[This post combines my Goodreads reviews of both volumes of Alack Sinner, The Age of Innocence and The Age of Disenchantment.]
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Age of Innocence is the first of two American omnibus collections of the noir graphic novels by Argentine writer Sampayo and artist Muñoz, originally published in Europe from 1975 to 1982.
Set in a phantasmagorically corrupt New York City, its grotesquery somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Chester Gould, and focused on the titular hard-drinking but fundamentally decent ex-cop P.I., Alack Sinner is an outsider’s jaded perspective on American society, pictured as a fever dream of rape, murder, police corruption, racism, right-wing fanaticism, and greed at every level. In a wittily metafictional chapter, Sampayo and Muñoz themselves inform Sinner that even good white yanqui liberals like him will not be spared on the day of red revolution.
Aside from the metafiction and the hard-edged Marxism, though, Sampayo adds little, literarily, to the likes of Chandler. It is Muñoz’s art that earned this series its fame, justly so, a style that has influenced a very wide range of Anglo-American comics artists from Miller to McKean. The globular black shapes and shadows that are Muñoz’s medium seem viscous and mobile, ink flowing from page to page and panel to panel. His distorting perspective works against the narrative’s humanism: it reduces all to nightmare caricature.
The most successful synthesis of literary and artistic vision comes in my favorite episode, about a Spanish boxer caught in a scheme by a promoter and his murderous right-wing henchmen. The boxer’s grandfather, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, takes protective measures, dealing anti-fascist death under a Guernica montage: Muñoz meets Picasso.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Age of Disenchantment collects the Alack Sinner stories published from the 1980s through the early 2000s. In the narrative the authors, politically radical Argentines exiled to Europe by their country’s 1970s right-wing dictatorship, keep time politically.
The first Sinner story in this volume of avowed disenchantment is set against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua as the titular detective tries to keep visiting Nicaraguan leftists safe in the atmosphere of the Reagan ’80s, all the while falling in unrequited love with one of them, a woman named Delia. As the series progresses, Muñoz and Sampayo’s storytelling style, never very linear to begin with, becomes even more dream-like and uncertain: the centerpiece of “Nicaragua” is a hallucinatory puppet show the white Sinner attends with his young black daughter, Cheryl, a horrifying pageant that displays the history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. “My mom said that Nicaragua is like…black people…” Cheryl hesitantly muses on the spectacle, a phrase that compresses a unified theory of white western dominance.
Sinner’s relationship with Cheryl and the other women in his life, including Cheryl’s mother Enfer, his on-again-off-again lover Sophie, and his sister Toni dominate the middle stories in the book, one of which is aptly titled “Private Stories.” While Sinner’s inner monologue refers to “my women,” the series begins to dwell more consciously on gender, especially in the long story where Sinner struggles to save first his daughter and then his sister from various forms of imprisonment. Politics-with-a-capital-P is also touched on here, as the “private story” of Cheryl’s false accusation of murder involves her extrication in Haiti’s long oppression by the west.
The politics return in full in the final story, titled “The U.S.A. Case,” as if to signal Muñoz and Sampayo’s own object of criminal investigation: a country they do not live in but whose global dominance has shaped their lives nevertheless. “The U.S.A. Case” takes place a month before September 11, 2001, a month in which Cheryl, now pregnant, is threatened again, this time by a shady arms deal whose implication is U.S. intelligence services’ foreknowledge of the coming terrorist attacks. As one ghoulish old agency man puts it on the book’s final page, “Security? […] That’s the investment of the future, as long as the Bin Ladens and company are around.” Too paranoid? Alack Sinner is about nothing other than the corruptions of power, global, economic, racial, and otherwise; in this world, as in its noir forerunners, you can’t be too paranoid.
The passage of time makes these stories more affecting than those in the first volume, as we watch Sinner and his friends and lovers go from middle age to the brink of old age, and as we watch his daughter grow from child to mother. Muñoz’s inkily fluid, shadow-laden pages remain the best thing about the work, even if his style ages, along with its hero, into sometimes illegible forms of looseness and abstraction. I don’t know if Alack Sinner is one of the best comics I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly among the best I’ve ever seen.
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