A Webcomics Wednesday during Mystery Month calls for something gritty, and Tim Gibson’s Moth City more than fits the bill. In Moth City, located on a remote island off mainland China, lawless American profiteer McCaw has set up a weapons manufacturing factory outside the jurisdiction of both his home country and his adopted one. He’s brash, overconfident, and has little regard for anyone, except for his seemingly timid daughter, Glitter. McCaw has recruited an equally brash scientist, Dr. Boyes, who’s developed a particularly insidious biological weapon, and with a buyer at the ready—Major Hong, who’s trying to root out communism in mainland China—McCaw’s poised to be more powerful than ever. But, of course, not everything is going to plan.
The citizens of Moth City, many of whom work in McCaw’s factory, are fomenting a rebellion, which is centered on absconding with the 100 canisters of the bioweapon. Meanwhile, McCaw intends to murder Dr. Boyes as soon as the transaction is finalized, in order to prevent anyone else from getting their hands on the formula. But Dr. Boyes, with the help of Glitter, is one step ahead of McCaw, though it certainly doesn’t look that way once an interloper, Jun, slits the doctor’s throat, grabs the canister, leaps out the window, and leads McCaw and Hong on a chase through the alleys and scaffolding of Moth City.
While Glitter drags Boyes back to his lab, Jun faces down McCaw and Hong, but an errant bullet strikes the canister, launching a noxious green gas into Jun’s face before it explodes. And when McCaw orders his workers to unload the truck containing the remaining 99 canisters of the stuff, he discovers they’re missing. As the slums of Moth City descend into chaos and McCaw desperately tries to both track down his daughter and get a handle on the madness, his attention drifts from tracking down the weapon, which frees up Hong to make a power play of his own.
If the weapons-trafficking plot, cold-blooded murder, moody atmosphere, and salacious characters weren’t enough to mark this as noir, Gibson’s shadowy, dusky artwork and frequent interjections of a nihilistic voice-over holding forth about the dangers of progress and the evils of power are pretty solid clinchers. But noir’s not the only thing going on. Remember those canisters? The weapon they carry doesn’t exactly kill its targets. (And if that’s not enough of a hint, heed this: be prepared for some grotesque body horror.)
Gibson’s narrative is certainly engaging as it is and his thick-lined figures and well-executed action scenes are compellingly rendered, but he uses his digital medium in a particularly effective and engaging way. By altering or adding elements to the panels with each forward click—a kind of reader-powered animation, which neatly communicates pacing changes, reveals pregnant glances, or layers dialogue balloons atop one another to suggest impatient interruption—Gibson adds even more cinematic drama to the already film-like proceedings.
There are currently three chapters available on Gibson’s website, and if you register (for free!), you can download an additional prelude comic, which hints at McCaw’s and Glitter’s backstories. Fans of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ many (many) noir comics, such as Criminal, Sleeper, and Femme Fatale (in particular, Femme Fatale) will get sucked into Moth City.