Review by C.J. Bunce
You can almost hear the crackle of the celluloid across the projection reels in the back of the theater while reading Noir Burlesque, writer-artist Enrico Marini’s vivid flashback to the bygone era of film noir, coming later this month from Hard Case Crime. For fans of the imprint’s crime novels from Donald E. Westlake to Stephen King, this graphic novel will serve as a springboard to its many comic book offerings. Tough guys, great cars, and a femme fatale like you’d find in your favorite movie from the 1930s to 1950s–they all add up to a great noir movie you hadn’t discover yet, only in paper form.
Terry, who goes by only “Slick,” is a criminal’s James Bond. He’s wily and sure-footed, and he owns every room he enters. And all the women, of course, fall for him, despite his brutish nature. His ex is a red-headed bombshell named Debbie who goes by Caprice for her nightclub act. But she isn’t over him yet. And vice versa.
Marini knows the sparse dialogue of the mob story genre, but what really stands out is his use of black and white with touches of red watercolor, consistently strong throughout the story. Marini shares a wry sense of humor in his selective use of red. It’s a savvy expression of heat and passion that will draw readers’ eyes in from the bigger surroundings.
The challenge of a noir story like this is making unlikeable characters compelling. It’s a challenge here like it was for creators of noir films 75 years ago. Slick has a Robert Mitchum quality that sells the character, and readers finally get to root for him once he has his “save the cat” moment (or does the cat save him?).
In the end readers even get to revisit a small town like that in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Any reader and noir fan may find bits and pieces of their favorite movies and pulp noir here. Could Barbara Stanwyck have played Caprice? Gloria Grahame? I know this takes place in the 1950s, but were it a movie I’d place it around 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Marini strays a bit from mirroring an actual vintage film with some sex and language you wouldn’t have gotten past the censors back then, a few violent “Tarantino” moments, and use of words like “coolest” and “it rocks.” For modern audience sensitivities it also has some questionable ethnic situations you wouldn’t put in a story set today–although you may have found them in the 1950s.
The best feature may be all the great cars. Marini does justice to all these early 1950s works of art in their own right. Or is the best part his city skyline floating in the background? The passing overhead train in the seedy shadows of the city? The roving cat? The Miss Fury or Ms. Tree aura of the sultry Caprice? Or the fact that the artwork in the last pages of the book look as good as the first?
Fans of all things film noir, Greg Smallwood’s artwork on The Human Target, along with fans of Bettie Page comics, Cynthia von Buhler’s racy stories, and even the jazz-filled Marvel’s Luke Cage streaming series all will love this one-shot graphic novel. With so many series available, hopefully Marini has more of this kind of one-and-done story up his sleeve. It’s one of the best graphic novels of 2023.