Friday, February 27, 2009

Crime Times One Thousand

The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, Edited by Paul Gravett, Running Press Book Publishers, 2008

Regular readers here will not find it surprising that I had to have this the moment I saw it.

If I have a genre weakness these days, it’s for gritty crime novels and mysteries. I love me a good puzzle of a story and if you mix in shady dames, two-fisted action, sick villains, existential angst, and a poetry of the streets, I’m in hog heaven. Currently mired in the second (soon to be third) volume of the long-winded sociological French salon society of Marcel Proust, I aim to give the palate the down-these-mean-streets high pressure rinse once I’ve finished remembering the lost past.

Meanwhile, though, a man still needs something to read whilst taking care of other business. Thus, graphic novels and comic books, especially anthologies like The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, are ideal bathroom books. Seeing that the publisher has also printed The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics and The Mammoth Book of Horror Comics, I will be set for quite some time in that respect. (In the sense of disclosure engendered in this paragraph, I will also add that I’m reading a Proust graphic novel adaptation upstairs in our second bathroom. It is delightfully distilled.)

Selecting from the long history of crime comics seems like a gargantuan task. Originally the genre of comics (along with horror comics) that most spurred the creation of the infamous Comics Code, hard-boiled detectives have been a staple of comics since their beginning almost. Their gritty violence and unflinching look at the cruelty of criminals are what attracted readers and the unwanted attention of so-called psychologists who found terrible links to juvenile delinquency. And the attention quickly shifted further afield to superhero comics as well. What is Batman, in the final analysis, but a straight-up tough guy gumshoe, albeit one who wears a costume and has the wealth to churn out Batarang style tools?

In that same violent vein, editor Paul Gravett has included the notorious “Murder, Morphine and Me” by Jack Cole, the comic whose second page eye-stabbing imagery is now iconic due to Congressional attention. Despite the comic’s anti-drug imagery, its no-holds barred depiction of drug abuse and the gangsters who ran the rackets elevated this piece to classic status. And a great number of the pieces in this book are American classics such Dashiell Hammett’s foray into the field with Secret Agent X-9 and a somewhat cheesy story from Will Eisner’s The Spirit, while others such as Commissario Spada and Carlos Sampayo’s and Jose Muñoz’s Alack Sinner are European imports (the former, go figure, comes from a Catholic children’s weekly newspaper put out by the Vatican).

The comics from the vaults are occasionally chock full of cinematic slam-bang action that was the hallmark of the genre back in the day. Gravett’s managed to avoid the worst offenders in this vein, focusing on visionary radicals like Charles Burns and Bernie Krigstein, the latter contributing two solid pieces. The first, “Blind Man’s Bluff,” the bizarre and funky tale of a blind but psychotic painter who can paint perfectly to life comes from a series based on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books. Krigstein’s work is more fluid in this, his last comic, than in the earlier almost woodcut thick lines of “Lily White Joe,” which tells what happens when you mix with, then cross the mob. A whole book has been devoted to the development of Krigstein’s art and it’s really worth the time checking out, his early squarish work evolving into something still heavily inked but more sinuous, his experimentation with panel size and the passage of time, his use of painterly elements and his overall different look and feel from what everyone else was putting on the page.

I’m not particularly a fan of Terry Beaty’s art style in his pairing with Max Allan Collins for Ms. Tree though Collins’ female detective is a nice groundbreaker in a field dominated by macho men. Her no-prisoners style delivered the goods long before V.I. Warshawski or Stephanie Plum came on the scene, though you can clearly trace a decent familial lineage. How one manages the trick of being hard as nails while nine months pregnant is handled with an amusing grace. We’re treated to a lengthy plotline from about midpoint to the end and includes the great line “I just killed two morons and my water broke.”

The crown jewel though from this collection is the Hammett newspaper strip Secret Agent X-9. Aided and abetted by Alex Raymond’s chiseled jaw pencil style and the occasionally brilliant sight gag, Hammett tells a fast-paced hunt with gusto and sophistication in a piece of nearly one hundred pages. Hampered by the newspaper comic strip format, events must move with a quickness and with frequent cliffhangers as well as the occasional summary panel for newer readers, which makes the greatness of this strip even better. The history behind Secret Agent X-9 sounds like one of those perfect instances in which bureaucratic meddling interfered with the development of something really awe inspiring. Originally planned as a detective competitor with Dick Tracy, the publishers decided that secret agents were much cooler and shoehorned in conflicting storylines of who exactly X-9 was and whom he worked for. In the beginning, there is a great similarity with Hammett’s other creation, The Continental Op, a nameless detective working for The Agency, but the ever increasing baroqueness of the publisher’s demands crippled the story and turned it into a mess. Hammett didn’t last long on the strip, though he originally believed it would be his ticket to a steady paycheck forever.

By way of contrast, the biggest dud is Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer offering, “Dark City.” I’ve given Spillane his chance before, and while it’s clear the author’s having a blast, Hammer’s world is so hokey and hammy and over-the-top it’s almost a caricature of detective fiction, an ultraviolent version of the campy Batman of the 1960s. Leggy dames who aren’t to be trusted fall miraculously in love with Hammer within seconds of meeting him every single time then go on to tell him how much they love him, shortly before trying to ventilate his guts. Hammer spends hours in the books walloping people and this newspaper version is tiresomely no different. Amusingly, Hammer’s piece is preceded by “Mike Lancer and the Syndicate of Death,” which acts as a parody of a parody almost. With far less time to build up a story, Lancer almost shoots his client on the second page the moment she walks in the door. Sailing out to a boat, the moment he arrives on board he’s knocking people overboard and plugging them left and right.

Let’s be fair. The crime genre is full of sock-o stuff like this, but there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. Spillane is just about the epitome of wrong while Hammett is golden every single time. Now the great bulk of Gravett’s collection falls on the right side of the fence, but it is impossible to please everyone. Where I find Hammer appallingly low-brow (and this in a genre not known stateside for its great intellectual rewards), someone else might find him just the ticket. Considering what I’ve been reading lately, where the Baron de Guermantes’ habits of riding a train are described for no less than four solid single paragraph pages, I might just be in the mood for something two-fisted and cornball as the worst of Spillane when all’s said
and done.

But when you consider the price that Running Press has tacked on to this anthology ($17.95) it’s hard to see how your money would be poorly spent. All in all, it’s probably impossible to get more bang for your buck, even if you bought a Mike Hammer omnibus.

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