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
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.
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.
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