Comics and the Mystery Genre

...a Manifesto

Mystery stories have always been very popular in books and motion pictures. In the comics medium, however, they've never caught on in a big way.

Early comics lacked the realism and sophistication needed in a good mystery story. Talents like Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond created some notable comic strip series, but only Chester Gould's DICK TRACY was a major success.

Portrait of Cornell Woolrich by Joe Zabel, done for Steve and Echo Gettis's Authors website-- click on image to go there. In more recent times, comics have grown in sophistication, but comics fandom has contracted into a small subculture which is mostly uninterested in the mystery genre.

On the rare occasions when a mystery series is attempted, the creators take a nostalgic approach, creating clones of Sam Spade or Sherlock Holmes; or use the story as a jumping-off point into post-modern experiments that bear little resemblance to the popular conception of a mystery.

However, a new trend is on the rise, more stylistically true to the modern mysteries we know and love. You can see it in major works such as Ed Brubaker's AN ACCIDENTAL DEATH and SCENE OF THE CRIME; in the stunning WHITE OUT by Greg Rucka and Steven Lieber; in an intriguing new series of crime-genre manga such as Hideo Yamamoto's VOYEUR.

So maybe it's time to re-examine the modern mystery genre, and figure out what relevance it has to comics. What special qualities can comics bring to the mystery genre? And what qualities can the mystery genre bring to comics?

This essay will attempt to answer those questions.

As a genre, the mystery exists within certain boundaries.

First, a crime of some sort must have been committed. The tension created by violence and conflict are essential to the mystery's appeal.

Second, the story must take place in a realistic setting. That is to say, it's not a fantasy or a science fiction story. Mystery hybrids like THE X FILES and DIRK GENTLY, HOLISTIC DETECTIVE aside, the essence of a true mystery is believability.

Third, there should be the presence, in some form, of the unknown. This is the distinction between a mystery story and the more general category of crime fiction. In old gangster pictures, or in THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS, the perpetrators of the crimes are known to the audience; stories like these are constructed more like modern tragedies than like a mystery story.

The presence of the unknown is an important part of the appeal of the mystery. The reader finds themselves driven to keep reading by an unabidable curiosity to learn what 'really' happened; they literally can't put the book down.

In the classic mysteries, the unknown is represented by 'whodunnit' and 'howdunnit.' But in the modern mystery, the unknown can take many additional forms; it can even be a questioning of the hero's own morality, or a contemplation of the nature of the universe.

But it is always something deadly, lurking there in the dark. Something to be feared. Something to be conquered.

Mystery stories have a lot to gain from being translated into motion pictures. Film brings an exciting realism to the mystery-- everything is there on the screen to examine in detail.

But while much is gained in the transition from prose to film, much is also lost.

In film, views can't pause to consider what's taking place; only rarely do they have the chance to 'play detective.' When the onscreen detective attempts to explain his findings, his complicated deductions are often difficult to follow.

And the medium of film may be TOO realistic to do justice to the theme of the unknown which is at the heart of mysteries. We're fascinated with the marvelous, shadowy stills taken from film noir; but often in the actual films, the characters step in and out of the shadows too quickly.

Comics, on the other hand, can be a sublime combination of the best of prose mysteries and cinematic noir.

The scene of the crime can be illustrated in rigorous detail, and the reader is free to study it at length. A complicated explanation can be read and re-read; and the unique language of comics can be used to convey complex ideas such as alibis, timelines, and intersecting motives.

The atmosphere of a comic is more flexible than film, and is under the control of the artist, who can employ whatever degree of exaggeration or expressionism is needed to create the mood.

But in the marriage of comics with the mystery genre, it is comics itself that has the most to gain.

The popular market for comics is dominated by fantasy, creating the impression that comics are detached from and irrelevant to the world at large, 'escapist kid's stuff'. When realism is attempted, it's often in highbrow venues that few have the opportunity to see.

The emergence of widely-read mystery comics would revolutionize the perception of comics, and abolish their 'fantasy only' image. If a large audience began seeking out comics to experience the crackling immediacy of a police investigation or the complexities of a tense courtroom battle, it would be a watershed in the evolution of the medium.

The quality of realism in a mystery story is quite different from an autobiographical tale. It requires the author to reach beyond their own experience to portray exotic locales and offbeat characters convincingly. Specialists in law enforcement must be shown performing their job credibly and in great detail. The realm of fact must be meticulously and carefully depicted in the interest of 'fair play', the criteria dictating that the reader should have as much chance of 'solving' the crime as the detective.

This kind of realism goes far beyond what most contemporary comics portray.

In the area of plot, comics will expand their horizon if paired with the mystery genre. Too many comics today consist of a series of events staged for their sensational or emotional appeal, with little logic or coherence about them. But the best mysteries are ingeniously calculated puzzles that rely little on spectacle or emotional outbursts.

The mystery is the crowning achievement of plot-making. Consider the generic plot of most murder mysteries:

* A crime is committed and the details are partially concealed.

* Suspects are interrogated and provide alibis; one or more of these is a false account which is only exposed later.

* Hypothetical scenarios must be considered by the detective, who examines each suspect for possible motives, which may themselves be concealed.

* While all this is taking place, the murderer is actively trying to cover their tracks, and usually commits another murder that complicates the story even more. The detectives themselves are often the target of the murderer.

* The detective discovers facts that lead to the solution of the case. The significance of these facts is obscured to the reader until the detective's climactic explanation.

To make this kind of plot work requires a change in thinking from traditional comics. Serialized publishing will make such a plot too confusing to follow. Excessive reliance on licensed (permanent, company-owned) characters reduces the list of suspects-- I mean you can't exactly make Jughead the murderer, can you?

But even in situations where the artist has the freedom to choose the best format, the mystery plot is a daunting challenge to graphic storytelling. How much dialog can a comic contain before it becomes bogged down in 'talking heads' stiffness? How can the comic page reveal everything that's necessary, and how can it conceal clues for the detective and the reader to discover later? The demands of the mystery story put these issues into sharp relief.

Finally, the requirements of the modern mystery in the arena of characterization will present fresh challenges to the comics genre.

The classic whodunnit was never intended as a vehicle for great characterization. The emphasis was on the puzzle; the characters served merely as suspects who could interchangeably be linked with the murder. But modern mystery writers understand that the public is vitally interested in what drives ordinary persons to violence; logistics has given way to psychology, sociology, and philosophy.

The character of the prime suspect in the modern mystery should be a person who has many sides to them. They should have an attractive side to their character, but also a darker aspect. Often the reader's sympathies are aroused, so that they fear that this person committed the crime, but earnestly hope for their innocence.

What's essential here is ambiguity, so that the suspect's guilt is held in suspense.

But comics have all too often relied on simple, superficial characterization. Exaggerated features or a distinctive costume tell us too much about them, leaving too little room for interpretation. To succeed in the mystery genre, comics must set these shortcuts aside.

After all, in real life, it's an immature habit to judge a person by their appearance. We only get to really know a person by what they say, what other people say about them, and especially by what they do. A mystery comics writer must master the technique of characterization by behavior. Instead of asking the readers to leap to a conclusion, the comic should be encouraging them to suspend judgement, and think about the characters. It's really just another form of playing detective!

The emergence of the modern mystery genre in comics will change things. It promises to drive comics towards a more intense realism, a more ambitious plot structure, and deeper, more complex characterization. It will excite readers with its immediacy and relevance, and challenge them with the moral ambiguities of crime and punishment.

It will take the best that comics has to offer, and combine it with the mystery's spellbinding appeal. It will be, in fact, a renewal of our artform.

With comics sales in the gutter, and industry morale at an all-time low, it doesn't take Sherock Holmes to figure out this is exactly what comics needs!

--Joe Zabel, June 1999