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Nightmare Alley

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Is there a more noir-ish setting than a seedy traveling carnival?

The mix of exploitation & deception, the cast of marginalized humanity, it’s suited to genre work that aims to focus on the darkest corners of human behavior. There’ve been several books & movies that’ve made good use of the carny world. But of them all, the most arguably effective is William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley, which was also turned into a neatly creepy B-movie starring Tyrone Power in ’47.
Fantagraphics Books has just released a graphic novel adaptation of this sordid classic, written & illustrated by underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. Originally initiated in the 90’s as part of a short-lived series of comic book versions of classic dark crime novels, Spain’s version had been sitting unfinished until publisher/editor Gary Groth convinced the artist to finish the book under the Fantagraphics imprint. In resuscitating this work, Groth has definitely done serious comics lovers a favor.

Nightmare Alley depicts the rise-&-fall of Stanton Carlisle, an all-around heel who gets his start in a carny ten-in-one show, aiding then bedding a phony medium named Zeena. He uses the knowledge he’s gathered from Zeena to set himself up as a phony pseudo-religious spiritualist. (Gresham’s novel, though set in the 40’s, still retains its relevance, as Carlisle’s cold-reading techniques are still utilized by modern showmen like John Edwards.) But he overreaches when he attempts a big swindle in collaboration w./ a lady psychiatrist even more duplicitous than him. On the lam from the law, our anti-hero retreats into the bottle and ultimately returns to the carny – where he’s forced to take a job as the lowest of the low, a circus geek. It’s a sordid gritty story, and Spain is just the right man for the job.
The underground master first made his name through the 60’s revolutionary comix series “Trashman,” plus a grease-stained batch of proletarian period pieces – and his heavily outlined black-&-white style perfectly matches Gresham’s dark story. All the characters are unflinchingly presented as if lit by fluorescents, which somehow suits the story’s Manichean division of Sharks & Chumps. Unlike the 40’s movie version, Spain doesn’t stint when it comes to depicting Carlisle’s sexual exploits (Zeena, victim/goodgirl Molly and – most memorably – domineering femme fatale shrink Lilith Ritter), though as usual in his art, all three women share the same body type: slender, full-breasted and sporting a pair of muscular legs that could snap your neck in twain. Me, I’ve long visualized Zeena as the blowsy Joan Blondell type, but perhaps I’m still carrying this from the flick.
According to Groth, Nightmare Alley is the longest graphic work by Spain, who more typically has focused on graphic short stories. It could probably benefit by being extended a bit more. Some of the sequences have more words per panel than is necessary: these are people who live by patter, after all, so you wanna see ‘em using this to the fullest. (A scene where Carlisle bamboozles a hostile southern sheriff is particularly flat since Spain the scripter places it all in some zeppelin-sized word balloons.) Too, the book’s denouement depicting our protagonist’s descent into alcoholism could have been more effectively protracted. Stanton is an abusive murdering slimewad, after all, and you wanna see his degradation convincingly portrayed, especially since his slide into geekhood is set up in the first few pages of the story.
That noted, Spain’s version manages to beautifully recreate Gresham’s world in all its squalid glory: even down to the dated psychological premises used to bolster the book’s main actors (like many crime novelists of his day who strived to delve into their characters’ sociopathy – Robert Bloch comes immediately to mind – Gresham worshipped at the altar of Freud). And for an artist whose early work was notable for its Marxist fervor, Spain proves deft at capturing the period’s low & high society. (For those missing the Trashman years, we even get a speech from a rail-ridin’ socialist near book’s end.)
Gresham’s novel is presently available in an omnibus edition (Horace McCoy’s Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930’s and 40’s), while the movie version doesn’t even appear to be available on DVD or tape. In that light, Spain’s work is even more noteworthy: an effective reconstruction of American pulp disillusionment that still reads true.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.