Friday, January 13, 2023

The Mammoth Book of Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett

Mammoth? Yes. Best? Not really.
British publisher Constable & Robinson has an extensive line of “Mammoth Book” anthologies. The Best Book of Crime Comics, published in 2008, is one of the few volumes in that series devoted to graphic storytelling. Edited by comics critic Paul Gravett, this book consists of 24 crime stories taken from comic books and newspaper comics, reprinted in black and white. The reproduction quality of the art varies with the source material but overall is pretty good.

What this collection does well is give a broad overview of the crime comics genre by presenting a wide variety of selections: old and new, American and European, hard-boiled and comical, pulp fiction and avant garde. The individual stories selected to fit those categories, however, are not necessarily exemplary works. The thought process behind putting this collection together seems to have been, “You can’t have a collection of crime comics without including . . . (Will Eisner, Alex Raymond, Alex Toth, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, etc.)” There are also certain characters that seem like must-haves: Eisner’s The Spirt, Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and Collins’s Ms. Tree are all here. Even so, in many cases the story selected for inclusion can’t really be said to be that character’s best. The Ms. Tree story is more of a character-development piece about her pregnancy than an actual mystery. The chosen X-9 adventure is rather tedious and silly, and someone made the unforgivable mistake of printing some of the strips out of order.

These days it seems anyone who publishes an anthology is contractually obligated to put Neil Gaiman’s name on the cover, even though crime fiction is clearly not his area of expertise. His story, “The Court,” is somewhat interesting but has an element of legend and fantasy to it that really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the collection. Likewise, Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen and Swamp Thing, is another big name in comics not known for this genre (From Hell excepted). He gets not one but two stories, both of them pretty bad, one of which doesn’t even involve a crime.

In general, the stories from the 1940s and ‘50s are more successful than the newer selections, the most recent being from 1996. EC Comics great Johnny Craig’s story “The Sewer,” originally published in Crime SuspenStories, is phenomenal. Alex Toth’s “The Crushed Gardenia” is a superb and chilling portrait of a killer. Spillane’s Mike Hammer adventure, a series of Sunday newspaper pages, is also exceptional and surprisingly violent and graphic for its time. Eisner’s “The Portier Fortune” may not be the most innovative Spirit story, but it’s still a quality piece of work like just about everything Eisner ever did. The same could be said for Simon and Kirby’s “The Money-Making Machine Swindlers.” Of the newer entries, Charles Burns’s poisonously macho masked-wrestler detective El Borbah stars in one of the book’s best entries. Spaniards Enrique Sánchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet also deliver an outstanding hard-boiled comic noir story from their Torpedo 1936 series.

In his introduction to the book, Gravett insinuates that if today’s readers think they know the crime genre from reading Frank Miller’s Sin City, they’ve got another thing coming. Although it’s great that Gravett is introducing those readers to classic comics from the golden age of pulp fiction, most of the selections in this volume, particularly the more recent ones, don’t really hold a candle to the Sin City series, either in storytelling or in art. Any collection of EC’s Crime SuspenStories would surely outshine this grab bag, and for those looking for more contemporary crime comics, I would recommend the Hard Looks collections edited by Andrew Vachss.

Stories in this collection

“Old Gangsters Never Die” by Alan Moore and Lloyd Thatcher
“Torpedo 1936: The Switch” by Enrique Sánchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet
“The Money-Making Machine Swindlers” by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
“87th Precinct: Blind Man’s Bluff” by Bernie Kirgstein and unknown writer
“The Murderer of Hung” by Dominique Grange and Jacques Tardi
“Murder, Morphine, and Me” by Jack Cole
“El Borbah: Love in Vein” by Charles Burns
“The Spirit: The Portier Fortune” by Will Eisner
“Secret Agent X-9” by Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond
“Commissario Spada: Strada” by Gianluigi Gonano and Gianni De Luca
“Lily-white Joe” by Bernie Krigstein and unknown writer
“The Crushed Gardenia” by Alex Toth and unknown writer
“Ms. Tree: Maternity Leave” by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty
“Roy Carson and the Old Master” by Colin McLoughlin and Denis McLoughlin
“Mary Spratchet” by anonymous
“Alack Sinner: Talkin’ with Joe” by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz
“The Button” by Bill Everett and unknown writer
“Kane: Rat in the House” by Paul Grist
“Whodunnit?” by Fred Guardineer and unknown writer
“Mike Lancer and The Syndicate of Death” by Mickey Spillane and Harry Sahle
“Mike Hammer: Dark City” by Mickey Spillane and Ed Robbins
“The Court” by Neil Gaiman and Warren Pleece
“The Sewer” by Johnny Craig
“I Keep Coming Back” by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate

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