Max Allan Collins, Christa Faust and Gary Phillips discuss the beginnings of noir and recent developments in neo-noir.
Neo-noir (from the Greek neo, which means new; and the French noir, meaning black) is a contemporary dark fiction subgenre with long roots in publishing and film history. It can be found in many different genres, including drama, fantasy, sci-fi and horror. In recent years, we’ve seen it in feature films (Blade Runner 2049, Road to Perdition), TV (Westworld, Better Call Saul) comic books (Southern Bastards, Kill or Be Killed) and novels (Gone Girl, Penny Dreadful). I spoke with Road to Perdition author Max Allan Collins, comic book writer Christa Faust, and crime author Gary Phillips about the ever-popular subgenre.
“Noir is a term that derives from the French Série Noire publications,” said Collins, referring to an imprint based in Paris that released hardboiled detective thrillers. Collins credits American writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane with promulgating the genre.
Noir’s roots can be found in the hardboiled crime fiction of the pulps — cheaply made magazines that saw record sales during the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II.
In the 1920s and ’30s, when readers could go to the newsstand to pick up a copy of a crime pulp, such as Black Mask, they’d discover private detectives with a penchant for alcohol, trench coats and fedoras. They’d find gangsters with pistols, cold eyes and hot tempers. They’d be immersed in shadowy atmospheres, and they’d meet male characters preoccupied with mysterious, seductive women known as femme fatales. Commonly written in first-person, the stories often highlighted the real-world issues of the prohibition years.
Due to a paper shortage during World War II, publishing costs rose and the pulps failed to make a profit. By the end of the war, many publications were closing their doors.
Meanwhile, however, other mediums flourished — especially film. Books like The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep and Thieves Like Us were adapted to film noir in the mid to late ’40s. Under budget and time constraints, filmmakers used ingenuity to create a style that produced the core elements of film noir. Collins said, “The ’40s black-and-white crime films that most identify as noir had to do with cost-cutting — using dramatic lighting effects to disguise scant sets — but also are heavily influenced by popular crime writers.”
In addition to financial constraints, filmmakers were limited by the Hays Code of 1930. The code restricted or outright banned perverse terminology as well as sexual acts between unmarried, interracial, or same-sex couples. To get around this, filmmakers implied off-screen scenes of violence and sexual content that would’ve otherwise broken the code. This gave rise to the voiceover narrative in a dim, smoky setting, which became iconic characteristics of film noir.
While the stories had transitioned to a new medium, the femme fatales and tough-guy antiheroes remained. Collins said, “The noir films that have to do with crime and corruption often have a flawed antihero.” Among the most unforgettable antiheroes of film noir are Harry Powell (portrayed by Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter; Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man; and Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) in Angels with Dirty Faces.
Meanwhile, crime comic books were taking a beating from the Comics Code Authority formed in 1954. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, while not outlawing crime comic books, placed harsh restrictions on them. According to the code, criminals in comic books couldn’t be presented as glamorous, police officers couldn’t be portrayed in a way that would generate disrespect, profanity and nudity were forbidden, portrayals of sex were unacceptable, violence had to be eliminated, and criminals had to be punished for their misdeeds.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. saw tensions rising with the civil rights, women’s liberation and antiwar movements, as well as the Cold War. This revolutionary time fueled neo-noir film, comics and novels. The restrictions of the Comics Code Authority had left a gap in the crime comics genre that would finally be filled by Jack Kirby with In the Days of the Mob (1971), Our Fighting Forces (1974-78) and Justice, Inc. (1975).
Screenplays held the core of noir but expanded on subject matter, social topics and representation, allowing for further experimentation. All this was augmented by advances in filmmaking. With film now in color and the Hays Code replaced by the MPAA film rating system in 1968, filmmakers had more control over their choices of visual expression. Displays of violence, sexual acts and graphic language were now staples of neo-noir films, including Foxy Brown (1974), No Way Back (1976) and Rolling Thunder (1977).
While women had been almost exclusively femme fatales in noir, in 1981 Max Allan Collins introduced Ms. Tree, a female-led P.I. series. Today neo-noir comics frequently feature female antiheroes, including Greg Rucka’s Stumptown (2009-), Joelle Jones’ Lady Killer (2015-) and Brian Wood’s Briggs Land (2017-).
Christa Faust, who writes the neo-noir comic book series Peepland (2016-) along with Gary Phillips, said, “I’ve been changing the role of women in noir in my work for over a decade now, and that’s both intentional and also an organic and unavoidable byproduct of my own life experience. But in Peepland, Gary and I wanted to give voice not just to women in general but to marginalized women in particular. Sex workers, women of color, queer women and women who are all of the above.”
The illustrations in neo-noir comic books and graphic novels add to the atmosphere the subgenre is known for. Gary Phillips said, “In a comic, of course you have the benefit of the visuals to work with the words to tell the story. The artists can communicate so much with a close-up on a character’s face that speaks volumes, whereas in prose, you have to figure out how to communicate such with a paucity of words.”
Within the world of literature, a similar evolution has happened. Novels by authors Donald Westlake (1933-2008) and Ed McBain (1926-2005) helped revive crime fiction in neo-noir. Donald Goines (1936-74) fictionalized his own upbringing and cemented the rightful place of authors of color in noir. Over the last few years, writers like Ed Kurtz, Jason Starr, Rob Hart and Joe Clifford have continued to contribute some of the best work in the genre.
From the beginnings of noir to contemporary neo-noir TV, films, novels and comics, casual and hard-core fans continue to admire the enduring genre. Whether we watch it, read it or experience it as a comic book or graphic novel, neo-noir will continue to expand and attract new audiences.