Written by James Ellroy,
David Fincher, Matz
Art by Miles Hyman
Published by: Archaia
Cover Price: $29.99
The noir genre emerged and flourished post World War II, conveying the darkness lying just underneath American victory smiles and better economic times. The genre gave voices to disenfranchised and disillusioned people, the folks that were forgotten as people danced to rock ‘n roll, purchased pristine, cookie-cutter homes with lush green lawns, and roamed city streets in shiny automobiles. Noir understands the complexities and the depth of the sins in the shadows of societal and economic prosperity, making it a genre that may ebb and flow in its mass popularity but will forever have a place in media and art.
In our post dot-com boom era, noir has surged. Even though crime syndicates no longer visibly rule major cities out of smoke-filled jazz clubs filled with waitresses, dancers, and cigarette girls all too pretty and too desperate to find a way out, one thing has not changed: the marginalization of people as the economy grows. Though we live in an era where something like mobile app that allows people to color in cats and plants on their phone can earn a hoodie and flip-flop clad tech bro millions of dollars in venture capital funds, more and more people are unable to keep up with the rapid-paced technology and optimization focused mentality of today. And, adding globalization into the equation, more and more people are falling out of the labor force because of the absence of industry that needs manufacturing skills.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Why all of this rhetoric to set up a review?” Because America may never be more ready than it is now for noir, especially one of the bigger behemoths of noir lore, the story of the Black Dahlia.
Yes, Brian De Palma did make a film of James Ellroy’s novel in 2006; however, that film arrived to theaters and received poor marks from critics and audiences across the country. Though Ellroy himself did not disown the film (nor even say a negative word about it), the book deserved a better adaptation, but who in the world would try another film version after the lackluster results on the De Palma one? Well, thankfully, the graphic novel form is a far cheaper medium, and the graphic novel world has hunger for good stories. Also, before a graphic novel adaptation of The Black Dahlia novel could move past its script into the art, authors Matz and David Fincher had to receive Ellroy’s blessing on their adaptation that they prepared to present to French audiences in 2013.
Last week, American audiences were able to see the English version of The Black Dahlia graphic novel on shelves for the first time. If you have waited for an improved treatment on the Ellroy novel or the Black Dahlia story, you will have your wishes fulfilled.
Ellroy and Fincher seem like a natural pair. In fact, Fincher was supposed to make the film before De Palma, but for reasons not clearly specified, he left the project prior to production. With Zodiac, which was released a year after the De Palma adaptation of The Black Dahlia, Fincher proved his abilities to craft a crime-investigation story that informs, terrifies, and conveys the psyches of the many people involved in figuring out the culprit in a high profile criminal case, and since then, Ellroy has openly admired the film. Fincher’s meticulousness and distance in Zodiac exhibit how his style and approach perfectly suit The Black Dahlia graphic novel adaptation, and his experience as a writer and a director come through the framing of the panels, the flow of dialog, and the psychological and external battles of Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard, the investigators of the Black Dahlia case that possess compulsiveness and recklessness not too far from that of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Robert Graysmith, in Zodiac.
And, Fincher and Matz harmonize well too. Together, they excel at distilling the thickness of the novel into a graphic novel filled with dread, melancholy, desperation, and nihilism, and artist Miles Hyman visually captures the sordidness of the murder of Elizabeth Short and the lives of Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard with a simplified realism to his artwork and a semi-muted color palette that occasionally cuts to black and white when handling the past. The three together condense the novel into a visual form that exceptionally captures the tone and style of the best noirs without ever feeling derivative or referential. They are handling one of the biggest stories in noir folklore and one of the biggest noir novels of the last 30 years, which is a heavy task, but they achieve in so many places where the film failed.
Given the notoriety of the case, the creators of the graphic novel do not rest for too long on the grisly details of the murder, which anyone can find in news articles about the Elizabeth Short case. Instead, The Black Dahlia focuses on Bucky Bleichert, Ellroy’s projection of himself onto a fictional character, and how the murder of Short unravels his life. Like the book itself, The Black Dahlia graphic novel minimizes the sensationalism around the murder; instead, it assembles a fictional story that symbolizes Ellroy’s struggles to understand and cope with the murder of his mother. Sure, there’s more mystery, scandal, and sex involved in The Black Dahlia than in Ellroy’s own life (well, maybe…), but the graphic novel stands as more of a character study and investigation of morality than that of a murder mystery.
Most of all, The Black Dahlia as a graphic novel succeeds in understanding the darkness of Los Angeles and the blurring of lines between fiction and reality in a place where money is earned through fiction. The graphic novel incorporates some of the elements of a morally decrepit Hollywood into the adaptation, but its examinations of the plethora of facades in Los Angeles hone in more on the rotting morality of people as seen through greed and lust and the real estate world of the city, distinguishing the novel from other noir comic centered on Hollywood such as Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed The Fade Out. The Black Dahlia exceptionally captures the ghosts and demons of Los Angeles and how it entangles itself into the lives of people without feeling like a period piece, even though it is.
And, given the recent news here about the Blake Leibel’s murder and mutilation of his girlfriend, a dark-haired beauty who arrived to Los Angeles less than two years ago, the story of the Black Dahlia is more alive than ever, so the graphic novel may even be more relevant to today’s Los Angeles than the era in which it makes its setting.