There are more sub-genres in crime fiction that you can quantify, and there’s one wonderfully ADHD little crime-action love child that when done right, is sublime. It’s a ridiculously over the top premise, usually crime-related and played half-straight/half-surreal, with insane action, absurd humor and runaway pacing. There’s usually a race against the clock element that kind of makes 1949’s film noir D.O.A. the original entry into this subgenre, with 1994’s SPEED possibly our most well-known.
This genre is a weird spiritual successor to the unlikely combination of hard-boiled pulp stories, grindhouse movies and big-beat electronica (there’s a different attitude than you get from street hip-hop, which is involved in its own crime subgenre, but that’s a take for another day). If you have ever seen Jason Statham’s CRANK (2006), and shame on you if you haven’t!, that is precisely what I am talking about. I think 2019’s GUNS AKIMBO might be another example, though I haven’t seen it yet. THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) seemed to want to get in on this conversation but needed to serve the corporate masters too much to really get there.
I don’t really know what you’d call this style, so I dub thee HYPERPUNK, and if either the term already means something else (I refuse to check Urban Dictionary), or if there’s a better/existing term I should be using, please drop a comment! I’m not proud, but I also don’t want to look like a total idiot when I keep saying ‘hyperpunk’. Thanks, friends!
Hyperpunk (see, that feels so good to write!) is deceptively hard to pull off onscreen, leaving us few real hyperpunk movie classics, and the printed page is no different. It’s probably harder, in fact; the story loses the driving soundtrack! It can easily come off as rushed, ridiculous or redundant.
One writer who seems quite at home with hyperpunk is Duane Swierczynski! Wow, this dude is one hell of a story-slinger. I think my first book of his was SEVERANCE PACKAGE, one of his earlier, truly unhinged novels featuring some of the most batshit crazypants fun you can have on paper — and firmly establishing his ease at handling gonzo action and absurd humor. He’s written a bunch more in that vein, including the amazing Charlie Hardie trilogy of rocket-fuel funhouse rides, and I unhesitatingly recommend them all.
After discovering Duane Swierczynski the novelist and devouring his equally high-octane backlist, I found the gent popping up in comics — and of course that makes sense, right? He writes novels that are a lot like comics and I am again reminded of my theory – kids have a kink, that kink is comics, and they never lose the itch. Oh you kinky boy, Duane.
Swierczynski (nothing I can say about his name hasn’t been said before — he dines out on stories about that moniker!) wrote for Marvel for a bunch of years too, including a really nice job following crime comics grand master Ed Brubaker on Iron Fist. He wrote the Black Hood, a sweet-level vigilante book for Dark Circle Comics, and a whole bunch of other tremendous stuff. Lately I’ve seen less of him on the funnybook racks, so I’m especially pleased to see him back with BREAKNECK, completely hyperpunk crime comics!
In his preface Duane explains that BREAKNECK began as an idea that didn’t properly fit anywhere (novel, screenplay, etc) until he realized that it had needed to be a comic book the whole time. I love that idea, and the fact that it is produced through Hard Case Crime, a comics imprint of the well-respected retro crime fiction publisher, is even better yet. So many of my favorite things colliding!
93 minutes until everybody dies.
This is the caption that greets the reader, first page, right after setting the scene. It’s an eye-opener and a countdown has begun for the reader! From here on out, the anxiety just ratchets up. 58 minutes until everybody dies.
Joe just wants to confront the guy that’s screwing his wife, maybe smack him a few times with his baseball bat. He didn’t sign on for a frantic race across town basically handcuffed to that same sonofabitch, all while trying to stop something unspeakable from happening. Wait, what? No time! 33 minutes until everybody dies.
BREAKNECK is an everyman story. It’s about a normal guy with a normal moment of jealous suspicion. A basically good guy, he succumbs to a moment of weakness, dooming himself in that most classic of noir setups. Joe could be you or me and most importantly, he goes just that little bit farther than you or I would. This small distinction lets us vicariously enjoy the unspooling of Joe’s world, secure in the knowledge that we’d have played it just a little safer. Wouldn’t we?
BREAKNECK is a car crash story. Not literally, though there is an auto wreck or three over the course of the yarn, but I mean it in the sense that you’re on an icy road and you have to white-knuckle along as the car skids just inches from the chasm. That shiftfuck sensation when your fucking third eye opens up (namaste!) and you know you’re just a twitch away from that instant when time slows down, and if that happens you’re thoroughly screwed. That hyperaware doomed sensation, you know the one. That car crash feeling.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a relationship story. So many of the best ones are, only this one is wrapped in gas-soaked rags and standing way too close to a flame. I saw myself in some of the choices Joe makes because his horror at discovering incriminating texts on his wife’s phone is one that no married man can read without flinching. Might I, in a moment of fury, grab a brick and a bat and set out for the interloper’s motel ? How about you?
This is a nice starting point for our hyperpunk action; a brick, a bat and a dark heart full of vengeance. It’s a noir foundation for a story that becomes about constant motion even when that motion is a lurching, exhausted limp. Weirdly enough, we don’t get out of that motel room until the third issue, when the story morphs into a race against time/save the city scenario and we’ve already lost 2 issues to the motel room shenanigans, the lingerie-clad policewoman handcuffed to the bed, and the syringe of narcotics that Joe… oh wait, I don’t want to ruin your read!
On the subway (because of the first car crash, natch) there is a brief scene that I love. Scott the romantic rival and Joe, our focal point and sort-of hero, have teamed up to save the city and are fleeing from gun-wielding killers through Philly’s Center City subway station. They screw up their fleeing, like they’ve been screwing up pretty much everything else up to this point, and a miniskirt-clad hit-lady has chased them onto a subway car. This alone is agonizing because we’ve JUST staggered with them on foot howgoddamnfar since the crash, banged-up Joe propping up comically sedated Scott? Did I mention Scott’s a CIA field operative? I think he’s lost his gun at this point.
We as readers are emotionally exhausted and our questionable heroes are physically spent (I might have left out a giant-dildo whipping and a gunfight). The villainess stalks toward the outmatched guys, chucking people from her path. She radiates menace, she’s a killer, and she’s extra pissed they made her run in high heels. Scott tells Joe he’s going to have to fight her. “Is she tough?”
“Frankly, she’s unstoppable,” Scott deadpans. Then he throws Joe at her.
The car crash, the first one, that inspired the subway ride, that was because of a different giant-dildo whipping, by the way. Incident, I mean, not dildo. Pretty sure it was the same dildo.
The art in this comic is a very direct storytelling style common in the European comics fields, which makes sense given that publisher Titan is UK-based and what I imagine are the accents that comes with names like Simone Guglielmini, Raffaele Semeraro, and Lovern Kindzierski. Then again, I’ve enjoyed Duane Swierczynski’s own dulcet tones in person and if there’s ever a name built for an accent, that one is it! Yet ‘nie’ a one detected.
My wife will scold me when she reads this, longtime denizens of Queens that we are. We hear nothing but accents and languages on the street.
If you’ll allow me to return right to my point with the same lickety-split timing ol’ Duane himself demonstrates within these pages… the art! With no disrespect to the pencils and inks and I know this sounds weird, but the COLOR in this comic is extraordinary. I don’t know the last time I read a comic where the coloring is as memorable — it’s coloring, right? — but that sure happened this time. There’s a watercolor-y, pencil-y feel and there’s a shocking amount of texture being laid in with just the color. The effect is everywhere, so subtle in many ways but making an impact on the visual punch. In keeping with the frenetic pace of the story, Kindzierski adds these swooshes in the color washes, like wind being seen, witnessed, throughout the book, that adds a sense of movement even in static scenes.
Joe and Scott, both clad in blue business casual are differentiated in the distinct shades of blue they wear. That this coloring remains perfectly consistent throughout the series is remarkable; that it does change just enough, as they become filthy and disheveled, is really impressive. The crust of slush and ice along the curbs, the sky gray and bloated with looming snow. The painful red of the car that gets ‘jacked, then crashed (then crashed again). The various blues that connect Joe, Scott and Joe’s family hatchback – there’s got to be some symbolism I am not catching, there. Anyone able to help me out, ‘splain it all?
Lovern Kindzierski is one of those career comics guys you’ve never heard of until you start looking at his credits. He’s colored comics, and written them as well, for over 35 years and is credited with having tremendous influence on the craft of comics coloring. So I understand now why it’s so singularly impressive in this book.
Simone Guglielmini is from the European school of comics, which means his art is anything but flashy. There is a tradition in that comics market of being incredibly solid technical artists with excellent storytelling chops and a just a fraction of the ego of American comics artists. This ego-light movement in European comics lends itself to any genre but applies especially well to crime and noir storytelling. That they are not showy and are often very reserved in visual styling means these artists are commonly overlooked outside of more specific sub-fandoms.
Guglielmini’s characters are drawn more disheveled and worn as the story barrels along and events take their toll. A shirttail freed in a scuffle is out in every panel thereafter, a display of internal consistency uncommon in comics. Cracked glasses remain cracked, the automobiles are identifiable and damage stays the same page to page. Guglielmini knows this is a Duane Swierczynski project and every line he puts down is in service to telling Duane’s story. He saves a little something extra for the humor reactions, making Duane’s recurring dildo gag really pop. The artist’s comfort level with consistency and detail on clothing, architecture and automobiles allows the reader to better identify themselves with the everyman protagonist, placing themselves in Joe’s shoes as he stumbles doomward.
In a comics adaptation of Hard Case Crime’s delightful tradition of highly retro pulp painted covers, the softcover collected edition of this book, which is how I read it, features a similarly gorgeous cover that would be just as appropriate on a big-deal Stephen King release from Hard Case Crime. Our love triangle are prominently featured with their most identifiable totem, and the motel’s neon sign, the car, the inciting event. They are beautifully rendered, expressions surprised as we’ve caught them in private moments. That is, except poor old Joe; even here he’s in motion, bat in hand and about to set off this whole mad mess. The cover is from Fay Dalton, an artist also specializing in the mid-century vintage style. Eye candy, me hearties!
By now you, yourself are rip-rarin’ to go out and score yourself some sweet, uncut BREAKNECK, amirite? Let me help you with the lift, please, that’s why I’m here!
BREAKNECK was published in single-issue comic book form in 2019 by Titan Comics, who does the Hard Case Crime line very nicely with unified trade dress and top talent scored from both the American and European comics markets. You should be able to scare up those 4 issues without a lot of hardship, if you want the old-school issue vibe. Check your local comics shop, or eBay if you gotta (you don’t gotta). There is a softcover collected edition that you can get at any bookstore, or your local comics shop for sure. It’s available digitally at comiXology, of course. Humble Bundle has done more than one Hard Case Crime StoryBundle in the past and those usually have a mess of the great prose books and a bunch of the graphic novels, so look out for those. With those, you save some chedda and the money you spend is in part going to charity — double bonus!
Until next time, as Bill S. Preston, Esq. said, “Be excellent to each other.”
Max Cage, 2021
BREAKNECK (2002, TITAN)
by Duane Swierczynski
A mild-mannered consultant is reluctantly forced into a race against the clock as he attempts to thwart a terrorist plot, in this gritty, countdown crime thriller set in modern-day Philadelphia.