Edited by Paul Gravett (Running Press, softcover, $17.95)
Earlier this year, there was quite a stir of attention (and appropriately so) for author David Hajdu’s latest book, "The Ten Cent Plague: the Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America," which delved into the quirky and alarming crusades against comics in this country that reached their shrill peaks in the 1940s and 1950s. In a piece I wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I admired the research but had some problems with the focus in the final analysis. That said, the book and its tale really stuck with me, and I think it should be on the bookshelf of anyone who loves comics history. And you know what should go right next to it? "The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics" and not just because both have oddly long and stilted titles.
If Hajdu gives us the motivation for the pop-culture offenses, this book, edited by Paul Gravett, gives us the crime-scene photos, so to speak. The book arrived in the mail the other day and the first thing I noticed was the heft; you get your money’s worth with 480 pages of two-timing molls, square-jawed cops, doomed losers and booze-soaked ciphers. There’s an impressive array of talent surveyed here, too, with classic names such as Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Joe Simon, Jack Cole, Bernie Krigstein and Johnny Craig. More than that, "Best Crime" brings its lurid mission well into the contemporary decades, with comics work by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Charles Burns and mystery novelist Max Allan Collins (whose "Road to Perdition" comics spawned the film of the same name).
There’s also the comics work of Mickey Spillane, who is no stranger to killers in trenchcoats, and best of all, some of Dashiell Hammett’s "Secret Agent X-9" comic strip from 1934, which was drawn by Alex Raymond, the graceful illustrator who that same year would launch a little strip called "Flash Gordon" that would end up doing quite well.
The book is all in black-and-white, which is a shame for some of the older comics that banked much of their appeal in blood-reds, muzzle-flash yellows and lots and lots of flesh-colored curves. There’s also no Frank Miller ("Sin City" would have been a perfect last chapter, or his unforgettable "Hard Boiled" with Geof Darrow) or Steve Ditko (If there’s room for Eisner’s chipper masked-man, the Spirit, why not the ruthless Mr. A?) and the counterculture years of the the late 1960s and early 1970s feel completely forgotten, but why quibble?
It was a treat, too, to dive into the 1979 adventure of "Commissario Spada," the gritty Interpol adventure strip by Gianluigi Gonano and Gianni De Luca, even though the hero cop looks eerily like Ralph Fiennes’ Valdemort with a toupee.
There are some jolting juxtapositions in the book (it’s not arranged chronologically) that are to the good, reminding us that comics shelves are just like that, offering you the unsettling and surreal bio-crimes of Burns right next to the gentle noir of Eisner’s Spirit. Back to back, it’s like listening to Nirvana’s "In Utero" and Ellington’s "Take the A Train," but somehow it works because, everywhere you look, there’s chalk outlines on the floor. This collection is felony-level fun.
– Geoff Boucher
Cover of "The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics," art by Jordi Bernet, image courtesy of Running Press