Small Change Review
By Ben Kooyman
Comic book creator Andrez Bergen’s characters Roy Scherer and Suzie Miller have appeared in a number of different places, including Bergen’s pulp anthology series with artist Matt Kyme, Tales to Admonish, where they encountered zombies, vampires, and extra-terrestrials. See our review here. Bergen’s new work of prose fiction, Small Change, is a casebook of noteworthy investigations from Roy and Suzie’s careers snooping into the “paranormal and supermundane”…
The novel is divided into three sections: ‘A Bit Over Two Years Ago’, ‘Way Back When’, and ‘More Recently’. The opening stretch recounts key cases from the early days of Roy and Suzie’s partnership, including some presented in Tales to Admonish which have been adapted here into prose form. The second section goes further back in time and charts Roy’s trajectory from juvenile delinquent to employee of Suzie’s detective father to eventual partner of Suzie, while the third and final stretch shifts back to the present and depicts their most recent cases and growing mutual attraction. Once again, incidents from Tales to Admonish and Bergen’s earlier Black and White (see review here) are poached for content (and sometimes re-contextualized) in these sections.
Bergen’s Roy and Suzie comics are predominantly dialogue-driven, hence they transfer quite smoothly into prose, and Bergen embellishes them with enough new details, descriptions, and wrinkles that they feel like complete (if episodic) short stories. At the same time, he also refrains from going overboard with embellishment, ensuring the stories remain short and sharp and maintain the same conversational style of their original comics.
Given that these tales are so dialogue-driven, it helps that the dialogue is entertaining. The banter between the two leads combines classic screwball and gumshoe speak – Suzie’s perky, enthused stream-of-consciousness brushes up nicely against Roy’s spiky, strained indulgence – with the odd Australian turn of phrase. The book is dedicated to the pairing of Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James – television’s McMillan & Wife – but there are also shades of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Hepburn and Cary Grant, William Powell’s Nick and Myrna Loy’s Nora from The Thin Man films, and other revered screwball/private eye partnerships. Roy adopts the role of first-person narrator as he does in the comics, which helps ensure the barbed, sardonic, sarcastic tone of the original strips transfers to prose. Moreover, while this narrative voice is a constant, Bergen also manages to sketch Roy’s transformation from wet-behind-the-ears amateur into a rumpled, Dick Powell sort.
Bergen notes in his acknowledgments the influence of a hearty cross media diet on his work, and these many and varied influence permeate Small Change. The gallery of rogues and ghouls Roy and Suzie encounter is diverse, ranging from classic monsters of the vampiric and lycanthropic variety to argumentative severed heads, a vengeful Japanese spirit, a harpy, and possessed stationery. There are also tips of the hat to a number of different genres and styles (screwball, noir, horrors of the Twilight Zone and Night Stalker variety) which cohere nicely, as well as direct in-text references to the likes of Toshiro Mifune, James Bond, Bogart and Bacall, and other distinguished company. More obscure references are explained in the glossary at book’s end, which also provides definitions of some of the Australian slang used throughout. Such direct allusions to popular culture create a common intertextual grammar between Bergen as author, Roy as narrator, and the reader: we see how these influences inform and frame Bergen’s worldview, which in turn informs Roy’s worldview as revealed in his narration, which in turn informs our own reception to the story. In this respect Bergen is quite similar to Garth Ennis, another comic book author whose popular culture tastes and preoccupations are not only evident in his storytelling but often foregrounded through direct in-text allusion (see, for example, Ennis’s Preacher and Hitman).
While readers familiar with Roy and Suzie from comics may miss the visual dimension of the storytelling in this prose work, the strength of the dialogue and characterisation, as well as new material introduced, should satisfy fans of the duo (and hats off to the absent Matt Kyme, whose visual rendering of the characters in Tales to Admonish was sufficiently impressionable that their ‘look’ was still felt here). Meanwhile, readers unfamiliar with these characters from comics should also get a kick out of Small Change: it’s an accessible read, episodic yet cohesive, and infused with a cheeky pulp sensibility.
Small Change is available December 11 from Roundfire Books. For more information visit http://www.roundfire-books.com/books/small-change
NOTE: The Australian Comics Journal hasn’t made a habit of reviewing prose projects in the past because, well, it’s a comics journal. However, the site is open to covering projects that are connected with Aussie comics and that bear relevance to the creators and publishers involved in this community. For instance, we’re currently reviewing a comic anthology from New Zealand, not just because of a sense of proximity but also because the publishers made the effort to reach out. We’re also covering TV adaptions of Australian comic properties. While Small Change is a novel, it does function as an extension of an Australian comic series and books published in this country. Also, primarily, we’ll do whatever we want.