Contrappasso Archives: Noir Issue

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From the archives: Here is the introduction to our special 2013 issue on Noir in film, fiction, and other arts. It has never previously appeared online.

The issue was edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear. Contributors include Luc Sante, Suzanne Lummis, Nicholas Christopher, Barry Gifford, Morris Lurie, Dahlia Schweitzer & Toby Miller, Andrew Nette, and Matthew Asprey Gear. We also feature interviews with Dennis McMillan and Adrian Wootton.

The Noir Issue remains available in print form at Amazon.com, for Kindle, and in other ebook formats at Smashwords.

INTRODUCTION: ORGANISING WHAT WE SEE

NOEL KING and MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

When we decided to do this special Contrappasso noir issue—a grab bag of essays, interviews, and new and classic poetry—we were aware that some time ago two critics whose work we greatly admired, Luc Sante and James Naremore, had expressed fatigue with the term. In 2004 Sante told our colleague Peter Doyle, “noir is a category badly in need of a twenty- or thirty-year moratorium, at least in films.”

Naremore’s wonderful More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) ends by saying:

Given the current situation, debates over whether specific films are “truly” noir, or over the problem of what makes up a film genre, have become tiresome. There is, in fact, no transcendent reason why we should have a noir category at all. Whenever we list any movie under the noir rubric, we do little more than invoke a network of ideas as a makeshift organizing principle, in place of an author, a studio, a time period, or a national cinema. By such means, we can discuss an otherwise miscellaneous string of pictures, establishing similarities and differences among them. As I argue throughout this book, every category in criticism or in the film industry works in this fashion, usually in support of the critic’s or the culture’s particular obsessions. If we abandoned the word noir, we would need to find another, no less problematic, means of organizing what we see.

Naremore’s book is now widely accepted as a canonical text; Tom Gunning described it as “the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, and level of writing that this group of films deserves.” Gunning continues:

The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.

While Gilles Deleuze referred to film noir unproblematically as a “great genre” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and the late actor-director Dennis Hopper felt able to call it “everyone’s favourite genre” while he was directing The Hot Spot (1980), film critics have spent the last forty years debating whether film noir is a genre, a sub-genre, a film style, or a film movement.

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Whatever the case, if film noir was not a genre at the time of its first appearance—if by genre we mean a film industry-recognised way of producing and marketing films—it has certainly become one, in the industry and the academy, in our time. International mainstream movie makers, makers of art cinema, and independent filmmakers alike have their work defined as “neo-noir” or “noir-influenced,” which no longer has to imply corny pastiche; convincing recent Hollywood examples include Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) and Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Noir, when it rises above a series of clichéd filmic gestures (trenchcoats, fedoras, cigarettes, lipstick), seems to be the language to express the darkness at the heart of our troubled times.

Meanwhile film courses around the world have devoted themselves to the film noir, accompanying the surge of scholarship since the late 1990s. On the film-critical front there has been since that period a deluge of books on classic film noir (roughly 1941-58) and on whatever we call the films noir that emerged from the sixties onwards.

In 2001 Foster Hirsch both published Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir and updated his 1981 account of classic noir Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. There are many other important new books: a few include those by Edward Dimendberg (Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 2004), Wheeler Winston Dixon (Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, 2009), Vincent Brook (Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré directors and the Rise of Film Noir, 2009), Alistair Rolls and Deborah Walker (French and American Noir: Dark Crossings), Dennis Broe (Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood, 2010), Gene D. Philips (Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, 2011), and Mark Osteen (Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream, 2012).

Some excellent material was gathered in a special issue of Iris (no. 21, Spring 1996) devoted to “European Precursors of Film Noir”. Fine anthologies of essays include Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Readers (1996-2004) and Eddie Muller and Donald Malcolm’s ongoing Noir City Annual (collecting the best of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine, formerly the Noir City Sentinel). And as the British Film Institute series of Film Classics and Modern Classics (now combined into one series) trundles along it delivers new forays into the world of noir and neo-noir.

Film noir is seemingly everywhere—on our screens, in the academy, and in the hearts of movie lovers. But we’re also interested in looking at how the notion of noir is travelling in other cultural contexts.

We looked, for example, at Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien’s Sunshine & Noir: Art In LA 1960-1997 (1997), which contained Mike Davis’s essay ‘A Double Funeral’ on the race rivalries and gangs of Latinos, Koreans, and African Americans inside and outside LA jails. Catherine Corman’s photographic book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (based on her photographic exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale) might have had trouble spelling Fredric Jameson’s name correctly but it came in a clear line of descent from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s photographic rendering of the world of Philip Marlowe’s LA, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works (1989).

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In her introduction to Manila Noir, Jessica Hagedorn said, “it made perfect sense to include a graphic noir since one of the many ways I learned to become a writer was through the Filipino horror komiks of my childhood.” In 2013 we are abundantly aware of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for graphic novels, especially those with a noir slant (Sin City, V For Vendetta). Darwyn Cooke’s recent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels deserve a mention, too, because they’re more faithful to the mood of the classic noir novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. John Boorman’s classic film Point Blank (1967) creates a rather different noir mood—as Adrian Wootton informs us in this issue, Boorman never actually read its inspiration, Stark’s The Hunter (1962)—and Taylor Hackford’s Parker (2013) is perhaps best skipped over entirely.

Recent generations of Batman comics are practically synonymous with noir. Frank Miller steered the comic franchise in this dark direction in the 1980s; the latest collection illustrated by Eduardo Risso, Batman Noir (2013), is a another fine example. We also looked at anthologies such as Dark Horse Books’ Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics (2009). We could have easily devoted an issue to the subject of comic book noir, which attracts many of the best contemporary illustrators and has an enormous fan base.

The noir sensibility has found expression in video games. An Australian contribution was Team Bondi’s hugely successful L. A. Noire (2011), the first video game officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. The game inspired a spin-off ebook anthology of noir short stories edited by Jonathan Santlofer.

In noir matters literary and poetic we felt on secure ground.

Noir fiction is now a distinct category within the crime genre. It wasn’t always that way, at least in the United States. Paperback publisher Black Lizard, founded and edited by Barry Gifford in the 1980s, played a crucial role by reviving mostly forgotten mid-century American hardboiled crime novels (which were much more enduringly popular in France, published in translation through Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire from 1945). Moreover, Gifford focused on republishing crime writers with a distinct noir sensibility. Noir fiction turned out to be something slightly different from the masterful hardboiled detective tales of Chandler and Hammett. The prose of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis was certainly hardboiled, but their narratives focused less on tarnished heroes and more relentlessly on the self-destructive, the hopeless, and the insane.

Luc Sante—who examines a series of haunting New York City police photographs in this issue, revisiting the terrain of his book Evidence, an inspiration for Australian writer-researchers Peter Doyle and Ross Gibson—once wrote in the New York Review of Books of how

[James M.] Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it.

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In 1997 the Library of America, under the guidance of then-Executive Editor (now Editor-in-Chief) Geoffrey O’Brien, published a two-volume anthology of Crime Novels: American Noir, attempting to establish a canon of the subgenre. The first volume (The 1930s & 40s) collected authors James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, and Cornell Woolrich; the second volume (The 1950s) featured Goodis, Willeford, Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes.

To this tradition of American noir fiction should be added writers such as Paul Cain, W. R. Burnett, Richard Hallas, James Ross, Peter Rabe, John D. Macdonald, Gil Brewer, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block, Leonard Gardner, Floyd Salas, James Ellroy, Kent Anderson, Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Denis Johnson, Christa Faust, James Sallis, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott.

Many new noir stories have found a home in independent ebook and print-on-demand journals such as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Melbourne’s Crime Factory. Independent publishers New Pulp Press and Stark House Press are doing important work publishing new and vintage noir, respectively. And we decided the work of independent crime publishers Dennis McMillan and Matthew Moring deserves attention; interviews with each appear in this issue and point the way to unjustly-neglected writers in the noir tradition.

We were aware of early American poetic noir offerings, from Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning (1938) and Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948) to Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, both from 1928, which were jointly republished in 1968 in a revised form that removed “ethnic references” thought to give possible offence to a 1960s reader. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel rendering of The Wild Party (1994) restored those excised textual elements.

We had long admired Nicholas Christopher’s poetry. Two of his early poems, ‘Film Noir’ and ‘John Garfield’, appear herein with his kind permission. Noir has long been an animating influence on Christopher’s work. His verse novella, Desperate Characters (1989) was nicely blurbed as “The Lady from Shanghai as rewritten by Proust,” and his novel Veronica (1996) is in many ways neo-noir. Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) is his account of noir and the fascination it holds for him, from the initial moment of encountering the great Out of the Past (1947) in a small Parisian cinema off the Rue de Rennes after he had taken some opium, through to his long New York years which saw him diligently work through all 317 films listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia (1988). In fact, he added extra titles, based on his own viewing, which he felt deserved inclusion.

We had hoped to set alongside Christopher’s ‘Film Noir’ another poem of that title found in Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra’s collection, Insectissimo! (2011) but couldn’t run him to ground in time for this issue to obtain reprint rights (i.e., your editors failed as gumshoes). We also liked Michael Atkinson’s lovely poem about John Garfield in his collection One Hundred Children Waiting For A Train (2002) and enjoyed Kevin Young’s long poem Black Maria (2005). Young’s noir poem series tells us it is “produced and directed” by him and it contains all the right noir props—ashtrays, gunsels, femme fatale, the set-up, the sucker, the speak-easy, the grift, the frame, the dive, the payback, and so on.

LA-based Suzanne Lummis has been running a noir poetry workshop for years; we are delighted to reprint two of her noir-themed poems in Contrappasso.

In short, we have to agree with James Naremore when he says that we now inhabit a “noir mediascape” (he borrows the term ‘mediascape’ from Arjun Appadurai). This is apparent from a casual encounter with the world of book publicity. Recent crime writing is referred to variously as “casino noir” (James Swain’s series of books beginning with Grift Sense) or “surf noir” (Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and later books). When he was reviewing a Joe Lansdale book, the great Daniel Woodrell described it as “backwoods noir”; both that descriptor and Woodrell’s self-applied “country noir” fit his own work (Tomato Red, Give us a Kiss, the excellent Winter’s Bone). We have feminist writers describing their works as “tart noir” and lesbian writers self-describing as “dyke noir.” And while we were completing this issue Jim Kitses urged us to read James Salter’s 1956 Korean War novel The Hunters as an instance of “military noir” (he urged us to read it in any case).

So settled is the term in publicity usage that we have noir by national location—”tartan noir” to describe some Scottish crime fiction, even “Australian noir” (see the essays in this issue by Andrew Nette and Mick Counihan). There is noir by US state, as in “Florida noir.” The vibrant series of city-focused noir anthologies from Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based press founded by musician Johnny Temple, has now expanded beyond the US to focus on cities from New Delhi to Havana (Los Angeles Noir and Manila Noir are reviewed in this issue). In each anthology, noir stories and sometimes bits of graphic novels emerge from specific neighbourhoods. The noir sensibility is truly international.

As we finish up this introduction, news comes that Lou Reed has died. The venue seems appropriate for us to remember him for one of his many great songs, ‘Femme Fatale’.

We hope readers of this special issue of Contrappasso enjoy our explorations of noir in its many guises.

mitch

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Contrappasso Extra: Print-On-Demand and the Future of Independent Publishing 2

[The following interview feature by Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey was originally published at www.PopMatters.com. This is Part 2, published on 14 July 2011. Be sure to visit the Altus Press website.]

A Conversation with Matthew Moring

Matthew Moring is the founder of Altus Press, active since 2006. Altus focuses on dazzling reprints of vintage pulp and ‘Lost Race’ stories, pulp histories, and contemporary pulp writing. Moring has presided over the publication of more than sixty titles including The Strange Adventures of the Purple Scar by John S. Endicott, The Man in Purple by Johnston McNully, and William Bogart’s Hell On Friday: The Johnny Saxon Trilogy.

I began by asking Matthew Moring about his experience in publishing and design …

* * *

I’ve been a designer my entire professional career. Although I have a degree in studio art, I’ve concentrated on web design and development since college. On occasion I’ve had the chance to draw and illustrate for companies such as Marvel, DC, Disney and Pearson. Still, I’ve always had the publishing drive and I enjoy any opportunity that gives me the chance to create something, like a solid-looking book. Print-on-Demand makes this possible.

How did Altus Press begin? And why take the print-on-demand approach?

Once POD technology was affordable, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the technology. I’d considered publishing material prior, but one thing I didn’t want was a basement full of unsold books. This was certainly the prospect which faced me had I resigned myself to printing up, say, 500 copies of an esoteric pulp reprint.

Lulu.com was the first POD house that made the process easy. However, just having access to an online printer wasn’t all that was needed. A quality website, a marketing plan and a plan of steady releases were a must.

What kind of writing does Altus republish?

We concentrate on material which appeared in pulp magazines, generally from 1915-50. It’s fiction from a variety of genres, the best-remembered being adventure, detective, and hero (Doc Savage, The Shadow) titles.

Is the material reprinted by Altus Press commercially viable for a traditional publishing house?

I’ve always said that I publish the books I’d like to have on my own bookshelf. Happily, most titles do well, but I also try to publish a handful of pet projects that, while they might not sell hundreds of units, simply need to exist due to their perceived importance.

Can you tell me how you became interested in pulp fiction?

Certainly it’s an extension of being a comic book fan. I think it’s a natural extension to learn and read about what the early comic pioneers were reading at the time. I believe I encountered Bantam’s Doc Savage paperbacks in used book stores, and that’s where the interest grew from.

What is the contemporary audience for these stories?

It’s a good question. I wish I had a definite answer, as it would assist greatly with marketing. I think many people are collectors, and they like the idea of having all of a certain series collected between two covers. Others I think have “grown up” from comics … $3.99 for the five-minute read of today’s comics pales in comparison to the entertainment found in the prose we reprint. And, of course, there are fans who have collected pulps from the 1950s and up and want to support the hobby. I’m grateful to all types of customers.

What is your approach to finding, compiling, and editing the material? I’m interested in how you use public domain material as well as your approach to licensing material from authors’ estates.

There are many series which I’ve planned out for reprinting, and I typically include several installments of a series in a single book of about 300-400 pages. These are all in their original order and uncut from the original pulps. Many series are tougher to find than others, and thus some collections have been in limbo for years as I search for that one elusive story here or there.

Working with public domain material is great, as I generally can do what I want with the packages. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to work from surviving manuscripts, which allows us to restore cut material that’s never seen the light of day. Yes, manuscripts of this material occasionally do survive! We did this with Harold Ward’s Doctor Death series and Lester Dent’s The Weird Adventures of The Blond Adder; for the Dent material, we utilized elements from three different drafts of one story to comprise a single “final” version!

One thing we do that other reprint publishers typically don’t do is pay the estates—when they can be located—a royalty, even though we don’t need to. It’s still a nice thing to do, and it generates goodwill.

We do a fair share of material that’s copyright-controlled. Sometimes agreements come together very quickly, while others take months. No matter what, I try to make sure to really put out a top-notch product for these, as I want make the property owners happy that they allowed me handling their stories.

Why has so much mid-century pulp writing fallen into the public domain?

There’s a lot in the public domain since many companies saw little value in the material at the time. After all, it was just throwaway literature for many.

Which pulp authors are most deserving of a critical re-assessment?

There are several authors who’ve seen their more popular works reprinted many times over, such as Norvell Page and Lester Dent. But in some cases, there are many lesser-known works by these authors that haven’t seen the light of day in decades, or never at all. So we’ve tried to create some interesting collections by both of these writers that haven’t seen publication (or republication) before.

Lately, I’ve been exploring the works of popular writers of the genre that haven’t been reprinted much—or at all—before. Among them are Frederick C. Davis, who today is best-known for his stories of Operator #5. But he wrote scores of high-quality detective stories which have been out of print for 70-80 years. Ted Tinsley, one of the alternate writers of The Shadow in the 1930s wrote several other well-respected series. We’re collecting a few of them, complete. And the one I’m looking forward to the most is Frederick Nebel, one of the best hard-boiled writers of his time. Very little of his material has been reprinted, and we’ll be putting out a complete collection of his best series, Cardigan, hopefully by the end of the year. It’s a 44-story series about a P.I. and they’re a great read, even though it totals about half a million words! There was a paperback collection of six of the stories in the 80s, but there haven’t been any other significant reprints of the series. It should be a must-own for fans of Chandler and Hammett.

How did the writer and pulp scholar Will Murray get involved?

While I wanted to make my releases look good, I wanted to make sure they were a solid purchase for the price. As great as POD is, it’s still more expensive for customers than traditional books. So while I can’t control basic printing costs, the least I can do is offer as much value for their dollar as possible.

Enter Will, who’s supplied introductions for many of my books. Before I started my reprints, I don’t believe any POD reprint publishers were consistently including intros or new material to augment their collections. Now, I think it’s expected.

Not only has Will written intros, but he’s also been a great asset in terms of pitching ideas to him for collections. He’s made the books much stronger products. And Will’s not the only one; Tom Johnson, the long-time editor of the fanzine Echoes, has been completely generous with his time and knowledge. And he’s even written several new stories for my publications as well.

Altus Press titles are possibly the best-looking POD titles out there—beautiful covers, outstanding digital typesetting and interior design. Your books really show what is possible with POD. Can you tell me what software and techniques you use to design a new book?

Thanks very much for the compliment. Many times the design depends of the quality of the source material I have to work with … very often, art is of too poor quality to utilize. But in these cases, I generally find a way to come through with a presentable design, many times through the graciousness of other pulp collectors who supply scans, etc., to work with.

I use the industry standards—Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign—to cobble the books together. I appreciate the notice of the typography; it’s one of those things you don’t notice until you see it done poorly—so poorly that it’s to the detriment of your reading

enjoyment. I’ve had to put books back that have suffered from this. I’ll try reading those books, only to become distracted by the poor layouts.

Typography is the basic building block of good design. I’m really amazed at how often it’s overlooked, as it’ll really make or break a design. I try to be conservative when it comes to type, and to only use typefaces which were used by pulp publishers at the time, or of the flavor of those original fonts, and I generally avoid any popular fonts which didn’t exist at the time these stories were originally published. It makes for a more authentic-looking design.

Can you tell I like typography? If I could throw out a tip when working on an interior and exterior design, it’s to consider your type choices carefully. Once you do that, a lot of the rest of the design will fall into place.

Our biggest challenge is catching typos; we’ll never get them all, but we strive to make the books as error-free as possible. And we have been going back and revisiting my older titles … re-proofreading some, cleaning up a design here and there. So we’re always trying to improve the quality of the books, both old and new.

Tell me about your experience with CreateSpace and Lulu. Are there frustrating aspects of publishing with these POD services? What could be improved? How do you feel about the quality of their books? And how do you think the technology is going to change or improve?

I’m really pleased with both overall. Their printing quality has increased year after year to the point where it’s a rare occurrence where I notice something in their printing that disappoints. What could improve is also what I think will change with the services: I’d like to see a wider variety in trim sizes and bindings, and increased page counts. I generally work at 6″x9” since both CreateSpace and Lulu deal with this size, but at times I’d like the option of doing an 8.5″x11” book in hard- and softcover. Same with paperback size. Currently this isn’t possible.

Also, I think there’s room to grow with the path to e-books. Eventually, it would be nice to have a push-button service to create e-book files from the book files. It’s a little too involved right now, with too many file formats to deal with.

How can you price these titles to make them profitable and competitive?

I think making them bigger and better is the way to go, as there’s no avoiding their production costs, so give customers a better bang for their buck. I strive to do this and as a result, I think my books are the cheapest around, on a per-page cost basis.

Are Altus titles available in any bookstores? Or is it all strictly online?

They are available at bookstores if they’re inclined to order; I saw one in a store a few months ago … a very surreal feeling! Getting a wider audience is any publisher’s challenge. Recently, I’ve been listing them for order in the leading comic book-store product catalog for wider exposure.

And how do you promote your titles?

We do a lot to promote our books; I think our books are recognizable by the traditional pulp reprint-buying audience. We appear regularly on podcasts when we have major products to announce. As a niche presents itself, I push books to those audiences; I’ve a few in mind that I’ll be doing this with soon.

The trick is to getting the word out to new people. I try to do most of my marketing online now. I’ve scaled back on print advertising; it’s difficult to put metrics on it and when I’ve purposefully done tests with print to test conversion rates, it’s never worked. Soon, I plan on advertising almost exclusively with Google Adwords.

Will Altus titles appear as e-books?

I like the opportunity e-books offer. We’re fervently working towards offering e-book versions of all of our titles in all the major e-book channels. The biggest challenge for e-books for us has been to retain our creative book layouts. It won’t always be possible, so we’ll have to make some compromises. I think we’ve got things worked out enough so that, starting this summer, we’ll be putting out our new & old titles out as e-books as well.

Is POD the future of physical books?

With each year, I think POD comes closer and closer to the same respectability as traditional publishing. It’s telling that so many mainstream authors are going this route, as are some of the old-school publishers.

POD allow for the most esoteric books to see the light of day. Are we selling a million units a year? No, but there’s a long tail here… lots of things to publish for the same dollar that otherwise would be spent on a traditional publisher’s product.

Copyright © 2011 Matthew Asprey & Matthew Moring