Few genres are as well-suited to the comic book medium as crime noir. Its emphasis on mood over action, its trademark stylistic flair, even its broad-stroke characters translate seamlessly to the panel—which is probably why gangsters and gun molls are stealing more and more spinner-rack real estate from costumed do-gooders. Once a staple of the drugstore funny-book market, crime comics have made a tremendous comeback in recent years. If that's what it takes to get a book like Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit on shelves, then it's a very, very good thing.
Adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, The Outfit (published by IDW) picks up where 2009's The Hunter left off. Well, sort of—if you want to get technical about it, it picks up where last year's The Man With the Getaway Face: A Prelude to the Outfit left off. Tough-guy anti-hero Parker has undergone cosmetic surgery to give him a shiny new face, and he's looking for a fresh start. He makes it as far as the first panel of The Outfit, where a failed attempt to kill him in his sleep sets him on a quest for vengeance. With the help of a few underworld friends, Parker takes on a vast criminal empire known as the Outfit.
There's considerably more to it than that, and readers who missed The Hunter might be confused by The Outfit's occasionally convoluted plot. That shouldn't stop you from picking up the latest Parker adventure, though; it's just about as good as comics get. Cooke doesn't make bad comics, but the Parker books are high marks even by his lofty standards. His pitch-perfect adaptation of Donald Westlake's pulp crime novel is a pleasure from the first page to the last. Cooke is one of the rare artists who makes full use of the medium's graphic potential. Rather than treating it as essentially a storyboard, he uses dynamic layouts and a giddy blend of artistic and narrative styles to transcend the static nature of the printed page. The action sequences can be a bit hard to follow at times, but there are moments when a caper plays out so brilliantly, with such a perfect synthesis of words and images, that The Outfit makes you want to quit your job and do nothing but read comic books all day. It's also gorgeous; while many noir titles revel in grime and ugliness, Cooke's latest is all about swank and style. It's Mickey Spillane channeled through Mad Men.
Of course, not all noir comics are quite so straightforward. Vertigo's Luna Park takes a diametrically opposite approach to the genre, with mixed results. Written by novelist Kevin Baker, penciled by Danijel Zezelj, and inked by industry fave Dave Stewart, Luna Park is a profoundly grim noir fable that starts as a low-key crime drama and gradually morphs into a sprawling epic that spans several centuries of Russian and American history.
Alik is a low-level mob enforcer enduring a bleak winter amid the closed-down theme parks on Coney Island. A veteran of the Chechen wars, he spends much of his time in a drug-induced haze, bemoaning a lost love and struggling to hold onto a new one. He sees a way out when presented with the opportunity to sell his boss out to another crime lord, but it soon becomes apparent that Alik is caught in a centuries-old cycle of violence and betrayal.
Luna Park's first half is difficult to get through. It's relentlessly depressing and lacks a strong narrative thread, but things pick up considerably in the second half, as Alik and his lovers tumble through alternate histories and futures. Lines between dream and reality blur until they disappear altogether. Alik fights in a seemingly endless progression of wars, alternately defending Russia from early invaders and fighting in the Allied trenches of World War I. In one thread, he lives out his boyhood in modern Russia; in another, he immigrates with his family to America somewhere near the turn of the 20th century. His two pasts ultimately unite in a thoroughly unexpected way.
In spite of its flaws—or perhaps even because of them—Luna Park is bravura storytelling. It's occasionally too ambitious for its own good, but it's a gallant, beautifully illustrated effort. Zezelj's pencil work is fantastic; the artist's ability to evoke time and place, from the frozen wastelands of war-torn Russia to the windswept beaches of Coney Island, is remarkable, and Stewart's often monochromatic color schemes play a critical role in orienting readers to the book's frequently shifting settings. It ultimately leaves the reader feeling a bit cold, but it's unlike anything else on the shelves today.