Don’t imagine for a moment that this illustrated anthology of short stories is kid’s stuff, simply because it’s in comic book format. This is a graphic novel; graphic in both style and substance. It’s absolutely 18-rated for adult audiences only; partly because the artwork and language spare absolutely no blushes but also due to the challenging nature of the themes it explores. This is hardboiled noir at its best – a brutal and bleak examination of the stark side of the human condition.
Published a quarter-century ago as part of Serpent’s Tail’s Mask Noir series, this slim volume collects a dozen standalone stories by gifted contributors. As the title suggests, London’s backstreets provide the backdrop to the action – a conceit which some authors successfully exploited, others less so. A few of the writers really ran with the idea and made London itself the central character, but in most of the tales the location is almost irrelevant. The corrupted characters and their fragmented lives are the compelling components of each episode.
So we get up close and very personal with some sleazy, sordid characters. Alan Moore’s in-depth examination of strip-joints – the clientele and the sex-workers themselves – is both candid and chilling in its clear-eyed representation of desperate manipulation. Neil Gaiman imagines what might happen if the most beautiful man alive was trafficked to a ruthless gangster… and the outcome is entirely unexpected.
There is, however, a glimmer of potential redemption lurking in the shadows. An aging robber risks everything to reconcile with the daughter he’s never known. A coroner breaks (almost) every boundary in his relationship with a dead person – but with delicate grace this story confronts the possibilities of dual-gender identities, way ahead of its time.
And a couple of the stories are just plain fun. In one, the modern art industry takes a well-deserved kicking for its commercial exploitation of the lonely plight of the common man. (The nature of the ‘art’ is wickedly witty.) In another, a woman walking her dogs on the common is accosted by a strange man – and things don’t turn out quite like you’d imagine. That one is a gleefully guilty pleasure!
Inevitably, there are a couple of criticisms. One or two of the stories simply didn’t work for me – you can’t expect to be in tune with a dozen different authors. And, as already mentioned, this is not an anthology about London. It could be almost any urban area, so don’t come here looking for cheeky cockneys and jellied eels.
Do come here if you admire creativity and implicit intricacy. Throughout, different artists depict the mood and mayhem in stark monotones. You’ll be amazed how much depth and subtlety can be portrayed in simple black and white – in the same way that a few short pages of minimal text can reveal so many truths and their consequences.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
It’s Dark In London was reprinted in 2012 and is available at Amazon
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