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BEST CRIME COMICS

A Review By: Comic Mix

The following review by Andrew Wheeler appeared on the Comic Mix review site in October 2008.

Every genre or medium has a great schism - the thing that practitioners and fans argue about when they can’t think of anything more substantive. For “speculative fiction,” it’s the battle between science fiction and fantasy. For “crime fiction”, the battling parties are cozies and hardboiled novels. Manga is divided shonen against shojo, and romances are contemporary or historical (with select ninja bands fighting for particular historical periods or contemporary subgenres, like the Regency or the prairie romance).

For comics, the essential question is: writing or art?

Oh, sure, we’re all supposedly grown up now; we don’t fight over that anymore. We can have both! we say, whether we’re indy geeks or Marvel zombies. But during those late nights at convention bars, and on obscure message boards, the knives come out, and we rumble.

At times like that, I always come down on the writing side. That’s my tribe; I came to comics from the SF/Fantasy world, and even now I read more pages of words without pictures than with. And the editor of The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, Paul Gravett… well, I suspect him of running with the art crowd.

Maybe I’m wrong - it could just be the material that gives that impression. But Best Crime Comics has a total of five of its stories (out of twenty-four) credited to an unknown writer, a suspicious number. And Gravett’s story introductions always list the artist first.

(Sidebar: personally, I think credits for a comic should mimic the process as much as possible. If it was done Marvel method, they should go plot-pencils-script; and full-script would be script-pencils. Based on another work: list that first. Not everyone agrees with this clearly obvious and perfect system, though.)

There really isn’t a pre-existing canon of the great crime comics - unless we’re talking purely about pre-Code work - since there hasn’t really been a “crime comics” genre to point to since then. Sure, there’s material like Frank Miller’s Sin City stories (one of the shorter pieces of which would have worked nicely here, but they’re absent) and Paul Grist’s fine Kane (represented here by one of its best stories, “Rat in the House”) and the Max Alan Collins-Terry Beatty Ms. Tree series from the ‘80s (also in here, with the stiff but thrilling “Maternity Leave”), but there’s never been a real genre or community of crime cartoonists.

So Gravett draws widely, from sources around the world (France-by-way-of-Argentina’s “Alack Sinner: Talkin’ With Joe” by Carlos Sampayo and Jose Munoz, Spain’s “Torpedo 1936: The Switch” by Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet, Italy’s “Commissario Spada: Strada” by Gianluigi Gonano and Gianni De Luca, plus two short pieces written by well-known British person Alan Moore to anchor the anthology at beginning and end) and across the decades (including several pre-Code works, from Joe Simon & Jack Kirby’s “The Money-Making Machine Swindlers” to Jack Cole’s famous “Murder, Morphine & Me”).

Gravett also ventures outside the comic book entirely, to reprint two comic strip sequences - a long run of Secret Agent X-9 from 1934 by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond, and a full Mike Hammer tale called “Dark City” by Hammer’s creator Mickey Spillane and artist Ed Robbins from 1954.

There’s a Will Eisner Spirit story (“The Portier Fortune”), a Charles Burns “El Borbah” tale from the ‘80s (“Love in Vein”), and two different Bernie Krigstein-drawn stories whose authors are unknown (“87th Precinct: Blind Man’s Bluff” and “Lily-white Joe”) - not that I’d want to claim credit for the words in either of those stories.

There’s a definite noir feel to the book as a whole - it has a lot of older stories, and many of the newer stories are retro in feel and style (explicitly, like “Torpedo 1936”, or more subtly, like “Ms. Tree”). It’s a good sampler of ‘40s and ‘50s crime comics, along with some older and more modern work in the same vein.

The Mammoth Books have a tendency to be put together on a tight budget - the prose anthologies I’ve seen from the series often have decent but little-known public domain stories that I always suspected really made it in because they were free. There are some minor-looking stories here that make me think that again - and some others (like the two Alan Moore stories, and the Neil Gaiman-scripted “The Court”) that make me wonder if they were chosen primarily to get some big names for the cover. But I am overly cynical - and probably from the opposite gang to Gravett’s - so you can ignore me with impunity. The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is a fat compendium of two-fisted, pistol-packing action, and a book that helps to build a canon for this often-overlooked genre of comics.

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