Crime Comic Review: Amy Devlin, Lost and Found
Amy Devlin, Lost and Found
Christina Weir (W)
Nunzio DeFilippis (W)
T J Kirsch (A)
I mentioned on our twitter that despite my love of prose and television crime stories, I don’t feel much pull from graphic crime fiction. I don’t know if my lack of interest is real, I don’t know if it’s a subconscious assumption I’ve accidentally made — do I have bizarre prejudices against comics? Awkward! I thought should try reading graphic crime and see if I love it as much. If I don’t, maybe there’ll be something I can see that gives me a clue as to why.
I’ve been thinking that the reason I don’t care about Superman comics is that the Superman setup is so graphic, logo-graphic, Kal-El-Clark-Lois-Jimmy-Planet, that it needs real living, breathing humans (“actors”) with their innate nuance to shake up the formula for me. I mean Iron Man, right? Thor. People care a whole lot more when there’s a human with pores, shortness of breath, shining eyes and involuntary muscle clenching behind the primary colours and segmented humanoid shapes. That’s not why I’m not excited about crime comics (I have no problems with crime anime, which is made by and not of people), but maybe it’s something similar.
Amy Devlin, Lost and Found is written by by Cristina Weir & Nunzio DeFlilippis. I don’t know about you but I remember this team best from New X-Men: Academy X, way back in 2004, before M-Day. That’s the title I was reading, as “no more mutants” killed my mojo for Marvel. It’s a book I was enjoying pretty well. I think I had more interest in where it might have gone than I did in what was actually happening, but “potential” is a good feeling. It’ll keep a person buying a title monthly (until it’s made a lie, by reboot).
Amy Devlin, though, she’s creator-owned. A much safer bet. So, with a team I can dig in charge, a motivation to find my criminal destiny, and T. J. Kirsch doing interesting things with black lines on white, I make my first foray. Crime comics. Let’s rumble.
There’s a cold open sequence that takes place in the past that I didn’t understand on first pass, understood but couldn’t parse on second, and that doesn’t feel necessary overall. Let’s go on.
Amy Devlin is a P.I.
This is the third novel in the series and she introduces this fact of her status as “for real this time”. I’m glad, having read the whole thing, that I’ve come in to the series at a point where it’s already established. Characters refer to things in their shared pasts regularly — I get the impression that these are references I would understand, had I been present from book one. But I’d rather take the past as a given. I like to be fooled into believing in a world already in motion. There’s a comparison in Ironside (1967), one of my favourite TV procedurals: in some random episode Ironside describes his aide & protege, Mark (Don Mitchell, above right), as having “hated the world and everyone in it” when they first met. That seemed absurd to me, and fascinating, Mark being such an even-keeled guy! It notched my engagement with the character and the show that much higher. It’s actually true: you can see it if you watch the pilot. But a pilot isn’t required viewing; I don’t feel like the two previous titles are either. It’s OK to be told, not shown, sometimes.
I’m pleased with meeting Devlin at this point, because the two previous cases are described pretty roundly as failures wrapped in disappointments. I’m fine with a woman who falls, but I think I’d rather meet Amy on her way (back?) up. Complicated people are fun to see deconstructed but there’s something missing in my connection with this protagonist. I don’t know… what she likes. I don’t know much about what she doesn’t, except the idea of her boyfriend cheating on or neglecting her. Her fraught relationship with her father is plain to see, but, let me figure out how to put this: I feel like the only part of that conflict we see is the conflict itself. A parent-child argument doesn’t exist only within the minutia of the present–if you’re fighting with the person who raised you about what he thinks you should do with your career, why aren’t we hearing “you never listen, just like when you were six and grabbed the barbecue grill with your bare hands after I’d explained it was hot” or “you never would let me make my own mistakes, like when you grounded me just for getting a B grade because you knew I wanted to meet up with Bad Jenny that night!”?
There’s some economic weirdness between them that doesn’t make Amy look so good. Like your main character in Girls, as I’ve heard, Amy fights with her dad because he decides to stop paying the rent on her office. She says he’s not supporting her, and it’s true, but it’s true in confused ways: isn’t his lack of support a thing apart from how much money he gives an adult daughter? In the end she figures out that he withdrew financial services because he couldn’t afford them any more, and that his feelings of failure regarding that were impacting his handling of the situation and verbal judgement of her life choices, but there’s a lack of perspective that’s confusing. I can understand that people can’t see the forest for the trees sometimes, and that shock, habit and alarm can cause pettiness that the individual doesn’t recognise in themselves, but this scene is an odd challenge to set before your audience. Can you engage with this adult protagonist who’s so out of focus that on first impression, she chalks her father’s economic choices up to judgemental whimsy? Can you engage with a detective who can’t detect the problems in their private life?
(Of course you can. That’s the template.)
Amy can tell that there are some real problems between her live-in boyfriend, Jordan, and herself. She can’t tell what they are, and she doesn’t want to touch them. Jordan — an actor, but apparently a pretty bad one — is pretty blatant with the whole “Nothing’s wrong, babe *roll over*” thing. Until he let’s things go a little and tells her right out:
That’s a tough scene, but again: you get (or I get) “where Amy’s coming from”… But to see her say it, and how she says it, feel uncomfortable. She seems small. Lay it on the art, perhaps, because I can imagine my feelings changing if she looked hurt, sad, anguished, hopeful, forlorn; anything but irritated. Is this internalised misogyny? Or is it just a jerk move to tell someone off for doing a thing that’s hurt you, instead of telling someone that they’ve hurt you?
I have a lot of good things to say about the drawing in this book. I’m not sure I’d say that it’s bad storytelling or bad art to create the questions that I’m asking above; it’s sort of interesting. There’s a similarity to Terry Moore in Kirsch’s art, but it’s uncuter; less bouncy. The quality of line is chalky and the grey tones aren’t precisely laid. It helps to make Amy (and her clients, but mostly Amy) feel lost (title!) and, in fact, forlorn — it pushes this emotional atmosphere into the background, something to be ignored and escaped from. That feels authentic.
There’s a stiffness to some limbs, especially arms and hands, but I don’t mind it. It feels robust and noirish, has a gunslinging aspect, and in scenes like this one, when a dangerous element enters the story, it puts the focus on forearms: sort of sexy, physically capable, and perhaps controlling. We roll up our sleeves to get things done. We roll up our sleeves to finish off things that should be done already. This character hold attractions, offers, opposition and change. Amy Devlin spends the book being told, and feeling, that she should be done already.
The character designs for Amy and client Abby are basic. Normative women, one blonde, one dark haired. The backgrounds are fairly sparse throughout — I think that both of these points hurt the atmosphere in some ways, help it in others. It’s nice to have basic-looking women being given strong roles in a PI novel, because the old assumption for women in noir is “bombshell” and “exception”. It’s a tremendous relief to see how low the breasts lie on the torsos of women characters in Amy Devlin: Lost & Found — when I say low I mean “at a realistically average supported height” — and everybody seems constantly stressed, which the dialogue and narration support. Then again, it’s not very interesting to see people firmly within the boundaries of media-normal doing things, even Hollywood things, even gun and car crash things, or even detective things.
The empty, boxish sets the story takes place in front of are “very LA” (I don’t know what I mean but I know that I do mean it; it’s an impression I’ve gained from fiction passed in the night), they add to the emotional weight of Amy’s worries and Jordan’s worries. But they impact upon my emotions too, and I’m not sure this book is “for me”. I think it’s quite well made, but I get no sense of temperature.
The comparison for Amy Devlin that is most obvious to me is Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mystery series. You want a series about a woman Private Investigator in California, suffering from perpetual ennui and a bad attitude? Here we are. Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone has had thirty real-time years to get her bearings, eight in-universe, and like Amy Devlin has had scandals, betrayals and deaths she regrets not preventing — sometimes deaths she (maybe) regrets causing. Millhone is ordinary, where Devlin is normative; where one cuts her hair with nail scissors the other’s is partially mussed always. But in Grafton’s books, for example, a reader understands that the day is hot. And… Millhone goes on her run anyway. Because otherwise she won’t be fit enough to do her dangerous job. The reader is told that it hurts to run, that three miles isn’t enough to feel really rewarding after the hard start, but that that’s what she runs because running for her is about maintenance and practice, not pleasure, expression, or satisfaction. I know these facts inside out. I’ve been reading Millhone for fifteen years and I only met Devlin this spring, but I can’t spot anything in Lost and Found that would make a similar mark over time. I understood Kinsey Millhone’s attitude to running from the first book.
Bar visiting her friends in scenes which lend very little or perhaps nothing to the main force of the narrative (they’re like supporting cast members of a long-running monthly book, being included in these instances only to remind the readership that yes, they’re still there, even if they have nothing to do in this arc), everything Amy Devlin does is because of her current case.
Even during a period of some years in which I boycotted Grafton’s work, Millhone novels register in colour in my mind. The sea, the spanish-style buildings, hotels, sky Henry’s house, red cars, lipstick, suits. And they’re made up of little black letters on pale sepia paper! Amy Devlin registers in pale grey on black and white, which is not a reflection on the potential of greyscale comics’ lasting impressions but a criticism of this precise story, this particular art-script collaboration. I don’t feel negative, but I’m denied a strong positive.
Grafton’s books hold that I’m tired but I’ll carry on, wistful over whiskey, Summertime Sadness vibe for me. The Weir-DeFilippis brand Amy Devlin Potential is like the egg form of that; not really there yet, but holding enough of the scent that when I think of it, I think of following to its source. If another of these books comes along, I won’t reject it.
I like looking at the pages individually, as images, as much as (more than?) I want to read another Amy Devlin.