For some pulp comic creators, the story just comes naturally. For Christopher Mills, they come supernaturally.
When you think about is, a "Pulp Webcomic" is something of any oxymoron â€“ after all, "pulp" in its basic sense refers to the printed page. However, the term has since evolved into a genre that encapsulates an era of storytelling, an era channeled even today. And, like any story told in the Information Age, pulp comics are no longer bound to bookspines. Supernatural Crime serves as a case-in-point.
As Mills himself frames it, "The characters and stories on this site â€“ most of them, anyway â€“ originated somewhere deep in my fevered imagination, the bastard offspring of a long, illicit love affair with four-color comic books, black and white B-Movies, cliffhanger serials, newspaper adventure strips, pulp fiction, and old-time radio."
If the phrase ‘adventure strips’ seems familiar, it’s for good reason. Mills himself helmed the pulpy webcomic collective of the same name over its brief 2002-2003 lifespan as part of Modern Tales. While AdventureStrips.com ended, most of its comics live on in some form, and they share the 30s-spawned, playfully-gritty knockaround that typifies pulp fiction. All of the stories on Supernatural Crime share that playful grittiness, but they generally lurk towards the darker side of pulp. Case in point, Femme Noir.
Femme is the centerpiece of Supernatural Crime‘s webcomics section. Dressed in dark blue with guns ablazing, Femme Noir is a nameless vigilante in the tradition of The Shadow or the 1930’s Batman, flitting in and out of danger like a force of nature â€“ not due to magic cloaks or Photon Inhibitron devices, but seemingly via the power of Mystery itself. To be honest, this may bother those more nitpicky readers who need to know How Stuff Works, but the supernatural by definition isn’t beholden to science, and Femme’s a charismatic heroine who’s intriguing enough to carry a story via her brief appearances.
The other characters aren’t endowed with Femme’s charisma, unfortunately. Whether or not it’s intentional, everyone else in the stories are cookie-cutter policemen, mobsters, hitmen and thugs, and (aside from a certain familiar, square-jawed spoof) largely forgettable.
The art of Femme Noir, by Joe Staton, blends seamlessly with the underworld mentality. The thick, stoic line art is deep with shadows, reminiscent of its channeled era, and something like what Frank Miller would do if he could actually draw. The colors have a glum saturation – it serves to both reinforce the setting and draw out Femme’s unruly golden locks when she’s on the scene. The sound effects are lettered brightly and colorfully. They may be simultaneously dynamic and distracting when compared with their dreary backdrop, but they serve their purpose nonetheless.
Speaking of the lettering, Mills loves narrative. Not in Stan Lee’s self-conscious "Uh oh, True Believers!" kind of way, but like a fully-typed story translation with some extra narrative sentences coming along for the ride. At one point, Femme questions a shooting victim. "But her questions are answered with only a bloody cough," the narrator explains, "and a low, muffled rattle deep in the goverment agent’s throat." Despite the old writer’s adage of "show, don’t tell", these interjections help progress and enhance the story. Mills is an experienced writer who knows that well-placed narrative text can often convey more than the visuals themselves.
In addition to Femme Noir, Mills has two other short webcomics appearing on Supernatural Crime. One is a Femme Noir crossover featuring Ron Fortier’s pulp text character Brother Grim, the other a vampire horror story called Children of the Night. To be honest, neither quite holds your attention the way Femme Noir does.
Femme herself was featured in the two-page crossover, but only as a captive hostage. After watching her fluidly whirl about like an immortal wraith in the first two stories, it seemed odd to see her tied up helplessly â€“ perhaps because it’s bothersomely hard to accept that she could be captured and held so easily.
The second story features the vampire hunter Nightmark, who essentially "takes out" a bunch of vampire kids… for a stake dinner. Some may be put off seeing little ankle-biters take an arrow through the spine, but there is also the issue of the pedestrian plot â€“ he arrives, kills the kids, and leaves. Granted, it’s supposed to be quick and dirty, and vampire pulp doesn’t need to be high drama, but nevertheless, the story feels a bit empty. This story would have been well-complemented by some of Mills’ narrative framing.
Christopher Mills’ webcomics come across as gritty dime-store novels translated into comic form, rather than direct comic writing. Sometimes this works and sometimes it loses something. He does, however, stay true to form. When you write pulp stories, you’re 2/3 creator and 1/3 historian. Whether or not you personally enjoy the motif, you gotta respect a guy like Christopher for keeping it real, even in a digital world.Â