The Black Dahlia is a graphic novelisation of the famous 70s James Ellroy novel that surrounds the equally infamous true unsolved crime involving the brutal slaughter of Elizabeth Short, adapted by acclaimed crime film director, David Fincher and Matz. LA dick (slang for detective but he’s a dick too) Bucky wraps himself up in the case alongside his former rival, now partner and best friend, Lee. The deeper he digs, the more he descends into the darkness of the LA underbelly, losing sight of his friends and the man he once was. Grab two dukes of whisky and get comfortable, you won’t be after the events of The Black Dahlia.
With a rough sketched illustrative art style combined with a faded palette of paint, it looks like the pages of this graphic novel were taken directly from the crime scene sketches of the case. Really lending itself to the grim and grotesque story being told.
With the inclusion of full-frontal nudity on both the warm and cold bodies as well as the shocking and truly horrifying glimpses into the bludgeoned Miss Short, this is indeed a graphic novel. I say glimpses loosely as the murder details are routinely on show.
However, the truly Hitchcockian genius of Hyman is showcased in not showing Miss Short fully. The body is rarely the focal point of a panel, not to mention sliced in half by the panel frames themselves in some cases, showing just enough so the reader must piece her cadaver together like a psychopathic jigsaw puzzle and no, I’m not showing it here!
Hyman portrays the characters as statuesque with chiselled features not unlike the mythological Greek Titan Atlas. Furthermore, an interesting design choice was the addition of subtle cracks or watermarks in the facial nuances of characters. If intentional, it could depict both literal and psychological scarring as well as showcasing the golden age of Hollywood with a secret darkness sprouting through the skin, like inverted Kintsugi. Everyone has a story to tell in LA.
The colour palette primarily consists of faded browns, golds and greys, reminiscent of a cup of bitter coffee in your favourite old-fashioned café. Truly nostalgic, even for those without such nostalgia, the warmth and craving is all the same.
If you are familiar with the original novel, you’ll know that the real story of the Black Dahlia is more of a fictitious backbone here as opposed to the heart of the story. Also, spoiler alert for this true unsolved crime, it’s never been solved!
The novel instead adapts the true crime to tell the story of LA in the 40s. Civilised yet primal. Bleak but luxurious. Perfectly picturesque in its Fernweh while all the same, revoltingly Ripperesque. With Fincher at the helm, the man behind psychological thriller masterpieces Gone Girl and Seven, this adaption makes sure to stress you out.
Ultimately, The Black Dahlia is every 40s noir detective tale you’ve ever been told and I typically can’t get enough of those. What makes this story stand out amongst the others is just how cutting and uniquely explicit it can be in its details and stigmatizing, specifically of women and lesbians which on the surface is incredibly vulgar and upsetting.
Upon reading into this however, I learned that there was a real-life misinterpretation of the real statements regarding Elizabeth Short that I won’t get into here, it explains why this detail is novelised and I hope it was used to convey a commentary on misogynism as opposed to just straight up misogyny. Either way, this is not for the faint of heart.
I’m not exactly cheering on the main character of Bucky like his peers do. Unlike the characters around him who could probably shoot the words “Charming” and “Witty” into a wall with a barrage of bullets, Bucky instead comes off as a tantric child using slurs he just learned on the playground to get verbal comeuppance and it’s seldom justified or called for. That and he is just a boring sleazy protagonist.
If you can stomach the murder and stigmata, you’ll be rewarded with a bleak and gripping story of agonizing addiction, post war paranoia and a deep dive into the darkness of man set against the backdrop of 40s Hollywood that is sure to solve your detective itch. Otherwise, move along. Nothing to see here
A little rougher around the collar than your average Noir, the Black Dahlia is not for everyone. The excessive and not to mention outdated use of labelling and characters traits is objectively uncomfortable even if the graphic novel is only respecting its dad in the original novel and the out of touch elders of Noir. Discomfort is what brews conversation however so perhaps this story has some cultural significance.
While not factually accurate or focused on the Black Dahlia – as much as it should given the title, the story instead unlocks the dark cellar of man’s psyche. What lurks in the shadows is just as grotesque and horrific as the murder itself.
Let us know in the comments below your thoughts on the Black Dahlia graphic novel and other true crime graphic novelisations you’d like to see as well as what your favourite Noir film is!
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