Different Genres, Same Blood: Horror Noir, A Deconstruction

Angel Heart noir

Acclaimed cartoonist and award-nominated animator, writer, and director Stephan Franck (Despicable Me, Marvel Studio’s “What If…?” The Iron Giant) is returning to a passion project: writing and drawing the graphic novel series Palomino, a neo-noir graphic novel series set in the lost culture of Los Angeles’ country music clubs. Here, he pens an exclusive essay for Dread Central about the relationship and similarities between horror and noir.

I was in college when I saw Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, which to this day, remains a terribly underrated movie. Mickey Rourke plays a low-level sweaty gumshoe looking for a mysterious musician who might also be a grisly murderer. The musician owes a debt to Rourke’s client, played by Robert De Niro, a mysterious Louis Cypher, who, twist #1, also goes by Lucifer. Mickey Rourke does a Marlon Brando-level performance, Bob De Niro does Bob De Niro. The film feels like old Hollywood meets MTV. Let’s face it, Angel Heart is its own kind of awesome. It also lives at the crossroads of two genres that I love: horror and noir.

In all fairness, noir is the universal solvent of genres–you can mix anything in it. Sci-fi noir, western noir, medieval noir… take my money!  However, in movies, comics, and literature, horror has a unique relationship with noir. 

For one thing, there’s the gruesomeness. Noir always claims its pound of flesh. Running the gamut from JJ Gittes getting the wing of his nose sliced in Chinatown to full-on dismemberment and heads in boxes, one of noir’s trademarks is body horror. At the end of the day, whether it’s chest versus Xenomorph, or head versus shotgun blast, the flesh is weak, and in both genres, the protagonist is always at a disadvantage.


Granted, every genre always wants to have its protagonists up against seemingly insurmountable odds. However, horror and noir take the unevenness of the fight to another level. Maybe City Hall is corrupt, or maybe supernatural forces are loose in the world. Whether it’s the rule of law or the laws of nature that have been abolished, it’s never a fair fight. Yet, the heroes can’t stop themselves from taking it on.

Both horror and noir protagonists do share similar cases of genre amnesia. It could be the person who ventures alone in a creepy basement, the group who decides to split up in a haunted house, or the investigator who turns in all their evidence to some corrupt authority figure, it’s like they’ve never seen a movie or read a book before! Also, they know that it’s a bad idea to go against the city’s corrupt power structure or some immortal supernatural entity. But they can’t help themselves. Noir is made of those characters, like Marv in Frank Miller’s Sin City, or every single man in Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker’s Lovecraftian noir Fatale.

This brings me to what I feel is the biggest misconception about those two genres: the idea that noir and horror have a nihilistic central point of view. I believe that it’s the opposite. The characters are romantic fools. Clearly, looking the other way would be a much easier choice. But once they’ve seen evil, they just can’t unsee it. There is a sense of right and wrong inside them that, at the end of the day, just can’t be denied. They may not win the battle. They may not even live to fight another day. But they have been living proof that some other idealistic fool one day WILL come along and pick up the fight.

That’s why in Silver, my graphic novel series which sets a pulp noir caper in a world where vampires are real, I’ve always thought of my con men as “good guys trying to be bad.” And God knows they try. Yet, when the time for redemption comes, they can’t resist it, no matter how heavy the price. The same is true in my new series Palomino. In the corrupt world of 1981’s Los Angeles, people can’t stop themselves from trying to do the right thing. They do it at great personal cost.

Ultimately, noir and horror explore a shared core question: the presence of evil in the world

I’ve heard it said that why people fall in love never needs to be explained in a story. That’s just the natural order of things. What a story needs to show is what keeps the lovers apart. The same applies to evil in horror or noir. It might be endemic, like in It or Salem’s Lot, or it might be systemic like in Chinatown. But in all cases, evil is the unnatural corrupting element.

Good is the default human setting, but it’s also the value that’s at a disadvantage. The moral compass naturally points in the right direction, but following it is a hazardous journey. It’s paradigm-shifting, and morally deconstructing, whether you realize that vampires are real, or that city hall is on the take. In the most extreme cases, you might even realize that—twist #2—the evil person you’ve been seeking on behalf of the devil is you. We have seen movies. We have read books. We know it’s coming. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier.

Support Palomino now on Kickstarter.



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