Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Cavalier Mr. Thompson, by Rich Tommaso

I've recently been reading various collections from the golden age of comic strips: Hal Foster's brilliant work on Prince Valiant, Alex Raymond's gorgeous high-wire act that was Flash Gordon, Chester Gould's brutal, elongated tales of crime in Dick Tracy-- and they all have a similar approach to storytelling, a kind of loping, stretched, and suspended sense of narrative, where each storyline follows many threads and multiple characters, all brought together by chance and all with their own stories to tell. Reading these strips brought to mind Rich Tommaso's graphic novel The Cavalier Mr. Thompson, a crime comic on the surface, but so much more once you delve into its pages.

Tommaso has been working in the vein of crime comics his whole career, going back to the nineties when his debut graphic novel, Clover Honey, about a young woman from a mob family is apprenticed to a hit man, hit the shelves. What was most interesting about that book was the time it took to develop its characters-- each one fully realized enough to blur the reader's understanding of which one is the protagonist, the antagonist, and who is just someone with an interesting story to tell. It's a technique Tommaso uses at full bore here in The Cavalier Mr. Thompson.

This graphic novel centers on two intertwined narratives-- the murder in a small Texas town of a charismatic con-artist drifter, and the coming of age story of Sam Hill, a teenager growing up in a hotel run by his widowed father, the same hotel where the dead man was murdered. But to say this is the plot of the book is to miss the point entirely. This Texas town in the mid-twenties is inhabited by a bevvy of interesting characters, quirky lowlifes, over-the-hill raconteurs, and the like, and each one of them has a story to tell.

Sam Hill is loosely based on the real-life mystery writer Jim Thompson, a man who wrote such great crime novels as The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet, and A Hell of a Woman. Jim Thompson was also a man with a wild past full of interesting encounters with interesting people, and you can see that inspiration on the page. Everyone has a story to tell, and, like the adventure comic strips of old, everyone here has a role to play in the unfolding story that is Sam Hill. The book even has the feel of a collection of serialized stories, which is not surprising considering that Tommaso has multiple Sam Hill works planned, including a follow-up comic book set over a decade later in 1939 (which you can get, along with lots of other comics he's done, here).

What really seals the deal on this pleasurable read is the wonderful art by Tommaso. He uses a single color on the interior art to provide texture and shading, and his pared down line work makes for striking designs and exciting layouts and character work.

You can find The Cavalier Mr. Thompson at the link to his webpage above, your local independent bookstore or comic book store, or here.

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