This is a piece from my newsletter, (me + you), which comes as the spirit moves but is hopefully worth the wait. I use it as a place to test drive ideas, to practice therapy, to get writing tics out of my system…it’s really just a sandbox for me to write to you. The newsletter is about everything and nothing, but this one is about a new comic that was written by a friend of mine. It’s not necessarily a conflict of interest if I tell you about it upfront, right?)
“Because,” Brenda said, “you’ll meet him again. You’ll work with him again. And he’ll look at you, and what will he say? That’s the stand-up guy came back for me? Or does he say, That’s a guy I don’t trust so much any more? What do you want him to say, Ed, next time you see each other?”
–Richard Stark, Comeback
I think I’m required by international law to disclose that I’m friends with Chip Zdarsky, who co-created Newburn with Jacob Phillips. (We do a podcast together with a couple of other friends, Mangasplaining.) Newburn #1 is out this week, and it’s split into two parts. The main story is by Zdarsky & Phillips and features a private detective who works to solve crimes on behalf of criminals (you can’t just ask a room of goons, “Hey, who killed Bobby?” like you used to), while the backup story comes from Nadia Shammas, Ziyed Yusuf Ayoub, & Frank Cvetkovic. This split is a format I’m very partial to, because getting a comic after a comic is like getting overtime after watching a whole basketball game.
Newburn #1 lines up nicely with an idea I’ve been chewing on, the idea that crime fiction—whether it’s on the side of the law or the thugs—is a genre that is often about confirming that there is an order to the world. To the cops, that order must and can be effectively protected. To the thugs, the rock-solid truth of that order can be effectively circumvented so that you can balance the scales by your own means. This is particularly true of detective fiction, I think.
It’s like when Robert Browning wrote, “The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn; Morning’s at seven; The hill-side’s dew-pearled; The cop loads their gun; The skel’s on the lam; God’s in His heaven— All’s right with the world!” Everything is in its right place, everything is working as intended. Things make sense, but only if you pay enough attention to the right things. There are procedures to follow, traditions to observe, and once done, they speak to the rightness of the world. It feels strange to call crime stories comforting, but—there it is.
The backup story in Newburn #1 is “Brooklyn Zirconia,” part one. The first part of Shammas, Ayoub, & Cvetkovic’s story is just a few pages long, so you’ll forgive me if I talk around it. Let’s say that a thing happens and that thing forces someone make a decision. That’s enough ground for us to build on for the next few minutes.
In Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, there’s a moment where Miyamoto Musashi, having won a few fights and made few friends as a result, hightails it into the woods and up a mountain with the 70-member strong Yoshioka dojo out in the streets looking to bring him back to face justice. Halfway up the mountain, though, he hems, he haws, and then he walks back down the mountain, out of the woods, and directly into the group of men waiting for him. About four hundred pages of some of my favorite comics later, seventy men are dead in the dirt and Musashi has stepped into infamy.
There’s a moment in that span where Musashi makes a decision. In this case, it is an incredibly bad one, and as a reader, I love it. These moments, when you can see or feel a character’s brain working, are manna from Heaven for me. It makes me think, it makes me wonder, and it makes me get really attached. Sometimes the decision is to save someone else. Sometimes the decision is to make someone pay for killing the dog your late wife got you, or for decorating their saloon with your friend.
The decision in “Brooklyn Zirconia” isn’t like Musashi’s, but it’s not not like Musashi’s either. In this case, a person makes a decision rooted in some flavor of melancholy (sadness? resignation? hopelessness? apathy? wait, am I projecting?), and it happens in such a way that I am personally hooked. Stories where someone makes a measured and probably incredibly bad decision really sing for me. The doomed and damned on a rush to a bitter end, for means that may be noble or petty but are utterly undeniable? I’d eat it with a spoon if I could.
In general, my favorite characters tend to be laconic. I love Boyd Crowder and Lupin the Third, but Golgo 13, Amos from The Expanse, Parker from Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, Chiyoko from Akira, Cougar from The Losers, and a host of gruff, dark-haired shonen adventure manga characters are near and dear to my heart. Again, while this is not what Team Brooklyn Zirconia is up to here, it’s not not that either. There’s a texture here that’s familiar, a string to tug that’ll take me somewhere fresh.
Plus, I love me a word balloon with three words or less. It feels like raw, unadulterated confidence.
If you hear “I hate waiting” in this clip and smile, I think you get what I mean. If you laugh a mean laugh when you hear “Better if I don’t,” let’s play Tekken together. You’re family now.
I want to know more about the thing that happened in “Brooklyn Zirconia,” I want to know more about the decision-maker, and mostly I just wanna see where this team is gonna take me. I’m fixated on the decision in the story, but the little creative decisions are cool, too. Cvetkovic uses a lot of zig-zaggy balloon tails and connectors, which does a fantastic job of setting this story apart from “Carmine’s Apartment,” the first chapter of Newburn. I really like how the people are drawn and colored too, the way they’re cartoony but also maybe reminiscent of people you see day-to-day, the way the art has kind of a cut-out quality sometimes…the combined effect is a really pleasant one. When I read “Brooklyn Zirconia,” and I believed it. I want to see what the decision leads to, how it looks when this person gets to some place for whatever reason it is that they’re headed there.
Team Newburn’s side of Newburn #1 features the title character, the retired detective who’s found a new gig investigating crimes for the other side. You can’t be a corrupt cop if you’re not a cop, right? It’s a clever idea, a fun little inversion of what you normally expect from stories like this.
“Stories like this” is important here, because if you read enough of anything you tend to recognize the formula, and when I read a LOT of anything, the way the creators follow and deviate from the formula becomes part of the draw for me. It’s the difference between listening to a drummer and listening to Ringo Starr drum. Ringo is gonna do something different, like this tiktok video breaks down in an incredible fashion. Ringo could take a song that was already a bop and still make it funky.
The “Come Together” part is so good it’ll give you gas face.
Anyway, Newburn feels like a procedural. The title character walks around, he talks to people, and he figures things out. It’s not really the kind of story with a lot of Genre Wick stuff going on. It’s more about the details and subtler touches than the gunfights. You can see it in the way people move in the book, with how often Newburn will look and notice things before acting on them in a subsequent panel, how he touches a wall while explaining the what he’s found, how he changes the way he speaks to maximize his chances of getting his way.
I realized where Phillips & Zdarsky had decided to Ringo it up when I thought about his status quo in relation to the usual demands of a procedural or detective story. A police procedural is often about returning things to zero by the end of the episode. The cops solve the case, the criminal goes off to get tried in a hit spin-off TV show as part of a crossover, and society is safe once again. Heist movies are probably the closest we get to a criminal procedural, and in the end, those are about up-ending things, defeating the establishment instead of restoring it. A reverse-procedural. More or less equal and opposite.
What’s the overall outcome of a detective using the law to serve and protect criminals? Whose idea order is maintained or destroyed at the end? If criminals are committing crimes against other criminals, then that necessarily means that he’s going to run afoul of someone on his side, but he doesn’t work a straight enough job to expect protection from the police, either.
This moment right here, where I’m not sure where it’s going to go but I can see that it’s obviously just laid out a briefcase full of Chekov’s guns and for some weird reason my name is on every bullet.
The first chapter of Newburn makes me think about how if you can figure out a way to be just observant enough, you can divine the order of the world and find truth. The first chapter of “Brooklyn Zirconia” makes me think about how sometimes there are things that must be done, even if you must do them through a heavy sigh. They must be done because they’re right, or necessary, or meaningful, or whatever whatever.
As a reader, these kinds of textures are the things that hook me. That intersection between duty and damnation that comes with one story, that blend of safety, knowledge, and hidden motives that run through the other.
Hey, what do you think is a weirder experience, writing an essay about your friend’s book or reading an essay about your book from your friend? There’s a running gag on the Mangasplaining podcast that Chip and I are sometimes the same person. I’m even more convinced now.
(special thanks to chris butcher!)