“Classic Murder Mystery Gets a Comic-Book Reboot” (by Maaja Wentz)

EQMM’s Department of First Stories has given a start to hundreds of authors, but in recent years, with developments in technology, what it means to give an author a start has changed. Some authors nowadays are able to get their fiction to an audience and establish a following without the help of a publisher. As self-publishing on various electronic platforms has grown, EQMM has decided to stick with its original criteria for inclusion in the Department of First Stories, which is that the story must be the author’s first paid professional publication. Canadian writer Maaja Wentz, who will debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in our next issue, with the story “Inside of a Dog,” qualifies under those rules. But Maaja has already serialized a novel, her supernatural thriller Feeding Frenzy, on Wattpad, generating over a hundred thousand reads. In this post, she discusses how her interests in the mystery and urban-fantasy genres have converged, as they have for many fans, and how this convergence is regenerating television mystery.—Janet Hutchings   

The noir detective story and police procedural are beloved classic genres. Both have translated well to the big and small screen, from classic movies such as The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, Double Indemnity, and Chinatown (neo-noir) to TV series such as NYPD Blue, CSI, Columbo, The Wire, and Law and Order.

Whether your tastes run to cozies such as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Death in Paradise, and Murder, She Wrote, or you prefer something more realistic like The Wire, the short format and repetitive nature of old-school TV shows inevitably risk becoming formulaic. How often have you settled in to enjoy a mystery show only to realize after ten minutes that you have already guessed whodunit?

Do we need another gritty drama about a down-on-his-luck detective scraping by in a harsh and unfriendly world? How about a grizzled veteran cop with marriage trouble, mourning his dead partner? And don’t even talk to me about the alcoholism. Even when TV embraced female protagonists and more representative casts, the cliches remained. It was enough to send me back to the bookshelf until, in a flourish of ink, TV crime got redrawn.

Comic books have always featured crime fighters, from Superman and Batman to vigilantes like Black Lightning, the Arrow, or the Flash. Two current comics-inspired shows have become my favorites for the way they employ urban fantasy and science-fiction elements to reboot the TV mystery.

Stylishly comic iZombie transforms the police procedural with urban-fantasy tropes, while Jessica Jones features a noir detective with superpowers out of a sci-fi thriller.

In classic noir style, Jessica Jones is scraping by as a lonely, luckless P.I. who photographs cheating spouses for a living. As in noir film, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is shot against a dramatic visual palette, the cinematography and setting choices influenced by layouts from the original comic. Her office is dark and spare. The drama is comic-book extreme, with one-night stands, fist fights, explosions, and one memorable scene in which mind control forces an entire station of police officers to pull guns on each other. Settings are chosen for visual impact, such as the bloody season-two finale, shot at the top of the Playland Ferris wheel.

Based on the comic character created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones soon turns out to be more than a stereotypical gumshoe. She isn’t a sucker getting beat down by the bad guys in a troubled world, destined to be seduced and set up by a femme fatale.

Jones can lift a refrigerator or kill a man with her bare hands. Restraining her temper is a bigger challenge. And when it comes to the femme-fatale trope, she is the beautiful but deadly woman herself. More than once she laments that everyone she loves dies.

The classic noir detective epitomized postwar ennui, but is there a modern equivalent? We are numbed by a media bombardment of tragedies close to and far from home. A more connected planet reveals the true complexity and magnitude of humanity’s problems until, desensitized and demoralized, we sometimes feel like the bad guys always win.

Like us, Jessica Jones doesn’t think she can save the world. Sometimes she hides in the bottle or seeks refuge in a meaningless fling. Sometimes, she saves a child or stops a robbery, but she can’t save society, her loved ones, or even herself. This new super strong yet powerless detective reflects our current era’s fatalism and escapism. We cheer and lose ourselves in the moments when she kicks the villains down, but in the end, the most powerful conspirators remain hidden in the city of grit and shadows.

If the stylish noir genre deserved a facelift, the police procedural is a ratings mainstay. As such, it has been nipped and tucked into every form from gritty realism to cozy historical to exotic escapism, until it seemed dead on the autopsy table.

In 2015, iZombie jolted the police procedural’s exhausted heart like an undead defibrillator. Episodes investigate murders in a comic-book world, based on iZOMBIE by Chris Roberson. There are interrogations, autopsies, a wisecracking coroner, and a suffering lead, but Liv Moore is no cliche grizzled veteran, gunning to avenge a fallen partner. She’s a young, high-achieving medical resident who lost her career and fiancé when she became a zombie, compelled to eat brains to survive.

This premise brims with grotesque situation comedy, like the perky montages of Liv whipping up brain recipes. When she eats their brains, Liv has visions of murder victims’ memories. Instead of time-consuming investigative techniques, Liv’s visions short-circuit the tiresome need for realistic information gathering so the plot can skip ahead to action scenes and confrontations. Liv’s special ability makes her better than a lie detector, and the brain she eats imbues her mood, abilities, values, accent, speech, and actions with the victim’s personality. Liv doesn’t just interrogate suspects on behalf of the deceased, she becomes the victim. What better advocate for justice in the interrogation room? It’s a showcase opportunity for actor Rose McIver, who helps detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) solve murder cases.

The show gets its kick from Liv’s ability to vicariously experience multiple lives from all walks of life, male and female, old and young, innocent and criminal, sadistic and sweet. Added to the grotesque humor is the ongoing conspiracy-thriller plot surrounding the origins of the zombie virus and the eventual paramilitary zombie takeover of Seattle.

While fans of realism may not be tempted by Jessica Jones or iZombie, these shows mirror a larger trend in which young protagonists and fantasy tropes are transforming traditional programming, while putting a youthful spin on the mystery genre.

This entry was posted in Adventure, Characters, Classic Mystery, Fiction, Genre, Noir, Police Procedurals, Pop Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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