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Advance Book Review: Fred Van Lente’s The Con Artist is a Nerd Noir Page Turner

In his second novel, Fred Van Lente, who is known for his comic books like Action Philosophers, Marvel’s The Incredible Hercules, and Valiant’s Archer and Armstrong  spices up the murder mystery genre by setting it at San Diego Comic Con where super fans, Hollywood types, and yes, even some comic book creators rub shoulders in a four celebration dedicated to things that they make Funko Pops of. His protagonist is Mike, a comic book artist known for his work on popular Atlas Comics (A stand-in for Marvel) character Mister Mystery and his indie pro wrestling book Gut Check, which has given him a decent level of fame. Mike is divorced and either lives out of his car or at the hotels at the various comic convention he attends and is only at SDCC to give Ben K, his long time mentor, a lifetime achievement award and to make sure his Artist’s Alley table isn’t given away in the future.

Unfortunately, Ben passes away as soon as Mike gets to San Diego. And, then, Van Lente kicks the actual murder mystery plot into high gear when Atlas editor, Mike’s arch nemesis, and his ex-wife’s boyfriend Danny Lieber turns up dead the night they got into a bar fight and was thrown out of the hotel bar. Mike’s weekend of drinking, drawing commissions, and self-loathing is transformed into police interrogations, basically becoming a private eye, and even more insane things as the novel continues.

The Con Artist is marketed as an illustrated novel, but Tom Fowler‘s illustrations aren’t just fanservice for the comic book crowd and actually connect to the events of the story. Something that might have seemed like a throwaway bit of surrealism, like “Eastboro Baptist Church” protesters juxtaposed with obsessive anime otakus trying to break a Guinness world record, ends up helping Mike piece together bits of the mystery. Early, in the book, Mike talks about how he likes making art, even sketches for fans because it has a “purging” effect for him, and several times, he mentions how much the act of creation means to him even though he hasn’t drawn a comic in a long time. And Mike’s ability to use comic books and what Scott McCloud calls “closure” (The concept is Ben K’s in the books.) to help put together pieces of this labyrinthine mystery, involving both the creative and corporate side of the comic book industry as well as Mike’s friends and foes.

The early scenes at parties or on the convention floor might seem like wheel turning or a chance for Van Lente to get out some great one-liners about the comics industry, geek culture, or conventions, but they establish the relationship that Mike has with a decent sized cast of characters from his BFF Dirtbag, who was Ben K’s assistant and now is volunteering at a The Walking Dead meets Orange is the New Block TV show attraction and his table buddy and successor on Mister Mystery Katie Poole to his number one fangirl Violet and my personal favorite character, Sebastian Mod, who is a pitch perfect combo parody of Mark Millar and Grant Morrison with Alan Moore’s religious beliefs thrown in for good measure.

The Con Artist definitely gets dark and violent from the get go, but Fred Van Lente balance things out with a wicked sense of humor and simultaneously satirizing and celebrating comic books and geek culture. For example, it might be weird that copyright friendly named Kevin Durant’s super rich cousin wants a commission of obscure Plastic Man villain Disco Mummy shaking her butt, but Mike and Katie have a good time watching the old Plastic Man Filmation shorts and see the elegance and humor in her design. (And, of course, weird commission guy is connected to the bigger mystery in some strange way.) When it comes to introducing characters and settings and transitioning between them, Van Lente doesn’t just merely describe them and move on. He does a comedic riff on them that gets you laughing, immersed in the story, and able to vividly picture the scene. Van Lente’s observational humor is also fresh and sharp if occasionally inside baseball for people who have never been to a con or aren’t familiar with the comics industry. For example, I love his running joke about people at comic book conventions picking up conversations like the last con never happened or just narrating their surroundings.

With a timely July release, Fred Van Lente’s The Con Artist is the perfect balm for readers, who have a love/hate relationship with geek culture just like its protagonist Mike. However, it’s also filled with some truly inspirational passages about storytelling, worldbuilding, and how awesome the comic book medium is, and these thoughts (and one great keynote speech) really make Mike an endearing character in spite of all his issues. It also happens to be a damn good mystery and a bit of a noir with jokes and funny descriptions to boot and hits the proverbial afterburners at the end.

Overall Rating: 8.8

Quirk Books provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review