Bringing The Noir To Nancy Drew And The Hardy Boys In The Big Lie

by Richard Bruton

Well, this certainly isn’t the Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys you remember. Taking the same dark Americana twist on this trio of classic characters as Riverdale and Afterlife with Archie, this ends up as a classic noir tale that wouldn’t feel out of place next to the brilliant darkness of Brubaker and Phillips’ recent noir tales.

The Big Lie collects the six-issue series from writer Anthony Del Col and artist Werther Dell’Edera and features three very iconic characters from books that we all remember reading during our teens. Both the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels fell into a familiar, reassuring pattern; these teen sleuths would find some mystery and investigate, with a gentle threat thrown in, but never anything too nasty or dangerous. These were safe, wish-fulfillment tales, perfect for youngsters.

What Del Col, Dell’Edera et al have done with both Nancy Drew and Joe and Frank Hardy is take this gentle teen crime setting and throw us deep into classic old-timey pulp noir. And it works beautifully. From the very first, it’s obvious that we’re in a completely different Bayport to the one that we grew up reading about. Noir touches abound: the shifting voiceovers from the brothers and Nancy, the brutality of the situations, the positioning of Nancy as a kind of femme fatale, but one with an investigator’s brain. Everything adds to that noir sensibility.

We open perfectly on the Bayport we knew and loved from the books: all bright colours, a picture postcard little harbour town, Americana writ large. But from the outset, the ominous voiceover lets us know things are darker underneath this delightful facade. Del Col spares no time in letting us know that all is not well. After the summer colours of page 1, page 2 hits you in the gut:

Yep, Joe and Frank Hardy, in separate interrogation rooms, being questioned over the murder of their cop father, Fenton Hardy. Everything changes, with so many clever little dialogue nods reinforcing the visuals, letting us know that nothing is what we’re used to with this slice of teen Americana anymore.

Here’s Chief Collig, telling it like it is:

Frank, Frank, Frank…. this isn’t some sort of little teen adventure. This is real life.

And just to emphasise the point, Collig proceeds to slam Frank’s head into the interrogation table. Yeah, this really isn’t the same tone as the books.

Within the first ten pages, everything is set up to completely blow away all your preconceptions. You start questioning everyone, you distrust the cops, start wondering about Fenton, there’s no-one in this one who’s gonna come out as clean.

Nancy doesn’t make an appearance until the finale of that first chapter, but when she does, it’s perfect. In a classic pulp tale, she’d be the femme fatale, but this is a pulp tale with a twist, and it’s absolutely right that Nancy is the one running the show, guiding the boys every step of the way. And that will take them down some particularly dark paths, where the body count mounts, and all three of them are forced to walk a path on the wrong side of the law.

In the end, The Big Lie is a tale of growing up, of accepting that the relationships that shaped your childhood can never be as perfect as you imagined. It’s a tale of three kids learning that the black and white world they once had is now a place of ever-shifting grey. And it’s handled exceptionally well.

Just as Del Col delivers pulp perfect dialogue and a plot that delivers all you could want for the three leads, the art by Dell’Edera exudes classic pulp style. He never goes for showy, concentrating instead on that oh-so-hard-to-nail-down just right aspect of delivering incredible storytelling. The simplicity of his pages, with spare or even dropped out backgrounds, never overloading a page with too many panels, all creates something that just flows so well. In the first few pages, I thought of comparisons to that wonderful Daredevil run with art from Paulo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and Chris Samnee running through my head, the same simplicity that delivers perfect storytelling. And then I started seeing Tim Sale and Kevin Nowlan in there as well, which is never a problem as far as I’m concerned.

On top of the superb art from Dell’Edera, special mention has to go to both Stefano Simeone’s colors and Simon Bowland’s letters. Noir is all about tone, and both gentlemen nail it. The color palette from Simeone is magnificent, adding so much to the art, whether it’s the sepia infused bright daylight colors of Baytown of yesteryear or the perfect descent into darkness as the story goes full noir. His color palette subtly shifts to the darker hues as the chapters progress, until daytime Baytown is almost as dark as the night scenes, all adding to the sense of threat. And Bowland’s letters are everything they should be. The voiceover panels have a diary style and there’s a subtle, but ever so effective color background to different character’s captions. But best of all, Bowland’s letters are almost invisible when it comes to storytelling; perfectly placed, effective, adding so much and never detracting, just as great lettering should be.

If I had to pick at anything in what was a hugely entertaining read, I could point out that the ending might be just that little bit telegraphed. But like any good pulp tale, it was never about finding out who the real villain of the piece was, and always about the ride to get there. The Big Lie succeeds so well in creating a modern version of iconic teen classic characters and dropping them into a perfectly formed slice of pulp noir.

The Big Lie is available right now as a collection from Dynamite.