Writer: Carlos Sampayo, Artist: Jose Munoz, Publisher: Euro Comics / IDW
“When it comes to stories Alack Sinner heard his share. He had spent his life listening to others… that’s what he was paid for.”
After a failed attempt in the 1990’s the classic European noir series finally sees complete publication in English, done in two thick softcover volumes (the first one totaling at 388 pages) by the fine folk at Euro Comics– an imprint of IDW that’s been hard at work over the last several years brining to English-speaking world the complete adventures of Corto Maltese. Originally done in a scattered manner, jumping from case to case, the English language editions rearrange the adventures of the titular detective in a chronological manner – as he quites the police, becomes a P.I, falls in and out of love (lust?) and slowly observes the faults in the system he serves.
Alack Sinner is known to American-comics fans, if at all, mostly as the stylistic inspiration for Frank Miller’s Sin City: both series featured a black-and-white overtly stylistic art, are heavy on light and dark games and feature stories in the old tradition of the gumshoe in a morally compromised world. It’s that old “down these mean streets a man must go” refrain from Chandler – but done at one remove, the stories are aware of the mythology formed around them, and that the readers treat them less as simple tales and more like an attempt at iconography: that type of detective, a lose cigarette down-angle in the mouth, body old and weathered but far from beaten, is now as much of icon of AMERICA as is the cowboy. To write that type of story is to write not only in America but about America.
But there’s actually very little of Miller in these stories (or rather – little of these stories in Miller). Sin City seems to be chiefly influenced by Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series, it takes the culture, environment and ideas of noir stories but does away with the moral greyness of it all (Chandler himself was not a fan of Spillane, noting “Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff”): for Miller black and white aren’t just color choices but moral lines on the page – the villains are monsters, grotesques on the outside and on the inside, while the protagonists might as well be superheroes, guided by inner and outer strength to impose their will on this fallen world. It’s true that the various protagonists of Sin City are to brutes and killers, but they are brutes and killers on our side and are thus morally justified. As movie critic Bob Chipman noted in his review of the second Sin City movie (in a ton more derisive than I would adopt) the series often felt more like an interpretation of the lurid covers of pulp magazines than attempt to ape the stories of Chandler, Hammet etc.
Back to Alack Sinner, a man with a name as comic-book-y as any you will find (the 1990’s Fantagrpahics publication changed the title to Sinner for a maximum is-that-a-Dark-Horse-comics-or-what effect). Sinner might want, from time to time, to impose his will upon the world, but he often would rather not and even when he tries he discovers he cannot. The world in Alack Sinner is far bigger than the protagonist, who often finds himself on the sidelines of stories rather than in their center – an effect that’s strengthened by the often used stylistic trick on pulling back the POV so that the important conversation Alack is having with a client or a suspect becomes part of the scenery, part of the city. If the classic detective story, from C. Auguste Dupin onwards, is all about reclaiming social order out of chaos, Alack Sinner is all about the chaos itself – you can’t reclaim order because it was forever an illusion.
Munoz art style is a reflection of that theme – it’s forever shifting and moving, characters can appear straightforward in one panel and as creepy grotesques in another. Like the jazz that is forever discussed by the characters (““Cheryl” is like a fever. No one can resist playing it again. Actually the fever is Charlie Parker”) there’s a lack of rigidity in the structure- The mood of the scene becomes the mood of the art.
In “Constancio and Manolo” scenes of remembrance from the Spanish Civil War become images from Guernica before moving to a more surrealist imagery – because reality as we perceive it cannot hold those memories. Dick Tracy, another inspiration also featured humans whose exterior was a reflection of their dark interior; but in Dick Tracy there was a clear line between good and evil while in Alack Sinner everything is a matter of shifting perspective. There’s even a blink-and-you-missed-it panel in which alack crosses paths with Tracy himself and contrast couldn’t be stronger: Tracy stands up with a straight back, bathed in light, a smile on his lips; coming towards him is sinner – shoulders hunched under the weight of the world, a dark shadow serving as his background. Tracy is straightforward, Sinner is curved.
In “Viet Blues” Alack, ever the reluctant helpful soul, tries to save a young black man from being beaten on the street, after the police inform him that they couldn’t care less for the fate of African-Americans the same young man rejects Alack offer of assistance “ You heard them: It’s a black thing. Beat it!” as the story progresses Sinner tries repeatedly to insert himself into the unfolding events in the black community, to play the “white savior”, but is tuned again and again; in the end it is he who his saved from death by a group of black militants. The roots of that particular mystery, as the name implies, go back to the Vietnam war (the stories take place in the late 70’s and early 80’s) – Sinner cannot save that young man, cannot solve “the problem” because it is merely part of something bigger (the war) which is itself an extension of even bigger things. In the works of Frank Miller there is nothing so big a man cannot solve it himself if he is a great enough man (the supposedly invincible Roark family that runs Basin City gets brought down low more than once), not so here.
In fact the mystery element of these detective stories is incredibly minor, to the point that the last three stories in the collection (including the longest and most free-roaming piece “Encounters”) have Sinner try his hand as a part time taxi driver. The reader who expect brilliant deductions or suspenseful plotting are in for a disappointment – the series is more of a mood piece or a character study than a mystery, the culprit is often obvious and even more often an afterthought to the musing on humanity and society. Maybe it’s because in reality the villains are also obvious – the rich and powerful, the people who truly impose their will on the world, – and just as untouchable as they are obvious. The war in Vietnam might be a crime – but alack Sinner, try as he might, cannot bring the USA to justice.
“This was the end of a day spent remembering significant events in my life. One more day, a happy and lonely day. I got plastered, ran into Gloria, murdered some little fish, and took a good, hot shower. What more can you ask of life? Sometimes I wonder.”