Sunday, April 17, 2011

Those Crazy Crime Comics

Our guest blogger this afternoon is Gary Phillips. Gary is a multi-talented writer whose work include short stories, stand-alone crime novels, and two series (featuring private eye Ivan Monk and ex-Vegas show girl/mob money courier, Martha Chainey). Gary is also the editor of Orange County Noir (2010), an anthology in the Akashic noir series. The anthology received a starred review. A long-time fan of the comic book, Gary is now working in this medium as well. Gary is a member of the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America. He is the president of the Southern California chapter of MWA.

Welcome, Gary!
[cover photo credit: Dan Brereton]

Those Crazy Crime Comics

There’s a bit of a renaissance, if that’s the word, in crime and mystery comics and graphic novels. Now I know gentle reader, you may not be a fan of such but consider that the recent bloody romp Red, about some Gold Bond using retired intelligence operatives and assassins, forced to do battle with a rogue arm of the very agency they used to work for, originated as a comic book mini-series written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Cully Hamner. Or take the impact the highly stylized Sin City had. This flick, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, was based on a series of stories for Dark Horse Comics written and drawn by Miller in stark black and white, with occasional uses of color. His tales set in the corrupt Basin City aka Sin City, were hardboiled fare often involving marginal characters not out for justice but for revenge and retribution.

Think back a bit more to note that the films Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks as a paid killer and family man to boss Paul Newman and The History of Violence were based on graphic novels -- a graphic novel being a larger in terms of page count and usually permabound as opposed to a monthly floppy, pamphlet comic book. Road was originally penned by mystery novelist Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers and History was written by John Wagner and illoed by Vince Locke. Road to Perdition’s hired killer father and his son, and the subsequent sequential (the pages with the panels of the drawn comic book) sequels written by Collins, were inspired by a Japanese magna, comics, series and series of films, Lone Wolf and Cub.

The series is set in medieval Japan and concerns a samurai who’d been the kogi kaishakunin, executioner for the shogun, is falsely accused of a being a traitor to the clan and is forced to travel the countryside as a swordsman for hire with his young son in his wooden stroller tricked out with various deadly devices. Written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Goseki and Kajima, not only were movies made from the comic but a play and television show was also derived from this popular series.

This past October, mystery writer Jason Starr chronicled on the front page of The 3rd Degree, the national newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America, chronicled this resurgence in crime comics. Starr in fact at the time had been writing the mysteries of a revived pulp character, Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, as a back-up feature in the Doc Savage comic book DC Comics had brought back as part of an effort called the First Wave. The Avenger, like a lot of pulp heroes created in the depths of the Great Depression, was a millionaire (but no playboy) who after the murder of his wife and children, dedicates his resources to fighting crime and master villains. Under the aegis of his Justice, Inc., Benson and his crew, including an African American man and wife, Josh and Rosabel Newton, sally forth against many a quixotic foe like the Sky Walker and the Flame Breathers.

The Avenger, created by Walter Gibson (The Shadow’s wordsmith) and Lester Dent (who wrote and created Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr.) and mostly written by Paul Ernst under the Street & Smith’s house name of Kenneth Robeson, was not only interesting for having an integrated set of aides but was a compactly built man, though due to the murder of his family, his features and hair had turned a glacier-like white, his features frozen but pliable as he could mold his face to disguise himself.

I had the great pleasure to write an Avenger prose short story set in the ‘30s for Moonstone’s Avenger Chronicles. Also for that outfit, I’m writing as a back-up feature in the Spider -- a rather bloodthirsty masked and fanged crime fighter -- comic book the adventures of Depression-era secret agent Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5 of the Intelligence Service Command – wherein science fiction, spy, historical and crime elements are combined.

I offer then the prose mystery and crime readers a low key challenge the next time you’re in the bookstore, don’t just walk past the graphic novel section. Take a few moments to peruse that shelf, you might find something you’d like.


Gary Phillips has two upcoming hardcover graphic novels: Angeltown: The Nate Hollis Investigations from Moonstone comics and books and Cowboys from DC/Vertigo Comics as part of their crime line.

(links) --

No comments: