Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (2008)

I recently purchased a Dark Horse Books anthology, titled NOIR: A COLLECTION OF CRIME COMICS, with the intent on reviewing it (and the hope Gilbert Hernandez might have contributed). However, I was really disappointed with the material in this Diana Schutz-edited book. Lots of big names adding up to not a lot remotely resembling noir, save for the excellent "Criminal" short story by Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips. "Noir" to me has always meant the three Ds: Dark stories of Dopes getting mixed up with Dames. Sex, crime, and character flaws are what the best stories in this limited genre are built on. Ross MacDonald and Charles Willeford are what I think of when I'm determining if a story is just a crime or detective story, or if it's a character study of someone above and beyond the pale (the latter is quite good at that where some of his characters are so bad I'm practically yelling at the book. Check out Jason Starr's FAKE I.D. (Hard Case Crime) for a Willeford-worthy protagonist, if you can't find any Willeford classics.)
Browsing in a used bookstore I came across a book I had been wanting to take a look at, the Paul Gravett-edited THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST CRIME COMICS. Mr. Gravett's book has the advantage of being able to survey the entire history of crime comic strips and books, while Ms. Schutz had the much harder task of assembling new stories from little known creators. Mr. Gravett's book is thus much more satisfying to read, in my opinion, as there are a wide variety of tones, styles, and viewpoints throughout it's 479 pages. I've broken the contents down into four categories. CRIME NOVELISTS are well-represented by Dashiell Hammett (with artist Alex Raymond) and his rollercoaster pinball-machine comic strip "Secret Agent X-9"; Mickey Spillane is represented by the proto-Mike Hammer "Mike Lancer and the Syndicate of Death" a brutal story nicely drawn by prolific Harry Sahle; also by Mickey Spillane is the comic strip-version of "Mike Hammer" which reflects the novels very well, and is harshly realized by Ed Robbins' Caniff-like art; Ed McBain isn't particularly well-represented by "87th Precinct: Blind Man's Bluff" which has a wacky charm all it's own, but is famous as being Bernard Krigstein's last comics effort (with a lot of static art, but some nice Krigstein pages (54 and 61, for instance) and single panels that stand out; modern crime writer Max Allan Collins (and comics collaborator Terry Beatty) have "Ms. Tree: Maternity Leave" a wonderfully convoluted and violent episode that captures the series' strengths and weaknesses. BRITISH AUTHORS, Gravett finds some offbeat work from popular names and a particularly nice classic piece. Alan Moore has two stories "Old Gangsters Never Die" drawn by Lloyd Thatcher and "I Keep Coming Back" drawn by Oscar Zarate; Neil Gaiman's story "The Court" is illustrated by Warren Pleece and mixes dark sexuality with Gaiman's typical mystic themes. All three stories are not my favorites but certainly deserve a place in a book of this sort; Paul Grist's "Kane" series is better served by the early lengthier story presented here, than the newer short story printed in NOIR. The revelation, however, is "Roy Carson and the Old Master" from 1953 by British pulp cover painter Denis McLoughlin and his brother Colin. This is a great fast-paced grim story with a lot violence and suspense, and a good panel in the "crime-does-not-pay" tradition where a father's lapse into crime leads to his son's death. FOREIGN ARTISTS are, to me anyway, the highlight of this volume and include many creators Gravett has been championing since his ESCAPE MAGAZINE days, in fact "The Murderer of Hung" drawn by Jacques Tardi first appeared there (in translated form). It's an unusual revenge tale as the total dissipation of the title character turns out to be all the retribution the main character needs. Fans of 1980s European comics reprints will remember "Torpedo 1936: The Switch" by Sanchez Abuli/Jordi Bernet and "Alack Sinner: Talkin' With Joe" by Carlos Sampayo/Jose Munoz, both of these stories represent the series well (an interesting historical bit about why Alex Toth only drew a few "Torpedo 1936" stories, is recounted by Gravett). The suprise of this group was the completely unknown, to me, "Commissario Sprado: Strada" beautifully rendered by Italian artist Gianni De Luca (although the story is a little too police procedural-heavy for my tastes). CLASSIC CRIME COMICS are best represented by a trio of postwar noir classics "The Spirit: The Portier Fortune" by Will Eisner (maybe w/John Spranger); "The Crushed Gardenia" drawn by Alex Toth; and, "The Sewer" by EC's Johnny Craig are all peak performances. Examples of the popular CRIME DOES NOT PAY series by Fred Guardineer and Bill Everett, the good girl gone bad "The Money-Making Machine Swindlers" by Simon/Kirby, the trashy slangtastic "Murder, Morphine, and Me" by Jack Cole, and "Lily-white Joe" a better shot of vintage Krigstein give a good rounded picture of the 40s and 50s heyday of crime comics. That's not to mention "Mary Spratchet" an anonymous Fox CRIMES BY WOMEN story, which typifies so many of the lesser titles churned out to cash in on the trend. Finally, who can forget "El Borbah" Charles Burns' post-modern wrestler/detective with a perfect chilling tone (twisted beyond reason) of patricide and world conquest through a fertility clinic. In closing, there's a lot of straight hard-edged noir to be found in this collection, all of it is better executed (no pun intended) than the good intentions of Dark Horse's NOIR anthology.
check out Paul Gravett's website here where he posts his introduction to this book and several great color cover reproductions.

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