I rewatched the entirety of Mad Men a couple months ago. Because what better thing to do during lockdown than spend seven seasons with characters full of angst and ennui?
As is my wont, whenever I immerse myself into a show or film , I always get the urge to seek out some readalikes — books that, to my mind at least, share similarities with whatever it is I’m watching. My criteria for this is a little loose and ambiguous, admittedly: sometimes I look for similar moods and themes; oftentimes it’s just a matter of aesthetics. The last time I did this with Mad Men I ended up reading Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything — books that read the part. This time around I thought it’d be fun to explore books that looked the part.
So I went with comics, of course. The ones I went with were perhaps not as deep and brooding as Mad Men, but they were certainly as stylish.
They were also mostly about murder, which is surprisingly common with stories set during this time, which makes me wonder what is about this certain period of American culture that fits so well with crime dramas and murder mysteries and thrillers? Is it the Hitchcock influence or is it that everyone was seemingly so repressed in those days that the thought of someone snapping only made one go, “well that was inevitable”?
In any case, I definitely consider it a genre (let’s call it Mid-Century Madness), and comics seem to do it better than almost anything else. And hardly any comic does it better than Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker novels (written under the Richard Stark pseudonym), which follow the eponymous lead across heists, murderous plots, and other criminal activities. I had read — and deeply enjoyed — the first two books in the series, but this was my first time reading through all four volumes (Cooke sadly passed away before working on any more). Westlake’s Parker novels were famously cold, bare-boned affairs, featuring stark prose (hence the pen name) and simple, straightforward plots.
There’s a famous scene from the 1967 film Point Blank, one of the first adaptations of the the Parker stories. It features lead Lee Marvin walking down a hallway with deadly purpose. There’s no music playing, just the metronome-like sound of his steady footsteps, meant to evoke the relentless nature of the character. He sounds unstoppable — a bullet out of a gun.
It’s a rhythm that Cooke translated beautifully into comic book form. Throughout the books he uses wide panels, with little to no dialogue. And this, combined Cooke’s sleek and sharp artwork, evokes a sense of speed. Like Westlake’s original novels, these books are meant to be read quickly. There’s no real story development and certainly no character growth. As with any decent heist: you get in, you get out. The end. Like a bullet out of a gun.
Visually this is the most Mad Men-looking of the bunch, mostly due to Cooke’s general retro aesthetic, but also because Parker comes from the same squared-jawed, handsomely generic mold as Don Draper.
I read all four volumes in the series and had a blast with each one. The third volume, The Score, might just be my favorite, though.
Lady Killer, written by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich and illustrated by Jones herself, follows Josie Schuller, a seemingly perfect homemaker in a seemingly picture-perfect sixties household, who also happens to moonlight as a professional assassin. Hijinks ensue. (The series was pitched as “Betty Draper meets Hannibal,” but I think it’s more accurate to think of it as “Midge Maisel meets John Wick.”) This is essentially a dark comedy — emphasis on dark (morbid humor abound). Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s writing is perfectly sly and tongue-in-cheek and pairs well with Jones’ art, which manages to evoke the commercial art of the era while still retaining that modern edge.
There are only two volumes so far. I enjoyed the second one a lot more, mostly because it ramps up its lounge aesthetic.
On the more serious end of the spectrum we have The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who pretty much have the crime corner of comics covered. This series owes a lot more to Old Hollywood lore and the visual flair of film noir than it does the sleek aesthetics of the mid-fifties. True to conventions, it tells the story of the tragic murder of a rising starlet. Unlike Parker and Lady Killer, this is played as straight as it could be, which is probably why I didn’t vibe with is as much. Brubaker’s writing is great, and Phillips’ art is fantastic, but it just didn’t speak to me as much as the rest of these readalikes so I don’t think I’ll be continuing it.