Murder on the 95th/Dan Ryan

Creator/s: Brian Duffy
Run: Published in March 2013
Schedule: Completed

Website: The simple, gray layout's accented by a neat pop-up feature that has both on-click and traditional navigation. The large cover illustration and "READ COMIC" button make it as quick and easy as possible for the reader to get to the beginning of the six-page story. However, despite the minimal amount of text on the site, the creator misspelled "Available Now" on the home page.

Writing: This existential short story presents an intimate monologue told to the reader by a young, urban protagonist. Doubting his judgment several times at the beginning, he initially appears to be apologetic about his troubled psyche. However, in a drastic change of tone, he sardonically compares the reader to Sigmund Freud and offers the possibility that his philosophy's more legitimate than it seems.

Central to the protagonist's argument are several imaginative scenarios where the cute girl on the train causes terrible things to happen to him. In one, she refuses to save him from a giant buzzsaw; in another, he's falsely arrested when the girl murders a stranger. Finally, he's shown stabbed in the back with a knife with the girl standing over him. The problem with this strategy's that the protagonist doesn't make an attempt to support these possibilities with real-life examples, which makes them seem more like creative exaggerations than anything substantial. As if aware of his failure to communicate coherently to reader, the protagonist overcorrects himself at the end, suddenly changing his assessment of the girl as a serial killer to someone who merely has "an annoying sneeze or an affinity for prog rock or something." At that point, there's a brief moment where it seems like the protagonist might realize how flawed his rationale is, but the story ends with him reassuring himself of the girl's guilt, reflecting a paralyzed mental state. It seems implied that the tragic scenes allude to failed relationships, but the protagonist's inability to convey his insecurities more directly to the reader emphasizes how serious his predicament is.

While the protagonist comes across as a miserable jerk, his glimpses of humility help make him a likable and sympathetic character. This is most apparent in the panels involving alcohol, such as the scribbly black cloud around a bottle marked "Booze" on Page 4 that has a caption starting with "I live my life in a haze." The subject then comes up twice on the next page, with the protagonist referring to himself as a "borderline alcoholic," and then being shown depressed at home next to a bottle of liquor. A self-destructive cycle's suggested by these pages, in which the protagonist's drunkenness inhibits his ability to process his psychological issues, which contributes to his "miserable existence" that he relies on alcohol to rescue him from. At one point, he suggests "just taking a sober analysis of the situation," with sober having a double meaning, but he rejects this idea in favor of "the path of least resistance," which is continuing to use alcohol to help him ignore his problems.

Another way that the protagonist's made more likable is the way that he oscillates between casual and sophisticated dialogue, putting the reader in a position where they can be caught off-guard. The story's set up in a way that the pages alternate in tone, with Pages 1, 3, and 5 showing the most conviction while Pages 2, 4, and 6 display a more uncertain protagonist. In the former, he's more focused, coherent, and eloquent, while in the latter, he speaks in a disjointed, informal style while making hipster-esque pop culture references to Downton Abbey, J Mascis, and "prog rock." The best example of this is on Page 3, where right after confessing to "misogynistic bullshit," the protagonist confidently states that "it's also a pathological aversion to succumbing to superficiality combined with a complete mistrust in my own instincts," suggesting to the reader that the situation may be more complicated than it seems. This level of inconsistency would be problematic in a more normal webcomic, but it works well here because the character's presented as being heavily flawed from the start.

A symbolic panel on Page 4 showing the protagonist with guns, dynamite, and a sword represents the excessiveness of his defensive mindset, and I think the story ultimately condemns his behavior. While the focus is on exploring the potential for him to encounter a serial killer (or, perhaps more directly, get his heart crushed by a failed relationship), the protagonist perpetually downplays his emotional, psychological, and physical suffering (the last one being due to his alcoholism). While these effects aren't as dramatic as literally being stabbed in the back, the overwhelming pessimism has robbed the protagonist of any chance to enjoy life, which is just as dismal a fate as any of the tragic scenarios he contemplates. And while he's quick to blame cute women for his problems, the scene on Page 5 showing him searching for "darkness" in innocent news stories demonstrates that his issues are more pervasive than that.

Art: A cover might not seem necessary for a six-page story, but this one's very effective because of its simplistic approach. An image of a cute girl next to the word "Murder" on a red background makes it clear to the reader that she's being conveyed as a victim, which illustrates the point the protagonist tries to make later in the story. Based on his seedy appearance, it's initially plausible that he might be the one who kills her, making his suspicion of her a clever and unexpected twist. For a story largely about evaluating people based on how they look, it's fitting that the first page barely has any text.

The comic's gritty, detail-rich, "indie" style is perfect for this kind of story. The pervasive hatching, sketchy lines, and abundant negative space establish a moody, abstract feel, which combines with the simplistic faces to reinforce that the characters and situations are largely symbolic. After all, the protagonist breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the reader, and there are several panels meant as pure imagination, so a more realistic style wouldn't be as appropriate. Still, the figures are drawn very carefully and anatomically correct, with the curvy girl effectively representing the kind of "cute urban women" that the protagonist's both attracted to and terrified of. The cartoony aspect of the style comes into play with her eyes, which are shown distorted on Pages 2, 3, and 6 to make her look sinister.

Overall: This comic makes the argument as well as any other I've seen that a creator doesn't need a significant amount of pages to tell a compelling and complex story. Its distinctly urban setting supplies an artistic flair while also making its subject matter highly relatable. Murder on the 95th/Dan Ryan's an expertly illustrated short story that will present a pleasant challenge for anyone looking for something on the heavier side to read.


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