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BEST CRIME COMICS

A Review By: Broken Frontier

The following review appeared on the Broken Frontier website on July 30, 2008.

Crimes & Crooks on the Comic Page:
Gathering bullets all over the international comics world, Paul Gravett has compiled a who’s who of crime comics.

Oh, how I envy Paul Gravett… and how I pity him at the same time. To dive into the world’s cellars of crime comics, reading, dissecting and selecting a worthy crop of steel hard tales that have been produced over the ages to show the general public all those international hidden gems. To spend years on that selection, ever cropping, ever choosing the finest weeds over the gmo’s. Oh, how I envy him.

And how I pity him. Those dank cellars full of moldy tales with their never ending descriptive captions, explaining what we see in the art in excruciatingly flowery detail. Oh, how horrible those captions must have seen to him before the assassination of captions and thought balloons in more later years. The never ending barrage of true crime stories in the fifties, formulaic written and abysmally drawn. The horrendous downpour of the worst humanity has to offer and having to read it all.

But Paul Gravett seems to be a proud man. Proud enough to never give up and rise from that dank cellar, covered in dust, face and hands smudged in printing ink; holding just one magnificent monstrous tomb off 480 pages!  The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics. Truly an explorer’s treasure.

Let me run off a list of names here: Alan Moore, Bernie Krigstein, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kirby, Jordi Bernet, Johnny Craig, Bill Everett, Alex Toth, Dashiell Hammett, Alex Raymond, Jose Munoz and I’m not even half yet. From the thirties to nineties, from crime to cop drama, from the mystery twist to the detective. This is a pretty thorough sampling of the crime genre.

Paul Gravett is one of the great comic historians of not only American but also European comics (and other continents too no doubt, wait until you see him perform next to Stan Lee in “Who wants to be a comic historian?”). And he has a good eye for a good moody crime story.

The tales are presented in… well not chronologically or alphabetically… I have to guess that they are presented in an order which makes them a joy to read, therefore making the book a nightmare for an anal retentive list person. But the system works. It was a smart move to alternate modern and old tales, I found myself reading through it in almost one go, not an easy feat for someone who reads four books intermingled during different hours of the day. There’s a hypnotic rhythm involved in reading Jordin Bernet followed by Simon and Kirby followed by Krigstein or Jose Munoz followed by Bill Everett followed by Paul Grist and so on.

I can’t even begin to pick a few of them out to be honest, they’re all that good. Jack Cole’s infamous Fredric Wertham’s fetish ‘needle to the eye’-tale is in there, Krigstein’s last comic story ever, Alex Raymond’s Agent X-9 tales impossible to find in reprint, Alan Moore’s The Sinister Ducks’ record sleeve comic and so on. Going from hyper realistic to cartoon, all drawing genres are present but all filtered through either the noir twist or the criminal reflection in a sharp knife.

If I have to hold one thing against this book, it is that some of the art reproduction is either of a low quality or the paper just isn’t intended to reproduce fine lines on. I get it, grainy paper reminds us of the pulp tales of yesteryear we all so love but that’s trash paper if you’re going to celebrate the artistic achievements made in the crime genre. Alex Raymond’s lines seem to have suffered the most due to his fine rendering but looking at it from the other end of the spectrum, thicker line work like Johnny Craig also suffers a bit because of the tendency of the paper to bleed a bit when dealing with large gobs of ink.

Paul Gravett is a career criminal comics historian. He is known for picking the difficult jobs and getting it done. He expertly dissects a comic story in 6.6 seconds, judging it’s worth based on dialogue, plot and drawing skills. Though he is known for his dusty cellars holding hostage immens volumes of obscure comics, his one flaw is that he also likes to showcase his ‘loot’ in affordable books, presenting only the best and brightest of whatever genre he has focused on in his genius mind, his latest being The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Stories. Highly recommended.

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