BEST CRIME COMICS
A Review By: The Guardian
The following review by Nicholas Lezard appeared in The Guardian newspaper on August 16, 2008.
Hard-boiled movies on every page:
If people think of crime comics at all these days, they will tend, thanks to its startlingly faithful cinematic adaptation, to think of Frank Miller’s stark and brutal Sin City. Gravett acknowledges Miller in the opening sentence of his introduction; and here are 480 pages of work that inspired, and was inspired by, Miller, as well as plenty of work that has nothing in common with him except the interest in crime.
Then again, a certain constant, unmistakable atmosphere will always cling to the genre, whether it is something as rudimentary as 1949’s Mary Spratchet (“writer and artist unknown”), which appeared in the enticingly named Crimes by Women series, or Alan Moore’s Old Gangsters Never Die, which started out in 1983 as a song written by him and performed by David J from the group Bauhaus.
Moore’s lyrics (“Hey! Ma! They shot your boys out there… and as I live and breathe I never saw a pair who fell so sweet to hear the final poetry of cordite in the air”) celebrate the cliches of the genre, and the stern critic might be expected to express mild wonder that I am recommending what is often formulaic trash to the discerning readers of these pages.
But the transformations worked by time and distance are surprising: what might once have been hysterical, almost worthless, is now delightfully kitsch, expressive and revealing. You never unearth so much about the human mind as when you think that that is the last thing you’re doing. There is, as the psychiatrist said of Basil Fawlty, enough for a whole conference there.
By 1954 the industry had become so alarmed by itself that, unwisely as it turned out, it drew up a rigid code of content which precluded the depiction of, among other things, kidnapping and “disrespect for authority”. At the same time, a panic about a woman gagged and bound in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer strip Dark City forced its cancellation, and the end of an era. (The strip is reproduced here.) And what was once inordinately popular - a million copies of the magazine Crime Does Not Pay alone were sold every month - became scarce as copies were thrown away, burned by anti-comics campaigners, recycled for wartime paper drives, used as ships’ ballast, or simply degraded due to the poor quality of paper they were initially printed on. Junk has become valuable.
There is also this consideration: the stories are, for the most part, a hoot. You could make reading them an academic exercise if you wanted to, but these were created to entertain, and that they most certainly do. Jack Cole’s Murder, Morphine and Me (1948) is almost dementedly determined to grab us by the lapels. The title alone of Secret Agent X-9 promises camp fun for the modern sophisticate, but at the time of its appearance - 1934 - its combination of script by Dashiell Hammett and art by Alex Raymond delivered something as close to the cinematic experience as the page could reproduce.
An additional charm resides in the obviously unselfconscious depiction of contemporary clothing - dinner jackets for the men, skin-tight satin sheaths for the wicked temptress. (It is interesting how often later artists and writers return to earlier eras, in recognition that this was a time when crime looked better, and was, in a manner of speaking, more at home in the world.)
From what we see here, Gravett has obviously been careful to spread his net wide. This surprisingly wieldy book contains not only the pulpy classics, or old chestnuts, of the genre, but more modern twists on it. A heavily pregnant, ruthlessly murderous detective, anyone? (Max Allen Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms Tree: Maternity Leave, 1992.) A 400lb porn- and fast-food junkie detective who goes around in a wrestling suit and mask? (Charles Burns’s El Borbah, 1987.) It is pleasing that the stories have not been arranged chronologically. I’m not sure if they’ve been arranged at all. It doesn’t matter. These are hard-boiled movies for people who prefer to see them on the page. Almost every panel is a joy. Kiss kiss bang bang.