme fatale.

Laced with classic crime noir ideas and language, Murder Me Dead feels like a Chandler storyboard of a Huston film. There are jazz bars (Steven is a pianist) and alleyways, brutal violence, goons and broads, sex and betrayal, a few good coincidences, and the cruelty and fragility of human emotion. Many of the pages contain few if any captions and no dialogue at all, but the story is clearly being told (something graphic novel naysayers should be forced to look at!) The script is something that only someone who understands and loves classic noir films could produce.

As mentioned, the art is as excellent as you’d expect from Lapham, although the bold style (which probably resembles Charles Burns more than anyone else) won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, it suits the story well. If you’re not a fan of Lapham or a fan of noir comics, this book might be a hard sell. Steven is an oddly drawn character, looking more like a bank manger than a hard-assed jazz pianist. Throughout the book, there is enough in both the writing and the art that keep you interested, although nothing it too surprising. Until…The first part of chapter 9, the big reveal if you will, is told in almost exclusively 2 panel pages with very little dialogue which is remarkably arresting, and wraps the story up nicely.

MMD

If you’re tired of superheroes, love film noir or have the urge to read a coherent and deliberate graphic novel, check out Murder Me Dead.

Title: Murder Me Dead

Publisher: Image Comics

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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