Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Four Colour Crime

By Jay Stringer

Crime fiction in comic books has been resurgent lately, with some of the highest profile creators turning to noir and hardboiled tales. Next week I'll be taking a look at the classics of modern crime comics. But first up, i want to take a look backwards. Have you noticed how many of the reviews for the new Sherlock Holmes movie have mentioned that Holmes was one of the first superheroes? Y'see, capes and cowls might seem a million miles away from hardboiled fiction, but they’re both part of the same twisted pulp family. Blood brothers, in fact.

There was already a long tradition of serialised crime fiction before the explosion of pulp in the 1920’s. The dime novels of America and penny dreadfuls of Britain had been full of detectives and villains, from Nick Carter to Fu Manchu. Two other key characters to appear at this point were The Shadow and Doc Savage. These two characters helped shape what would eventually become super hero comics, but it didn’t happen straight away.

The hardboiled adventures still reigned supreme at this point, with Dick Tracey appearing hot on the heels of The Maltese Falcon. The two regular titles, Action Comics and Detective Comics, were anthology titles that depicted the four colour adventures of Slam Bradley and Speed Saunders. Self contained detective stories that were largely derivative of Chandler and Hammett.

The real change came right at the end of the 1930’s. In the space of 18 months, with the debuet’s of Superman in Action Comics and Batman in Detective Comics. They both owed debts to Doc Savage, and Batman was a direct descended of The Shadow. The industry was turned on its head and has never looked back, almost straight away the two new super heroes had taken over the anthology titles they had appeared in, and the detective stories were relegated to backup material. More and more costumed superheroes followed, and the pulps were being replaced by a new medium.

Crime still had a strong hold in the medium, but it was second fiddle to the brighter and bolder hero comics. Even Batman’s dark pulp world was giving way to bright colours and rocket ships. Key hold outs for crime fans were Crime Doesn't Pay (1942-1955) and Crime Suspenstories (1950-1955.) The stories became increasingly lurid, and a key difference emerged between comics and prose; It’s one thing to describe a dark deed in prose fiction, but comics had the ability to show the event happening. Parents started to show concern.

The genre was driven further from the mainstream in the 1950’s, when Dr Frederic Wertham released a damning report called ‘the seduction of the innocent’. As well as stating that Superman made children feel inferior, and that Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality, Wertham spared his true wrath for crime and horror comics. Following the senate subcommittee that followed, crime comics were pushed almost underground, and any realistic portrayal of crime vanished from mainstream books for a generation. We might like to think that the report was purely the product of the McCarthy era, and that such ideas would get laughed out of court today. But look at the press given to video games and violent films, and musicians getting blamed for the acts of every maladjusted teenager.

There were sporadic attempts to bring crime fiction back to the forefront of the comic book medium through the 1960’s and early seventies, when Warren (home of Vampirella) started publishing Creepy in 1964. The title would hold a massive influence on mainstream superhero books, after breaking in talents such as Archie Goodwin, Doug Moench, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko and Frank Frazetta. Many of these stories are collected now in the Creepy Archives, and I recommend them for a great mix of horror and crime.

At the same time, even in these titles there was a lack of real urban hardboiled crime. Artists and publishers still shied away from anything to realistic or gritty, and certainly didn’t want to be accused of telling anything from the criminals point of view.

Second chances can come from the strangest places. America had been through Vietnam and Watergate. The world didn’t look quite the same, and it was the superhero books that started to open the door to crime. Writer Denny O’Neil teamed with artist Neal Adams to bring Batman back to the shadows. The streets were mean enough for a generation of readers who were getting Chinatown and The French Connection. Cinema trends in blaxploitation and Kung Fu movies were bleeding through; characters like Blade, Iron Fist and Power Man, while not especially gritty at the time, were showing a new breed of street level character could make it into the four colour world. Frank Miller took the influence of crime fiction and film noir, and ran a hundred miles with it when he started his run on Daredevil. Hidden away on a low selling book with a minor character, he crafted true superhero noir. If you want to see the perfect marriage between capes and crime, I recommend you find this run. It’s available in omnibus editions direct from Marvel Comics. After decades of dancing around each other, it was getting harder to ignore the obvious; that the hero books and the crime books were kin.

Next week, a Jim Gordon gets down and dirty, Ms. Tree kicks some ass and Marv forgets his medication. There will be criminals, sleepers, goldfish, and a brand new private eye on the block. I'll probably gush about Scalped again, too.

Same bat-time, same bat-channel, right?


Chris said...

Great post Jay. I think you've nailed the attraction to crime fiction for me. When I first started reading it, coming from a background where my reading tastes were shaped as a boy by superheroes, Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, I saw the similarities that make up the foundations of so many of the things I've loved for years, and it really registered for me.

It's like a kid getting into Kyuss or Dozer and backtracking to discover Black Sabbath.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice little history here. Thanks. I spent many hours reading those comics as a kid, despite my parents' dislike of them.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Johnny Canuck
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Canuck ). He kind of bridges the transition by fighting Nazis with no superpowers other than being Canadian.