Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Victor Santos
We live in a society of rules: no killing, no stealing, no coveting thy neighbor’s hot wife. Most of us obey these rules without question, and we tell ourselves that society is better off when everyone does the same. There’s also the fact that breaking the rules can lead to punishment, ranging from fines to imprisonment and even death.
On the other hand, screw the Man! Nobody wants to be a square their whole life. Every now and then a little murder, theft, and debauchery adds spice to an otherwise hum-drum existence. And as much as our society demonizes the criminal, we all fantasize about what it would be like to throw the rules out the window and do whatever we want. This is why crime fiction never goes out of style. In fact, crime fiction gives us the best of both worlds. We can vicariously break the rules and indulge our every depraved fantasy even as we condemn such behavior in others. Crime pays, as long as it’s someone else who suffers the inevitable consequences.
Crime fiction has a long history in American comics, but over the decades it became marginalized or subsumed by the dominant superhero genre. In recent years, however, crime comics have made a modest comeback, and Vertigo is set to capitalize on this trend with its new imprint, the prosaically named Vertigo Crime. And what better way to launch a series of crime comics than to recruit Brian Azzarello, one of the few comic writers with a proven track record in the genre?
Filthy Rich is the story Rich “Junk” Junkin, a broken-down ex-football star who’s been reduced to selling used cars (in crime fiction, used car salesman is one step below crack-addicted prostitute in terms of shameful jobs). Junk is terrible at selling cars, but he’s big and tough, so the owner of the car dealership offers him a different job; shadowing his trampy daughter Vicki around town and ensuring that she doesn’t get into too much trouble.
Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if Junk just did what he was told. Enamored with both Vicki and her luxurious lifestyle, Junk quickly gets sucked into a wild plot filled with sex, violence, and the promise of a big payout. If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Azzarello is relying heavily on the tropes of the crime genre: Junk is the two-fisted hero, Vicki is the femme fatale, and even the “good” characters have ulterior motives. The story is also set during some undisclosed period after World War II, allowing Azzarello to evoke the spirit of classic film noir such as Double Indemnity.
But if Filthy Rich doesn’t exactly reinvent the crime wheel, it’s far more than a rehash of earlier works. Azzarello knows how to craft a pot-boiler, and this story moves briskly even as it throws a few surprise twists at the reader. Another strength in Azzarello’s writing is his ability to give each of his characters clear, relatable motivations. Junk commits monstrous acts not simply out of abstract emotions like greed or lust, but because of the sting of classism and frustrated dreams.
Victor Santos is a good partner for Azzarello. Much like Azzarello’s writing, Santos relies upon the look of film noir and classic crime comics from the 1940s and 50s (if you click on the link, you should check out the covers for Crimes by Women. If ever a Golden Age comic called out for a reboot…) Men are either square-jawed or shifty, women are sultry, nighttime takes up 90% of the day, and even during daytime every room is half in shadow. This look is aided immensely by the fact that the Filthy Rich is in black-and-white. I can only shudder to think how digital coloring would have ruined the contrast between light and dark.
If Vertigo Crime continues to publish comics of this caliber, then all I can say is down with superheroes, up with crime!