Hardboiled detective stories, as a genre, have always been particularly interesting to me. Despite the paint-by-numbers approach that a lot of stories within the genre are told, they’re always fun. One thing that I have noticed is that despite how often hardboiled is mashed up with other genres, fantasy is often left off that list.
So, when I heard there was a story that was, in the author’s own words, “A gender-swapped Magnum P.I. in a post-War-of-the-Rings world” suffice to say I was intrigued. My intrigue turned out to be well placed, as Image Comics’ Fairlady #1 from writer Brian Schirmer, illustrator Claudia Balboni, colorist Marissa Louise, and letterer David Bowman is a fun fantasy-hardboiled hybrid that would be a good story for fans of either genre.
Set several years after a conflict known only as the War of the Harshlands, our story opens with the cloaked and hooded figures of our protagonist Jenner Faulds and her right-hand cat-man Oanu. After our opening page and a brief moment of violence courtesy of Oanu, he hates being called a feline, we are taken back in time five days.
Jenner is a veteran of the war having disguised herself as a man so she could serve. She is also the first, and only, Fairlady, a licensed investigator who is hired to find people, things, anything if the price is right. The current target of her talents is a woman named Samada who had worked for a rich merchant named Aken right up until she stole a hefty sum of money and disappeared. Soon enough we’re following the clues and putting the pieces together with Jenner and Oanu. But, as the two get nearer to Samada, they begin to learn some strange and troubling things.
Brian Schirmer’s script is interesting and does a great job of making this first issue feel packed full of detail, even if the purpose of the knowledge we’re being presented isn’t always clear. What is evident, however, is how fully realized this world and its inhabitants are. The characters introduced to the reader all have reputations. They are known to each other and to the world around them, and that helps to give the story the grounded feel that is essential to any good hardboiled mystery.
On the subject of Jenner having to pretend to be a man to be able to join in the fighting in the war, there is little done about it in the script, save for a moment of clear combat prowess early on to show that she knows how to fight. Though I was a little disappointed that nothing was made of it, I am confident that it will be addressed and explored more deeply in future issues.
The artwork in the first issue, illustrated by Claudia Balboni and colored by Marissa Louise, is successful in marrying high-fantasy and hardboiled themes into a coherent middle-ground. From interiors of bars, brothels, and merchants houses, to a city that has sprung up in the ruins of what appears to be a colossal suit of armor, the pair shows a breadth of environments. That a woman and her large, muscular, cat-man companion do not seem out-of-place in these environments is a testament to their skill as artists.
One of my favorite methods on display of blending the two themes is the color palettes. With hardboiled mysteries, we’re accustomed to more drab and dark colors, whereas fantasy tends toward the bright. The panels in Fairlady have both with either color scheme serving to accentuate the more “dominant” of the two genres on display at any given time. The lettering by David Bowman is well done. The letters are clear, and well utilized to both enhance the artwork and give us clear indications of the alternating voices of dialogue and inner monologue.
After reading Fairlady I am honestly surprised that more detective stories haven’t been told in fantasy settings. Thankfully, so far, this one is good. The creative team behind this story has done a great job of setting up the universe. I’m excited to see what the future holds for this series and I am hopeful that the interesting backstory provided has a big payoff in later issues.
Fairlady #1 can be found in comic stores everywhere now.
Rating: 4/5 mysteries solved