From Noir to Nightmares, Will Eisner’s John Law by Gary Chaloner, Reviewed by Andrew Leal

NOTE: This is a parallel review in which we have two reviewers looking at the same comic. The other review is by Xaviar Xerexes.

During the 1940s, when pulps were at their height, the concept of the hardboiled detective (usually a private eye but occasionally a police investigator) was ingrained in the public imagination. Since that time, the atmosphere, the language, and the characters have been evoked in pastiche and parody.

Will Eisner’s John Law by Gary Chaloner (whose current strips can be found here, and whose main site, with cast info and extras, is here) is one of the few modern detective comics to focus so heavily on that mode, at least in style, using the stark grays of the best film noirs. Though scripted and drawn by Gary Chaloner, the character himself was created by the late great Will Eisner.

Eisner, whose passing in early 2005 is still having repercussions on the comics community, is of course best known for The Spirit. However, he experimented with several other characters as well, and the new John Law strip has served as both a repository and a "reimagining" in some ways of those characters. Though remembered today for his singular creative vision, Eisner also headed a rather productive strip factory, and began working on other characters. Two had their own berth in the back-up sections of The Spirit newspaper supplements: Lady Luck (though the concept was conceived by Eisner, artist Klaus Nordling handled the strip for much of its run) and Mr. Mystic. A third was conceived but soon abandoned – John Law. As originally conceived by Eisner, police detective Law was in many ways Denny Colt/The Spirit, only with an eye patch instead of a mask, and an official police rank. So similar were they that two John Law stories, drawn and scripted but unpublished, were turned into Spirit stories in 1950 (the original versions were finally published as a one-shot in 1983).

The new John Law has its roots in the mid-1990's, when artist Gary Chaloner was hired to create a story for The Spirit: The New Adventures for Kitchen Sink Press. As recalled by biographer Bob Andelman in the recently published Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, when the comic was canceled, Chaloner reversed the procedure, turning his Spirit story into a John Law tale. John Law was at once an intriguing concept and yet so obscure and unused as to be fertile ground for Chaloner’s own creativity. Thus, with Eisner’s blessing and occasional consulting, the new John Law was launched on Modern Tales. Though Chaloner and Eisner were in communication as to the strip, the former's primary mandate was simply to keep John Law as far from a Spirit clone as possible.

For the most part, no fundamental changes in personality or design have been made to Law. He retained the eye patch, though his physique was altered from the slim Denny Colt figure and bulked up. His costume was also altered (he dresses in dark suits, contrasting The Spirit's vivid blue suits). And slowly, Law has evolved an entirely unique back story, perhaps as complex as Denny Colt’s but thus far only presented through flashbacks, hints, and haunting presences. Most significantly, it’s the general tone and nature of Law’s world that has changed. In Eisner’s world, the whimsical rubbed shoulders with darkness and bitter irony, and sometimes wholly took over. Chaloner chooses instead to focus on the more frightening dream-world aspects of Eisner. The city of Crossroads is less like Gotham City and more like a sort of Twilight Zone, either a beacon or a nesting ground for all manner of unseen forces and long past ghosts… The more eerie aspects of the place are well captured by Chaloner in black and white, with judicious gray shading, jarring cinematic camera angles, and stark narrative panels highlighting the dream-like and very visceral psychological aspects of the world. Unlike The Spirit, most Law tales are narrated by the protagonist, sometimes in a storytelling fashion as in "The Opal Skull", but most often as a near stream of conscious monologue, at once reminiscent of the gritty Hammett and Chandler novels, but with greater emotion and even hints of panic at times. Given the nature of Crossroads, this attitude is certainly understandable.

The city of "Crossroads" becomes a literal meeting point for all manner of vice, but also tortured spirits and dark fears, and even other Eisner characters. In some cases, this is again due to the roots, as genial Police Commissioner Bunyan (only occasionally glimpsed to date) bears a strong resemblance to The Spirit’s Commissioner Dolan. Sometimes the similarities can be misleading, for while Nubbin the newsboy (turned into William the Waif in The Spirit revisions of the earliest John Law stories) is in some ways Law's sidekick character, as Ebony is The Spirit's, his central role in the current continuity, , adds a darker tone to the interpretation. Similarly, the most epic John Law tale to date, "Law, Luck, and a Dead-Eyed Mystic", is a comics character reunion with more than nostalgia in mind. Brenda Banks, aka Lady Luck from Eisner's comics, is here presented as a movie starlet and Law’s old flame, with her own faithful sidekick, the Spanish giant Peecolo, along for the ride. Mr. Mystic, offering the third part of the title, was a "Mandrake the Magician" style hero and adventurer, but here his powers are more than a harmless fantasy means of fighting the Nazis, and have a more complex effect on the mystic himself. The tale is framed as a somewhat standard noir/potboiler detective set-up (missing heiress, family and "suspects" gathered for a séance by a mysterious seer), but though in some ways plotted that way, complete with surprise culprit and double-dealings, the real meat of the story lies in both a gradual exploration and explication of John Law’s back story, and a hint at the dark spirits and forces which, bursting forth at one point, essentially tie all of the stories together.

Indeed, perhaps the most fundamental difference between Chaloner’s Law and Eisner’s work isn’t so much the supernatural elements, for certainly Eisner delved into fantasy and magic at times, as it is the viscerally disturbing, gothic nature of those elements. The puckish humor and wit of The Spirit, which at one point launched into an all out lampoon of other comic artists, and light-hearted banter amongst the characters, is almost utterly absent. The occasional touches of humor lie mostly in in-jokes and homages to Eisner. An entire page in "Meet John Law" is replete with background in-jokes, from ads for "Eisner Spritz" soda to a movie poster for Senora Luck (Brenda Banks in her trademark hat and veil), and even buried in the shadows, "Ebony Polish," from which can be glimpsed the smiling face of Denny Colt’s now un-PC sidekick.

Though originally subscriber-only, John Law is now available for free. The first few stories have already been collected in print. Due to both the nature of the strip, with full page comic-book style pieces used instead of a more newspaper funnies style strip format (much as Eisner’s own work broke the mold), updates tend to be sporadic. The most recent strip was uploaded on October 28. However, for film noir fans, Eisner purists, or indeed any comic lover seeking something that is gritty and surreal, combining the realism of the police procedural with the over-ripe style and clichés of noir and most notably, a truly nightmarish undercurrent, the strip is worth the wait. The last issue to date of Graphic Novel Review, seen in late December, was originally graced by a Chaloner illustration, in which The Spirit, Ebony, Dolan, John Law, and Nubbin all gather round a corpse. Though removed shortly thereafter, following Eisner’s death, the piece both acknowledged the shared root of the characters but showed that, through Chaloner, John Law would live on, gaining a depth and style which even his prolific originator never quite found the time to imbue him with.

Andrew Leal is a comics and animation enthusiast (and current literature MA at Syracuse University) whose critical writings have appeared in Graphic Novel Review, Comixpedia, and the print magazine Scarlet Street. Working with animation historian Jerry Beck, he contributed essays on animation history to the 2004 book Animation Art, and multiple reviews and film credits to the just published Animated Movie Guide. His own website, Toonjunkies, is a work in progress database of animation feature credits, links, and background info.