Christopher Mills is a pal of mine, but it’s an acquaintanceship born out of my fondness for his work. I hesitate to call him a pulp writer because I have some connotations that go with “pulp” that aren’t all positive. As fun and thrilling and yes, good as the best pulp can be, there’s a large percentage of it that just feels hacked out. The very name “pulp” refers to the cheapness that was associated with the original work in the genre and – rightfully or not – I’ve always connected that with stories that were more or less disposable. And that’s not Mills.
It’s not Lovecraft or Howard or Bradbury either, so I know my prejudice isn’t exactly fair, but I’d still hate for someone to hear me describe Mills as pulp and assume that he just wrote exploitative, sensationalistic stuff without any thought given to things like story and character.
My first experience with Mills’ work was his Gravedigger webcomic (later published in book form by Rorschach Entertainment). I wrote at the time that it “was not inspired by the pulp fiction of the ’30s and ’40s. It was inspired by the Pulp Fiction of 1994.” I was kind of spellbound by the main character and loved how, though he’s a villain (not even an anti-hero) and almost completely without morals, Mills gave me just enough to like about him that I could root for him anyway.
Femme Noir – coming in June from Ape Entertainment – isn’t as dark as Gravedigger. It’s got more of the traditional, pulp elements too. It takes place in Port Nocturne, a corrupt, perpetually rainy city with more than its share of organized crime, mad scientists, femme fatales, and mysterious vigilantes. One of the femme fatales doubles as a vigilante and there you’ve got your premise.
And she is mysterious. The whole first issue is dedicated to the story of a private eye who’s trying to figure out the identity of this blonde avenger who’s so shadowy that we never even learn her name. I’ve seen reviewers refer to her as Femme Noir, but she’s never called that in the book. She’s referred to as Blonde Justice or just The Blonde, but none of those have really stuck yet. We’ve all seen the origin stories where the crime-fighter’s name is given to them by the press, but it’s always this spontaneous, immediate christening where some reporter writes, “What a super man!” and instantaneously everyone in the world’s calling him Superman. Femme Noir is letting us sort of feel our way along with the rest of Port Nocturne and I love it, especially since the character’s name isn’t the focus of the series; it’s just something that’s going on in the background to keep things interesting.
Naturally, the private eye in the first issue doesn’t figure out who this woman is. In fact, he doesn’t actually do any investigating in the story, but sits in his office and smokes while trying to piece together what he’s come up with so far. What he’s put together is a short list of the three most likely candidates and we’re introduced to them in a cool trio of short stories that not only reveals the series’ main characters, but also establishes the tone and setting of Port Nocturne. The private eye’s three suspects are the orphaned daughter of a mob boss, a popular nightclub singer, and a girl reporter. Any of the three would be cool secret identities, though I’m sort of hoping that Mills will avoid Huntress comparisons and make her someone besides the mafia daughter.
I want to say that the second issue shows us what we might expect from the series in terms of a status quo, but I’m afraid that as soon as I make that claim Mills will prove me wrong with the third issue. The second issue certainly begins like a straightforward mystery – though one that’s told non-linearly – but by the end of it you realize that in Port Nocturne the hero doesn’t always win. And that’s not even a spoiler because in Port Nocturne you’re not always sure who the hero is. The cops? The Blonde? The criminal? Yes. And no.
Like I said before, Femme Noir isn’t as morally dark as Gravedigger was, but virtue is an ambiguous concept in it and all the characters are developed enough that any of them can step over whatever moral lines we’ve drawn as readers. And that’s awesome because it keeps things spicy.
That’s what I’ve come to expect from Mills though. He’s always figuring out ways to liven up traditional concepts by looking at them from a different way or exploring corners that we haven’t been into before. Even that first issue of Femme Noir: I don’t want to call it a set-up issue, because – like “pulp” – I have a knee-jerk, negative reaction to that term. Mills certainly sets up his series, but he does it in an exciting way that works as a complete, stand-alone story and doesn’t make you sorry that you didn’t just wait for the trade.
I’ve neglected to mention Joe Staton’s illustrations before now and that’s as criminal as anything Femme Noir’s characters are up to. Staton is a legendary artist who’s clearly still in the game and is very comfortable with the series’ noir setting. Staton is too “Staton” to suffer comparison with any other artist, but damn if I wasn’t constantly reminded of The Spirit the whole time. In fact, if you’re at all enjoying DC’s current Spirit series and would enjoy reading more like it, you really need to give Femme Noir a try when it starts in June.