Ed: Paul Gravett
Constable & Robinson
Compendiums proclaiming they are the Best, Greatest, Essential or Classic have a nasty habit of falling awkwardly between rickety stools, or being the last resting place of the previous Best, Greatest and so forth. But when the editor is Paul Gravett, the UK’s most erudite and articulate aficionado of world comics, there is every reason to expect a fair dollop of gob-smacking revelations.
First the obligatory, where Gravett pays homage to the early masters of pulp.
At 79 pages, Dashiel Hammett’s formative newspaper strip, Secret Agent X-9 (1934), is the longest story in the book, justifiably so. Published the same year as ‘The Thin Man’, it was to be the last of Hammett’s printed words before Hollywood handcuffed him with better paydays. In contrast, Mike Hammer: Dark City (1954) sees Micky Spillane returning to his roots to capitalise on box office success. Spillane started out as a comic book scribe (exampled in the ferocious 1942 Mike Lancer and the Syndicate of Death), only retiring from the trade when censorship by the Comics Code Authority made a mockery of his scripts.
From the 1940s, Gravett includes some delicious examples of art by Jack Kirby, Bernie Krugstein and, of course, Will Eisner. There are better Spirit stories than The Portier Fortune (1946) but P’Gell, the dumb blonde who clearly isn’t, precedes Marilyn Monroe by a decade and is too striking a character to ignore. It is also a tribute to Gravett’s sense of overall shape that The Spirit’s inclusion here, eight stories in, provides a welcome relief from a run of very dark noirs. It is unusual to find a compendium endowed with a sense of pace.
By the late 1960s, crime stories were a tough sell to American comic book publishers. Eclipsed by Hollywood and obsessed with men in tights, it fell to the Europeans to out-noir the Yanks. Gravett offers up some extraordinary examples, notably the beautifully observed Commissario Spada (1979) and vicious Torpedo 1936 (1982) stories. West of the Channel, we are sorely underprivileged by the shortage of European comic translations, and this Mammoth Book is worth the cover price for these tantalising glimpses alone.
Read and watch enough crime capers and it becomes evident that a good proportion of the drama unfolds in wordy set pieces – interviews, arguments, denouements. What this compilation reveals is the skill required of illustrators old and new to depict body language and handle ‘camera angles’. Flicking between the stories without reading a word, Gravett has maybe inadvertently put together a comic creators manual of how to imbue characters with real character, regardless of how caricatured they may seem, and static situations with brittle tension. In an age when cut-and-paste Photoshop merchants are boring the pants of us, this gallery of excellence is a joy to thumb through and feel humbled by.
There are muggers and murderers, gangsters and gumshoes (pregnant female gumshoes at that!) in Gravett’s selection, but there are also weirdoes and war criminals. The Murder of Hung (1983) is a quiet tale of revenge set on the mean streets of New York, where a Vietnamese refugee goes in search of the GI vet who shot her son during the phoney war. Drawn by the French master Jacques Tardi and written by his wife Dominique Grange, it is a rare example of how well the graphic medium can deliver sensitive stories of the heart.
The weird comes from the bizarre mind of Charles Burns, a creative who would be confined to a cuckoo’s nest for the criminally insane were it not for the comic medium. El Borah: Love in Vein (1987) is a depraved twist on Latin America’s love of real-life masked crusaders of the favelas. He is a self-serving toe-rag stumbling through deepening layers of “weird shit” involving sperm banks and a fledgling master race blessed with buckteeth. Rarely has criminal creepiness been so funny.
But weirdest of all has to be the final story by Alan Moore. Drawn in cinemascope by Oscar Zarate, his compadre from ‘A Small Killing’, I Keep Coming Back (1996) is a post-script to ‘From Hell’ and sits uncomfortably in a Best of Crime anthology. However, given that the Moore-Campbell epic set a daunting new high in crime comic literature and that the creepiest thing about this story is Moore himself, who can’t let his Ripper obsession go, it stands as a salutary warning and inspired epilogue. Crime doesn’t pay (though I understand Campbell paid cash for his house in Australia out of the movie rights!).
Desperate to find a fault in this bargain compendium, I resort to the omission of Dick Tracy, the first and most famous of the comic strip sleuths. Personally, I thought the guy was too drippy by half and the art about as noir as a wedding cake, but I guess somebody might be disappointed.
10 – Needs to be in every comic fans collection and be regularly visited.