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A Review By: The Buffalo News

The following review was by Dan Murphy, a freelance writer, and appeared in The Buffalo News on 25 September 2008.

The superheroes killed the gangsters.

Maybe that’s not entirely accurate. Perhaps Superman and his leotard-wearing ilk weren’t the true killers. Maybe they were more like birds when the earth-shaking asteroid of the Comics Code Authority made its impact in 1954, killing off the pulpy and titillating crime-comics dinosaurs that thrived from the 1930s through the mid-1950s.

Relatively unaffected by the changes to the comic book landscape, superheroes continued to thrive and evolve. The wiseguys, two-bit crooks, hardboiled private eyes, and femme fatales went to sleep with the fishes.

Edited by Paul Gravett, The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is a loving homage to the old newspaper serials and gumshoe tales of a bygone era, and a look at the modern comics and graphic novels those old black-and-white crime stories inspired.

In an informative, but disappointingly brief, introduction, Gravett explains how the popularity of crime comics exploded in the 1930s with the debut of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy in the Chicago Tribune. Tracy’s exploits were merely an outgrowth of the time as real-life gangsters were waging wars on the streets of Chicago.

Maverick publisher William Randolph Hearst set out to replicate the phenomenon and commissioned Dashiell’s Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9, whose cliffhanger serials began appearing in all of Hearst’s newspapers.

It wasn’t long before these popular crime-and-punishment comic strips were compiled as 10-cent standalone comic books. Detective Comics, the company now known as DC Comics and famous for bringing the world Batman and Superman, incorporated soon thereafter and featured — what else, but detective comics.

The genre took a darker turn in the 1940s, using splashier titles, melodrama, and featuring exploitive parables with titles like “Murder, Morphine, and Me!” These comic books were by no means kids’ stuff, as the panels were packed with murderers, harlots, drug addicts, and a host of shady people doing some very shady things. Coupled with the rising popularity of horror and romance comics, comic books were growing more and more risque and salacious, eventually coming under fire from moralist crusaders.

Branded by the so-called moral majority as a corrupting influence on children, the comic book industry moved to clean up its act and regulated itself under the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory committee that toned down violence and banned controversial themes like kidnapping and “disrespect for authority.”

“Constraints like these meant that crime definitely did not pay for America’s comic book publishers and the genre all but vanished by 1959 as comic book superheroes took over once more,” Gravett writes.

The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics contains a group of 24 diverse stories, including early pioneers of the genre like Hammett and Mickey Spillane as well as contemporary graphic novelists like Neil Gaiman. Even the venerable Jack Kirby is represented with his cautionary tale of “The Money Making Machine Swindlers.”

These crime comics are a lost part of Americana, where archetypal mercenaries kill the bad guys and get the girls. They play by their own rules, drink too much for their own good, and can get away with calling a guy “Mac” and still look cool.

Surprisingly, many of the comics from the 1940s and 1950s hold up well today, while the superhero comics from the same era are almost always excruciatingly hokey.

But the book is hurt by two key omissions. There is no representation of Dick Tracy, which omits one of the cornerstones of the genre. And it would have been nice to see Batman included — either one of his early comics or something from the Dark Knight era — as Batman, at his core, is really just a detective who has undergone a superhero makeover. No other character quite bridges the gap between pre-and post-Comic Code Authority action characters like Batman.

The superheroes — or the Comics Code Authority — may have killed the gangsters, but Gravett has given them a fitting and loving eulogy.


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My Books

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

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

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.