Everyone loves a good noir tale. Everyone. You can be black, white, blue collar, white collar, male, female, gay or straight, everyone and their mother enjoys a down-on-their-luck asshole getting their face rubbed in the dirt while trying to do right. Lo and behold, that’s exactly what Tumor delivers, better than the Vertigo Crime line whose entire purpose it is to deliver books like that, and from Archaia nonetheless, a publisher best known for its sci-fi and fantasy titles like Mouse Guard and Days Missing.
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov with art from Noel Tuazon, Tumor is a gritty private eye story that was originally released in installments via Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the first graphic novel to do such a thing. Collected in this hardcover book, Tumor winds up excelling at not only being an entertaining noir yarn, but also an unexpected character study that hits many beats one doesn’t usually expect from the noir genre.
The plot is simple enough: washed up PI Frank Armstrong stumbles into a case involving the local mob boss’ search for his daughter, who stole a large amount of money from him. However, Frank soon unravels that this case may or may not have ties to the murder of his wife that threw him into a downward spiral about 20 years earlier. The catch is, Frank has recently been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and given only days to live as his perception between reality, hallucination, memories, and daydreams all become blurred.
Though Tumor is rife with classic noir traits like dirty cops, double-crosses, femme fatales, and loads of violent cursing, the tumor aspect of the plot is where Fialkov is able to diverge from the norm and weave a tale with a protagonist that has a history we care about, instead of a history we are simply amused by. In this way, Fialkov tosses the noir traditions out the window, even blatantly stating such in a great scene near the end in which Frank is holding a gun to a character’s head and another character warns him about bumps in the road and not to “get all Pulp Fiction”, to which Frank simply replies “I don’t know what that means”. I may be digging in the meta there, but that was my perception and I loved it.
All of that said, Tumor isn’t flawless, but none of its downfalls outweigh the positives. Fialkov has Frank on lock; the character’s voice is consistent, his actions are logical, and every decision is reasonable. While supporting characters aren’t necessarily inconsistent in their presentation, they simply aren’t as fleshed out as Frank. Granted he’s the central character, but a more realized supporting cast could have elevated Tumor beyond the plane of quality on which it exists. One other problem comes in the way of certain dialogue (again, never from Frank) when characters seem to speak exactly what they feel, or what they want the reader to feel/realize. It’s a cheap trick most of the time, but again, it never damages the collective whole of the book.
The black and white art of Noel Tuazon is a perfect fit for the tone of Tumor, and his gruff and heavy inks help the book deliver the pattented noir feel that Fialkov was going for. All of the layouts are incredibly basic, but Tuazon does use a creative technique to distinguish between Frank’s fantasies and reality. When Frank goes off into dreamland, the panel borders disappear, replaced instead by white erasures that look like they were cut into a fully drawn page rather than a panel drawn within constraints. The inking also moves to softer brush strokes and incorporates gray tones, a stark contrast from the decisive black and white that dominates most of the book. Tuazon allows the sometimes chaotic narrative to flow easily for the reader without any confusion as to what’s happening when.
In addition to the main Tumor tale, you get a nifty foreword from Duane Swierczynski, an afterword from Fialkov, a great short prose story of an early Frank Armstrong mystery (that’s mentioned off-hand in the main comic), the original comic book pitch from the creators, along with a sketchbook and an interview with Fialkov with Ain’t It Cool News. For a mere $15 at retail, this is one of the best values you can find in your local comic book shop. Hell, on Amazon you can get it for $10 (or .99 cents a chapter on Kindle).
With Vertigo Crime hardcovers going for $20 a pop, it’s hard to look at those books in the same light knowing there is a far superior noir OGN out there with stellar bonus content, for a fraction of the price.