Being Just What They Should be- a look at Miss: Better Living Through Crime

To a large degree, crime stories tend to be violent or romantic.  Not necessarily romantic as in the way of love and kissing (although there can be those) but in the way that it idolizes the criminals.  It’s the difference between a Brubaker/Phillips production and something like Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, night and day in terms of what they’re going but both are still crime comics.  What there is often not any room for is showing crime as a job, as a profession. It can be something to keep food on the table, to provide a living, and something to aspire just to be better at.  About 20 years ago, Philippe Thirault, Marc Riou, and Mark Vigouroux told the story of Nola a poor white girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and Slim, a black pimp who spends his days scheming on ways to get to tomorrow.  1920s New York City wasn’t made for either of them; it wasn’t the place for a strong, independent woman or a black man who had to live by his own rules.  Or at least, that’s the way that these French creators picture the roaring 1920s in NYC.

Nola and Slim find that crime is just a job that they happen to be pretty good at.  But they also do it because it’s a job.  Maybe not a 9-to-5 job but it’s a profession that Nola kind of stumbles into after her boss is killed.  She was a private eye’s secretary but when he was killed doing a hit on the side, she picks up his contract and performs the killing.  She’s not bloodthirsty or even visibly sociopathic; it’s just that she finds that she’s good at it. Slim is a bit more immersed in the world, a criminal in his own rights but with the swagger and smile of a hero.  Essentially, they’re gangsters but the type who see where there’s a buck to be made.  When Miss: Better Living Through Crime focuses on the professional side of the story, it is all business.  When someone needs someone taken out, they knock on Nola and Slim’s door.  It’s a job;  it’s not necessarily who Nola and Slim are.  Well, it’s mostly not.

Capturing the 1920s, Riou and Vigouroux never make this feel like a period piece.  Their drawings focus on creating a sense of a time that’s a bit different than our times.  By placing the characters at the center of their storytelling, you almost glance over the historical details of the artwork like the fashions or the cars.  Nola moves through this story as a solid figure, the master of her destiny.   They draw her as this presence of strength, unwavering in her actions.  This is contrasted by Slim, a man who is always scheming and looking around the corner.  Their artwork tells us so much about these characters because a large part of this story is about their physical attributes of being a woman or being black.

The sharpness in their line produces a staccato sense when reading the book. Their sharp lines are almost painful to look at for too long. That’s not a flaw in their artwork but the strength in it. Riou and Vigouroux keep the story moving along, quickly implanting the panel in your head before ushering you to the next drawing. There are no soft edges in this comic or areas where your eyes can rest. It’s not that kind of world that they’re presenting. And the colors of Mare Malès or Scarlett Smulkowski add to the harshness of the world, bathed in a constant brown or green light. Contrasting the high-life, partying nostalgia of the roaring 1920s, the linework, and the color show a down-to-earth existence, where any partying may be happening on the other side of town while we spend our days and nights in the streets and dirt.

In that harshness, Thirault tells a dual story of love and crime. There’s a work-life and a private life that he keeps separate for Slim and Nola until the walls keeping them apart break down. This is the roaring 1920s but it’s also a time leading up to great turmoil; the Great Depression (which is explicitly a part of this story) and World War II, which is something that none of these characters see coming. But throughout the story of Nola and Slim taking on lethal jobs for hire, there is very much a sense of waiting for the bubble to burst. Nola and Slim live in this time of great uncertainty and great change. The racial tensions of the book alone drive a lot of the conflict in this story. Nola is white and Slim, her partner turned lover is Black. In that way, this story sits in a precarious time, past the days of slavery and the civil war but still well ahead of any kind of organized Civil Rights movement. There’s a small sense of hope in Harlem as the people there, the descendants of former slaves, try to build a place for themselves. There is an uneasy peace as neither Nola nor Slim is completely accepted in the other’s world.

So when they are not on the clock, the heart of the story centers on these two characters, both broken in their own ways, learning to exist in these worlds that they don’t know. And they’re not being forced into these worlds; they want to be in these worlds. Slim’s immersion into the white world is more business-related initially but it’s rarely something forced upon him, even when he has to act as a servant or treated as something less than human because of his skin color. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt or affect him but he accepts these blows as he knows that his worth is not tied into other’s perception of him. There’s only one opinion that counts and Nola treats him exactly like the man he is. From the moment he meets Nola, he uses these jobs as a way to be near her. You get the feeling that he wouldn’t be doing this if he didn’t want to. He’s strong enough of a character that he would walk away if that’s what he wanted to do. He’s not trapped in or by this world.

Examining Nola, she doesn’t have the normal connections of family or even friends.  Thirault, Riou, and Vigouroux give her a hard-knock childhood so this book shows her building a family that she didn’t grow up with through and with Slim.  It’s in Nola that the creators stretch their skills, using her as a mirror of the times and situations. She doesn’t belong in any of these social circles but she’s the one who brings them all together.  The great thing that these French creators get right is never turning her into a victim or someone who needs saving.  She’s in control as she finds the angles in every situation to survive and to succeed.  She’s drawn to exude that she’s all about business all the time, short-cropped hair, sensibly brown-colored blouses, and eyes that barely reflect any emotion other than simmering anger.  All everyone sees in her is a small white girl; no one but Slim really sees who she is.  

Thirault, Riou, and Vigouroux let Nola and Slim’s relationship build up slowly and almost in the background.  He’s obviously in love with her from the get-go but she tempers her feelings for him, mostly following a business firsts strategy when it comes to Slim.  But she’s not all cold; she shows feelings toward him while trying to keep them out of their work relationship.  Thirault uses the time and the place to explore this relationship as a mirror of its time; there’s a sense of old-world thinking while trying to build something better and something new.  It’s a story that still resonates today as it sometimes feels like we’ve taken steps backward in terms of how we look at gender and race.  

With all of that text and even subtext, how exhilarating this work is almost gets lost in everything it’s doing.  Thirault, Riou, and Vigouroux have crafter a true page-turner as you get wrapped up in the plot of these stories.  With their compelling skills at suspense and character development, you can get lost in the Harlem streets with all of the men and women you meet.  With the focus on Slim and Nola, the creative team practically slips in all of these other players, from Nola’s mother who shows up after being missing for years to Pat, the boss of Harlem who keeps Slim and Nola close by for jobs and other reasons.  The rich supporting cast they develop provides key insights into Nola and Slim’s story.

Miss: Better Living Through Crime succeeds both as a relationship story and as a crime story as Thirault, Riou, and Vigouroux provide a picture of an old America, one where so much of our societies were being formed.  The Roaring 20s are long enough ago to feel like a history lesson but recent enough to still feel relevant to nearly everything that’s happening today.  This writer and these artists were able to lock into this turbulent time, not as a history lesson but as a reflection of the world around us.  And they did it while telling great, thrilling tales that make you want to see what happens next.  

cover by Greg Smallwood

Miss: Better Living Through Crime
Drawn by Marc Riou & Mark Vigouroux
Colored by Mare Malès and Scarlett Smulkowski
Translated by Justin Kelly and Natacha Ruck
Published by Humanoids