Armed with a hard boiled tale that could have flowed from Hammett’s or Cain’s typewriters, Steranko went about a new format, on a new page size, for a new publisher, and was met with staggering indifference by the world at large.
What a shame, as the book itself is a corker.
The illustrations are laid out two to a page, with text underneath allowing Jim to both play with the page format yet separate the two pieces as different graphic elements. Given that the eye tends to track better left to right than up and down, the illustrations are all vertical, and in full color, or what passes for color in those days.
Rumor has it that the illustrations were never inked, but refined pencil work, then colored at the plate level, and my eye tends to agree with this, although I’m willing to be told differently. Has any of this original art turned up?
Set in the 1940’s, the book is just about what you would think: a private eye taking on a case that he really doesn’t want, a dame that can’t be trusted with a body that would stop a truck, a nervous client whose story lacks in credibility what it makes up in dead bodies. It doesn’t end well, they never end well.
I suppose that you could get all huffy about Eisner’s Contract With God being the first true graphic novel, and we could go on and on about what constitutes a graphic novel til we’re niggling about tiny details. I tend to go with a broader definition, one that allows the artist to play with the words and pictures, the defining feature being that they were thinking of an adult audience, one that wouldn’t be reading FOOM. Red Tide has literary pretensions, genre ones certainly, but is aiming at adults as sure as Eisner was with A Contract With God. Rather than argue, I would love to point out that two of the industry’s greatest lights were both, to an indifferent public who believed that comics could only be juvenile and purile, to book stores that didn’t have a section to put them in, against a printing process that hadn’t the slightest chance of doing their artwork justice, fighting to create a new product that was beyond much of what had been done since the graphic narrative of comics had been invented.
Good for them.
In doing some research, it appears that Dark Horse might have been in negotiations to reprint Red Tide in an updated edition back in 1999. Clearly that never happened, and it’s a shame. It would have introduced a whole new audience to the work. An audience already used to and accepting of Sin city would have no problem diving head first into Chandler’s world.
If you can find a copy, and they’re out there, pick one. It’ll be the little digest gem hiding in the collection. I’m looking for one of the larger ones, with a much more limited print run right now.
Said steranko in a later interview:
When the book appeared it was not embraced by the comic-book community because it didn't have word balloons or captions. Believe it or not, they found that shocking! Red Tide ran about 130 pages with two panels per page and text underneath. I used Golden Sectioning, a mathematical formula to arrange elements in a unified structure, to create an image-to-text relationship that readers would be very comfortable with. The text on any given page related only to that page. It was like film, where dialogue, sound effects, and music relate specifically to the scene on screen. I doubt there's been another book published like it since. What may also have had an alienating effect on comics readers was that the book was created as an homage to such noir films as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.
I developed a different way to tell a narrative story that was more related to film than comics and perhaps that was too radical for the existing comics audience."