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BEST CRIME COMICS

A Review By: SF Crows Nest

The following review by Eamonn Murphy appeared on the SF Crows Nest site.

“It’s words times pictures,” Clive James once said of some arty movie. Despite that sage’s frequent delving into popular culture he has never, so far as I know, had much to say about graphic storytelling or comics as they were once crudely known. Even so, they, too, are words times pictures and talented creators can make of them good art. There are many talented people featured in this big, thick tome.

The book opens and closes with work by Alan Moore, a testament to the box office power of that interesting British eccentric. In the first pages his big name is appended to a little piece of work, basically a comic version of a song lyric the hairy one did for Bahaus. It’s more clever than most song lyrics, of course Alan has a way with words and the pictures are nice. It’s not really a story but it’s good. The closing piece is a story but I did not much care for it. ‘I Keep Coming Back’ has an ‘adult’ sex theme with art by Oscar Zarate, whose scribbles I did not love. At least Alan has done other adult themes such as politics, love and philosophy and is aware, unlike some, that sex is not the only one.

These Moore-ish little items bracket a stupendous compendium of stories old and new. Mature now, ‘Moss creeping slowly up once heroic limbs’ (Gore Vidal) I incline more towards the old. However, there’s definitely something here for everyone.

Possibly the biggest name in crime fiction is Dashiell Hammett, inventor of the hard-boiled detective genre. One of the biggest names in graphic illustration is Alec Raymond, cited by almost all artists in the field as an influence. The two are united here on a newspaper strip about ‘Secret Agent X-9’ which reads like a comic version of some old Bogart movie. Inevitably dated, it’s still a classic but the piecemeal four panels daily format limited the writers scope and the art seems to get more sloppy as it proceeds. Interesting, though, and not unpleasant.

There’s a Simon and Kirby ‘classic’, too, about a machine that prints money. The intro tells us that Kirby’s artistic talent got him out of the ghetto. Well, I love Jack’s stuff, always have, but is it art? Some argue that he can’t actually draw and a few of the pictures here are a bit wonky. Since the production demands of the day mean he probably knocked it off in three hours I think we’ll forgive him. The story was okay.

Comic art can be either realistic illustration or cartoon. By cartoon, I don’t mean like Daffy Duck, it’s clearly meant to represent reality, but the artist can take a few liberties. The distinction between the two styles is not clear-cut. Two of the best stories here, ‘Lily White Joe’ and ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’, feature art by Bernie Krigstein which is cartoonish, reminiscent of Steve Ditko at his best, but shows real people. There are also short works from old masters Will Eisner, Alex Toth and Bill Everett which are pleasing to the eye. Eisner’s ‘Spirit’ features some characters with faces as distorted as those in the Dick Tracy film. It works. Given that exact rendering of reality takes a long time and doesn’t really suit the purpose of comics I prefer the cartoon approach. All the aforementioned old masters used it but the objects and people delineated were clear and recognisable. They did not simply knock off stylised scribble, which is what you get in some of the modern stories.

The modern stories also have more modern themes and are possibly a bit more interesting thereby, though not all the old ones are hackneyed or dated by any means. Even so, Agent X-9 was a man of his time, a clean cut all-American hero in a suit. El Borbah is a fat costumed wrestler hooked on cigarettes, junk food and porn. Charles Burns did script and art for this unusual detective. I liked the former but the latter didn’t do much for me. Meanwhile, Ms. Tree (geddit?) is thoroughly modern, being a tough, widowed, pregnant private-eye who’s killed many a villain since she took over the firm from her late husband. ‘Maternity Leave’ has a script by Max Allan Collins and art by Terry Beatty. Both were excellent.

Mickey Spillane, one of the pioneers of contemporary rough and bloody detectives has two stories, one from ‘Green Hornet’ comics featuring Mike Lancer and one newspaper strip with his big star Mike Hammer. The two Mikes are not entirely dissimilar.

The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is edited by Paul Gravett, acknowledged by the Times of London as ‘the greatest historian of the comics and graphic novel form in this country’. I enjoyed his knowledgeable introduction to the book and his knowledgeable introductions to the individual stories, too. I hate to point out a mistake which is probably the proof-readers and not his but must for the readers’ sake. Pages 150 and 151 are in the wrong place. They should be between pages 142 and 143. Notwithstanding this trivial error the book is a bargain at £12.99 and will provide hours of good fun, some of it clean.

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1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

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