'Mammoth' crime comics collection lives up to title; 'Samson' a hidden treasure

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Oct. 12, 2010 -- I was prepared to unload a couple of barrels of snark on The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (Running Press, $17.95), but was pleasantly surprised.

I sneered at the idea of an anthology collection calling itself “best,” when it would obviously be barred from printing anything currently under copyright. So it would have little or nothing from any existing publisher – Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc. – or any other comics whose rights were spoken for. And I was right that most of that material is excluded. But editor Paul Gravett came perilously close to “Best” anyway.

That’s because Gravett has a less parochial view than I do, and thought outside the box – and outside the U.S. Gravett, a London-based comics historian, journalist and publisher, came up with a number of European stories that truly are excellent. I don’t know why Europe loves American noir so much, or why they’re so good at it, but Best includes a “Torpedo 1936” story by Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet and an “Alack Sinner” tale by José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo.

I did expect to see some of the famous over-the-top 1940s and 1950s material that was partly responsible for the Comics Code of 1954, because much of it belongs to defunct publishers or is in public domain. And sure enough, there are a couple of those, including the infamous “Murder, Morphine and Me” by Jack “Plastic Man” Cole, originally published in True Crime Comics in 1947. That story was made infamous by anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham, whose book Seduction of the Innocent used a panel showing a hypodermic needle plunging toward a woman’s eyeball to illustrate his (largely imaginary) “injury to the eye motif.” The heralded team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, which created Captain America, kid-gang comics and romance comics, contribute a tale from Justice Traps the Guilty from 1948.

Best includes a lengthy Secret Agent X-9 comic-strip sequence from 1934 that’s much better than the hokey name would lead you to believe, because it’s written by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and drawn by Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon). Others gems include stories starring modern gumshoes El Borbah, Mike Hammer and Ms. Tree, or written by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Gravett somehow includes a 1951 EC Comics story by Johnny Craig and a 1946 “Spirit” episode by Will Eisner, whose rights are very much locked up.

As must be obvious by now, Gravett’s book lives up to its name in another way, in that it truly is mammoth. Best clocks in at more than 470 pages – all of it in black and white, but with crime comics that’s actually a plus.

Noticeably absent are manga and anything from Marvel or DC’s library. But Gravett comes so close to Best that now I’ll have to check out his three other “Mammoth” comics collections, focusing on war, horror and zombie comics.

Elsewhere:

Dark Horse has finally gotten around to collecting the last of Gold Key’s four major adventure titles of the 1960s, and it may just be the best of the bunch.

Mighty Samson Archives Vol. 1 ($49.99) reprints the first six of the 32 Samson comics published from 1964 to 1982. But although Samson had fewer stories than Dr. Solar, Turok and Magnus, they were written by Otto Binder of Captain Marvel fame, and I think were a wee bit better.

As a kid I wasn’t crazy about some aspects of Samson, a post-apocalyptic story set in “N’Yark” after a nuclear war that leaves civilization in ruins. For one thing, the stars are the traditional – some would say clichéd – hero-girlfriend-scientist troika found in everything from Flash Gordon to DC’s Eclipso. I also didn’t care for the many portmanteaus Binder used, like the “liobear,” because I thought it was lazy writing.

As an adult, though, I now find these creations charming, almost clever. There’s a combination of a gorilla and an octopus that makes one wonder just how in the heck that happened (it doesn’t pay to dwell on it).

I also found Frank Thorne’s art too delicate for Samson’s tough world as a boy, but now see that he was ahead of his time. Thorne didn’t look like any other artist, but was instead doing his own, unique thing. I didn’t appreciate that then, but certainly do now.

Mighty Samson is that unique comic book, one that gets better with age – its own, and the reader’s.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 516

Comment by Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) on October 14, 2010 at 1:59pm
I've heard good things about the Mammoth books, but never took a chance on one. Maybe I should pick up the zombies book for my lady, and the crime one for me. Jordi Bernet and Raymond Chandler are the magic words!
Comment by Travis Herrick (Modular Mod) on October 14, 2010 at 3:37pm
I got the Mammoth Crime one above. Which I liked, but as what seems normal for me, the Alan Moore story didn't work for me. I totally agree about the Secret Agent X-9 story, I expected very little and was pleasantly surprised. The Johnny Craig story was excellent, as were most of the others. It was nice to see some non-Jonah Hex art from Jordi Bernet.

I also got the Mammoth War book, which I actually liked better. There were introductions before each story which I really dug, and the middle part had Sam Glanzman stories in color. Plus there seemed to be more representative of comics from around the world and different times. I highly recommend this one.

I even enjoyed the Horror one, and I'm not much of a horror fan. It is a great value for what you get.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on October 16, 2010 at 2:44pm
THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST CRIME COMICS: I think this one flew in under my radar, but I think I saw the Mammoth book or Horror (if it’s the one I’m thinking of) and decided to give it a pass. Your review of the crime one has me thinking I should maybe take a closer look at the entire set.

MIGHTY SAMSON: I posted my thoughts on The Mighty Samson here, but I would like to reiterate how much I applaud Dark Horse’s decision to change paper stock, especially if they choose to continue to present the stories with their original coloring. I hope all future releases in Dark Horse’s various Archives series, even those in the middle of a run, switch to this new stock. The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor did, and I hope to read your thoughts on that series in the near future.

I must say I prefer the gorrilla with antlers to the gorilla/octopus. :P I suspect there must have been some laboratory in Manhattan engaging in some seriously demented genetic experiments when the bombs fell.

A comic book “that gets better with age – its own, and the reader’s.” I like that. It describes much of what I prefer to read these days.

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