Raymond Chandler once wrote ‘Down these mean streets a lonely man must walk, who s not himself mean.’ It’s a concept that a lot of crime fiction, whether focussed on the policemen or the criminals still revolves around, the idea that a wrong will be righted whether by an arrest or desperate, last minute and blood soaked retribution. It’s a starting point, a catalyst and also an immense constraint. Because the sum must be balanced, there must be men in white hats and black hats, something must be done, everything must be paid for.
In Snowtown, the maths works differently
Fell, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Ben Templesmith is a series where the architecture, both of the stories and the city, is as much a character as Richard Fell himself. Told in one-off, sixteen page issues each dealing with a single case, it throws away the traditional serialised storytelling of comics to embrace something a lot closer to television. Crime fiction has flourished on TV with the CSI universe now incorporating five TV shows and series like Criminal Minds and Dexter exploring the perspectives of the victims and killers in equal detail. It’s a smart move, giving the series a familiar structure which not only appeals to comic readers but shares common ground with some of the most successful TV shows on the planet. As a result, there’s at least some closure every issue, as Richard either finds the person he’s looking for or finds someone who has done something else as bad and who deserves to be punished. You get what closure you can in Snowtown and that’s a lesson that Fell and the reader both learn very quickly.
Richard Fell himself, at least initially, is Chandler’s hero, a man who volunteers to walk down these mean streets and make them a little better. He’s a quiet, almost studious figure, contained and articulate and just a little distant. It’s not the distance of the intellectual, of Holmes or more recently House but rather the distance of a man who knows the power of information, can read people like a book and lives in perpetual terror of others reading him. He’s smart, competent and all too aware of how much danger that can put him in as well as the power it gives him in a place like Snowtown.
The more time he spends in the city though, the more that begins to change. Snowtown is so relentlessly violent, so cheerfully nihilistic that buildings are tagged with the Snowtown mark, a sigil that’s supposed to protect those inside from harm. Richard himself is branded with it by Mayko, the bar owner he begins a gentle, tentative romance with and it’s this marking and Fell’s acceptance of the urban tribal magic it represents that signals the beginning of his evolution. The man who solves his first couple of cases simply by noticing what others don’t is framing a violent mugger for an unsolvable crime and breaking and entering by the end of the first collection. He’s still a good man but he’s a good man being changed, literally wearing Snowtown’s clothes following an encounter with a suicide bomber and a nice old lady who gives weapons to the increasingly terrified pensioners of the city
The moment where Richard receives his new suit is particularly interesting, as it not only evokes the traditional ‘suiting up’ moment of superhero comics but is also a very deliberate harking back to older heroes, older archetypes. Richard is a nice, polite boy who wants the best for the good people around him and frequently violent but always fair justice for the bad. He owes as much to Black Mask, one of his childhood heroes as he does to Homicide‘s Tim Baylis or The Wire‘s Jimmy Macnulty. He’s a man out of time and place and fully prepared to use that to get what he wants.
Richard is, fundamentally, a genius and his natural deductive ability are where the creative team really shine. An early issue sees him tracking the final steps of a woman whose foetus was cut from her, her after image tracing it’s final steps across the page and across Fell’s mind. It’s a quietly impressive, moving sequence, made all the more so by the fact Richard is smart enough to go this far and no further. He’s good just not quite good enough and it’s only after talking to Mayko and learning about the repulsive practice of ‘smoke babies’ that he’s able to return to the street, discharge his weapon and note the windows that don’t light up, the people that feel protected by a different type of magic that’s repulsive even in Snowtown. The panels, showing Richard firing, the windows lighting up and him making notes are a perfect marriage of art and script and mark out a style unique to the series. It’s further developed by both the pictures Richard takes and post it notes, used by both the character and the creative team to tremendous effect. One, in the second issue, is attached to the belongings of a murder victim and reads simply ‘All she had left’.
For all his intelligence, decency and compassion though Richard Fell may not be as good a man as he’s perceived to be. Several flashbacks in the series show him visiting his partner, who cheerfully admits to having no memory of who he is and reveal that far from volunteering for Snowtown, he was banished there for two years following an undisclosed incident in the city. That incident has yet to be revealed but the implication seems to be that Richard is more at home in Snowtown than even he would like to admit.
Fell’s supporting cast, oddly, owe more to contemporary crime fiction than he does. Lt. Beard, Ri chard’s shift commander, is superficially the standard tough lieutenant of crime fiction whilst his colleagues include Bromwich, a young, inexperienced detective and Owlsley, an experienced veteran. Even Mayko, at first, is a tough but compassionate bartender, a woman who has seen it all happen before more than once.
But Lt. Beard can barely make it through the day, Owlsley has come back to service despite losing his legs and Mayko, just dumped by her fiance, needs anti-depressants to work in a bar her father won in a card game. The only people in control in Snowtown are the criminals, ranging from the polite old lady who gives guns to her friends to the ‘Nixon Nun’, a ghastly figure dressed in a nun’s habit and a Nixon mask whose actions become progressively more intimidating and seems to embody Snowtown itself, a tangible force that Richard can push against, can see but never quite touch.
None of them are simple, none of them have it easy and all of them are more than they appear, complex characters let loose in a city where the meat trucks are regularly stopped by snipers and packs of domestic dogs have gone feral. Each one struggles to hang on as Snowtown bucks and shifts beneath them, in most cases wanting nothing but to get to the end of the day alive. These may be mean streets but they’re mean streets that must be lived on and everyone but Richard Fell knows this. He’s Chandler’s man wandering Snowtown’s streets and not only changing them, but being changed by them, becoming a feral policeman in a feral city.
Fell, like Snowtown itself, takes the standard sum of crime fiction and comes up with a different result. This is a city where the best detective on the force has been exiled there, where criminals are so all pervasive if you can’t find the right one then anyone will do. It’s a city choking on it’s own violence and it’s own waste, Chandler’s mean streets collapsing in on themselves as the cycle of violence and depravity accelerates.
But for all this, Fell is a series about people not at their best but doing their best. Lt. Beard may be border line insane and Owlsley may not have legs but they both show up for work. Mayko’s life has collapsed and she works in the wreckage of her father’s past but she’s still there and at the heart of it all, so is Richard Fell. A quiet genius with a violent streak and a dark past, a man who cares for the people everyone else doesn’t and who finds himself on the line between corruption and evolution. He may not be a good man, but he’s good enough.
Fell:Feral City collects the first eight issues of the series and is available now.