Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: James Romberger
I learned two things from reading Bronx Kill.
1) In my previous post on crime comics, my definition of the genre was too narrow. Most crime comics tend to be about hard-boiled detectives, vigilantes, or dangerous heists. In other words, they’re typical male adventure stories. But there is another type of crime story: the missing loved one. Like hard-boiled detective stories, the plot is based around a mystery – what happened to my missing wife/lover/child/etc. – but the mystery is much more personal for the protagonist, and the emotional impact of the crime is far greater. Missing loved one stories can sometimes function as vengeance fantasies, which could be seen as empowering. But more often than not they’re much bleaker stories where death and loss are inescapable, pain is all-consuming, and discovering the truth is actually far worse than not knowing. The most famous example of this sub-genre is The Vanishing, in which a man obsessively searches for his missing wife for three years, only to discover her terrible fate by sharing it.
Bronx Kill faithfully sticks to the missing loved one formula. The plot follows a novelist named Martin Keane, who wakes up one morning to discover that his wife is gone. Her disappearance has a strange connection to the murder of Martin’s grandfather and a rundown section of the Bronx riverfront named, obviously, the Bronx Kill. As the weeks go by, Martin’s sanity begins to slip, and he becomes increasingly irrational and violent until he finally stumbles upon the awful truth. And as these stories tend to go, the truth is far worse than the mystery.
Judged solely on its merits as a missing person mystery, the Bronx Kill is a decent comic. Milligan never strays far from genre conventions, but he knows how to pace a story and arrange the pieces of a plot so that the outcome isn’t obvious from page 1. Romberger’s art is functional and unassuming; it doesn’t add much to the comic but at least it doesn’t distract from the story either.
The one tedious aspect of the mystery is Milligan’s attempt to connect the main plot to a crime novel that Martin Keane is writing. The comic will occasionally be interrupted by a few pages of text about a murder in 19th century Ireland. Unfortunately, the novel is boring, and Milligan’s prose is often a chore to read. Rather than function as a thematic reflection of the main plot, the prose sections simply screw up the pacing.
2) The other thing I learned from reading Bronx Kill is that writers are not manly. I’ll repeat for emphasis: WRITERS ARE NOT MANLY. Apparently, this is the great tragedy of being a writer. You can create entire worlds and populate them with fascinating characters who enrich people’s lives, but at the end of day you’re still an impotent wimp. Worse, you’re a wimp who has to be saved by your girlfriend after being threatened by a bum.
And then there are the daddy issues. God help the writer who has a father with a manly profession, like law enforcement. 50% of Bronx Kill is just Martin dealing with the fact that he can never live up to the expectations of his old man, a respected New York police detective. And while I’m trying to avoid being spoilerish, I can’t resist noting that Martin is cuckolded in an exceptionally emasculating manner.
To be fair, Milligan seems to know just how ridiculous it is for writers to constantly fret over their masculinity. Martin Keane may not be as tough as his father, but he eventually realizes that his dad is full of shit. And Martin is at least competent enough to solve the mystery of his missing wife (albeit only after a big clue falls conveniently into his lap).
But acknowledging the shortcomings of the masculine ideal isn’t the same thing as coming up with an alternative. And Milligan is still working within the confines of a male genre, so the climax of Bronx Kill is the same as the climax of most crime stories: fists, guns, and screaming. Nor are the wife’s motives of any real importance. This is yet another story that’s all about men dealing with their crappy fathers.
Bronx Kill is an uneven, occasionally engaging entry into an often overlooked sub-genre of crime, though a reader’s enjoyment of the comic is dependent on their tolerance for writers with daddy issues.