A long line of New York City cops birthed from an Irish immigrant family. A great grandfather’s violent but mysterious death. A missing mother. A hard father. A novelist researching his family history. A black out. A dead wife.
And then there’s The Bronx Kill.
Vertigo Crime, the offshoot noir publishing house from DC Comics, recently released the fourth book in their pulp fiction series, each one a stand alone story, each one created by a different scribe and artist tandem. And The Bronx Kill, written by Peter Milligan and illustrated by James Romberger, is, so far, the best of the bunch.
Milligan himself is one of the early British “immigrant” writers to American comics during the late nineteen eighties and a founding member of DC Comics offbeat, more literary comic book publishing arm, Vertigo Comics. The writer made a name for himself with the quirky, psychedelically-inspired Shade the Changing Man, the gender-bending Enigma and tale of identity lost in The Human Target monthly series of comic books for the publisher. His storylines are often a study on individuality, uniqueness, impersonation and the unravelling of half-truths and deceit. After his tenure at Vertigo, Milligan moved to Marvel Comics with an inspired run on X-Force that garnered him accolades from the more mainstream comic community. Last year, Vertigo moved into the pulp noir arena with their previously mentioned crime banner as a way to tap into the bookstore market via the genre by releasing handsome, black and white, hardcover graphic novels that wouldn’t look out of place beside globally successful crime novelists such as Elmore Leonard and Ian Banks. (Ian Banks, incidentally, wrote the first Vertigo Crime offering, Dark Entries which starred Vertigo Comics’ mainstay mage, the hardnosed, hard luck rogue, John Constantine.)
Like his protagonist researching his own twisted family roots, Milligan himself digs deep into New York history, setting his story in the locale that best suits his character’s temperaments. The Bronx Kill is a real life, storied, New York City waterway that separates the Bronx from Randall’s Island and connects the Harlem River to the East River. The term “kill” is actually Dutch in origin and means creek. In Milligan’s tale, of course, the word has more a much more nefarious meaning.
There is murder here, of course. What would a crime novel – well, in this case, a graphic novel – be without a murder? But that’s only the overlying narrative. There’s more, much more, at play within the narrative. Milligan’s prose is dark and moody mixed with a salient tension between the main characters of the story. Romberger’s art is a perfect complement, a style that evokes the timeless line work of legendary cartoonist John Severin and the atmospheres conjured by a more contemporary Guy Davis. It’s a perfect match. Romberger, a New York resident himself, is known for his depictions of the city’s Lower East Side and in The Bronx Kill, he captures the Big Apple in all of its seedy glory. The streets, the bridges, the trashcans and swamps are all tangible to a reader that is truly vested in a story that steams toward an inevitably sordid conclusion.
And the payoff to that conclusion is a bona fide delight. It captures everything that’s great about the crime noir genre: surprise, intrigue, disgust and, in the case of The Bronx Kill, a sense of hollow justice. Readers won’t see this ending coming.
What one can see coming, however, is a film version of the story. Following, perhaps, in the same vein as A History of Violence, The Bronx Kill could indeed become the latest crime-flavoured graphic novel to find its way to the silver screen – a justification to the fledgling Vertigo Crime imprint as well as the storytelling talents of both Milligan and Romberger. In the end, crime indeed, may pay quite handsomely for them.