With WesterNoir, a small press comic, you get hard boiled characters facing mythical beasts in a wild west setting. A tough voice over leads the reader through a black and white world of violence and regret. It has been described as Deadwood meets They Live, and that gives you a good indication of what to expect.
When you sort through your comic collection a number of gems can pop up that you’d forgotten about and haven’t read in a long time. Now is the time to revisit those and remind yourself why you bought them. I picked up 7 issues of WesterNoir over the course of about 4 years from the UK convention Thought Bubble.
In the forgotten towns of the west, the dangerous swamps of Louisiana, and on the banks of the Mississippi, one man strives for redemption, fighting evil that only he can see. Josiah Black narrates his own story of horror and awe as he travels America’s wild side.
WesterNoir is written by Dave West with Gary Crutchley on art duties. It was published by small press outfit Accent UK from 2012 and sold mostly at Conventions with a few Local Comic Shops stocking it. The concept behind the comic is very clear from the beginning, even the title tells you what to expect.
If you pick the first issue up with no prior knowledge you still go into it with a strong idea what you will get and, on that point, the comic does not disappoint. A gruff voice over leads you through the central character’s story as he becomes guilty bound to a man named Mr Caligary and begins a journey of self discovery and monster hunting. Josiah Black, the narrator, is as shocked as the reader to discover that not only is the west filled with greedy, murderous people but is also populated with hidden beasts, feeding on a desperate populace.
The ending of the first issue takes a turn similar to the first episode of the TV series Grimm. Black becomes an unwilling servant of powers fighting against darkness. Each issue Black is faced with a blend of western narrative tropes and mythical creatures. In turn this forces him to face his past and the memories he has been trying to forget.
Dave West revels in the gritty pulp fiction style narrative, mixing his metaphors and leaning more towards hardboiled fiction then Noir. The stories revolve around Black but their focus is on the harsh realities of living in the undisciplined ‘west’. The creatures become extended metaphors for western tropes and frontiersman stereotypes. West makes Black’s fight ultimately about the people and providing protection for those who can’t protect themselves. In WesterNoir’s world, corruption is everywhere and only certain people can see the cancer at the heart of society.
The characters take a page out of the Spaghetti Western rulebook. Most of them are instantly dislikable with the exception of the ones who turn out to be villains. West fills the mouths of his cast with short, harsh words and most pages are filled with verbal confrontations. The source of bitterness of the central character is slowly revealed throughout the issues and there is a constant reminder about the cruelties faced by the populace day after day.
Black and White
Gary Crutchley’s artwork suits the tone of the narrative wonderfully. His line work is very precise with detailed character work. He creates strong personalities and draws their lives directly on to their faces. Worry lines, scars, stress, and hatred define the cast of WesterNoir and the central character is no different. Crutchley shows the reader the hardships endured by Black without the need for the voice over, which acts as a leader for each issues narrative.
Black’s history is reflected in his design, in the way that Crutchley draws him standing, walking, fighting. The artist makes the character act like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: he’s a broken man with a new found mission.
The backgrounds are as detailed as they need to be. In some panels there is a clear sense of location, take the Louisiana Swamps from issue two as a prime example. Crutchley loves to create a scene and then filter it out to let the characters’ interactions shine. That memory of location stays with you as you read through the action sequences as a foundation for the story.
With each additional issue of the series the artwork improves with a much wider use of grayscale to produce depth. The lettering also becomes richer, finding a more natural fit with the rest of the page. And the plot itself becomes more complex and engaging. The first issues are a great hook but it’s issue 4 that really drags you into Blacks complicated world.
It’s always a joy to rediscover a comic series, especially a true independant like WesterNoir. The love and attention that both writer and artist give to each issue is evident on the page. Even the design of the comics by Andy Bloor has a noticeable affection towards it. The single issues were all deluxe, card covers with full color images made to look like the pulpy westerns of the 1960s.
The story created by West and Crutchley is a wonderful blend of genre cliches and real surprises. The characters, especially Black, are strong and have presence on the page. Some of the creatures have a ‘mis-understood monster’ feel to them that only works because of the quality of the characterisation. The series is engaging and pulls you uncontrollably from one issue to the next.
The only problem with re-discovering these older comics is getting new issues. Trying to find WesterNoir is difficult but there are copies out there and 2 collected volumes were released. The writer continues to keep a blog (which can be found here) but the publisher’s webpage, Accent UK, appears to be out of date. If you can find copies of WesterNoir I would highly recommend picking them up. If not, maybe drop the writer or artist a message, asking if they have copies left. Or check out the online serialisation of the first issue, which has been colored for the digital re-release