Best Comics Aren’t Always About Superheroes: Try Noir-ish ‘Archer Coe’

coeOni Press prides itself on not producing superhero books. Instead, it’s a throwback to the 1940s and ’50s when comics could be about anything. Founded in 1997 by Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack, Oni publishes books more in line with the popular genres of  thrillers, romances and realistic drama, rather than the well-tread ground covered by DC and Marvel.

Except for a handful of titles, they don’t even focus on continuing comics either. One-shots and mini-series are more their line.

Which brings me to Jamie S. Rich’s and Dan Christensen’s noir-esque The Mind’s Arrow, Archer Coe & The Thousand Natural Shocks.

This is a unique comic for which Oni is to be commended for publishing. It is both deceptively simple and deceitful. Archer Coe is a stage hypnotist who is seemingly hired by a rich man to get to the bottom of his wife’s frigidity. Coe is drawn into murder, collision with a serial killer, a femme fatale and the unreliability of his own memory and senses. From the outset things are not exactly what they seem. Coe is introduced trying to hypnotize a cat to speak, and then does. Or does he? That is the central problem for Coe, as he tries to determine what is real and what is not. The millionaire’s wife claims to know Coe, but he doesn’t remember her. There’s a serial killer who may or may not have a connection to Coe, unless he is in fact  Coe.

Noir, a term coined by the French film critic Nino Frank in 1946, is used for films that generally involved femme fatales, self-destructive or doomed heroes who can be world weary cops, cynical private eyes, or some poor slob who through happenstance got pulled into the mess. Motives, events and even roles are murky and explained only at the end. The hero can actually be the villain or merely someone who is morally ambiguous.

There were points in the Maltese Falcon, the book not the movie, when I really thought that Sam Spade would throw in with the bad guys. The Continental Op in Red Harvest devises a plan pitting the two crime bosses against each other until each gang is wiped out. (Interestingly this Depression Era tale was adapted by Akira Kurosawa in the Samurai film, Yojimbo and then Sergio Leone adapted that as the Clint Eastwood Western, Fist Full of Dollars).  In I, Jury, Mike Hammer who is the “hero” ruthlessly gut shots the killer. While in D.O.A, the movie starts with Edmund O’Brien being poisoned and has only 48 hours to live, and uses that time to find out who killed him.

Archer Coe is a classic noir protagonist. We are trained, when reading a comic, to assume that because his name is on the cover he’s the hero. But, in noir that is a slippery concept and Rich makes sure that we’re guessing until the very end. Not only is the reader unsure as to what happened and what is happening, but Coe himself must question his memory, his concept of who he is, and his own senses.

Rich’s script and Christensen’s art are more than homage, this is noir as it was. The art is akin to the newspaper comic strip style, and rather than using color, panels are in the muted grays of that industry.  The choice of this style was brilliant, as it fully evokes the era and mood. I can easily see Dick Powell playing Coe and Barbara Stanwyck as the wife, Hope Midland.

The understated art matches, and doesn’t overwhelm the equally understated script. Noir movies rely on atmospheric scenes leavened with stark sparse dialogue.  And so does Archer Coe. There is not a wasted or excess scene or line of dialog.

It may be argued that mystery and comics don’t mix. But, that’s not true, bad mystery and comics don’t mix. Failure will often occur when trying to impose the superhero style upon a mystery story. Rich, Christensen and Oni  following the natural traditions of the noir genre and, in effect, story boarding a movie, have produced an unqualified success.