Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #175 by Drew Barth
I just finished up moving which means I just finished hauling my comic collection to a new house. This also means that some of the books that have been on my shelf for a good few years are being looked at for the first time since the last time I moved. One such book, The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics edited by Paul Gravett, is likely the oldest as it came about around the time I first started buying comics. As a compilation, though, it’s one of the most interesting books on my shelf.
What The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics is is right in the title: a massive, nearly five hundred page tome of crime comics from 1930s King Feature strips to 40s and 50s pre-code stories to a fold-out comic included in a single from Alan Moore’s band, The Sinister Ducks, in 1983. It runs the gambit of secret agent stories, tales of counterfeiters being brought to justice, and murders gone terribly wrong. But we find a comfort in these noir tales of stark black ink on newsprint that almost always end with someone being betrayed or caught by the law. Crime comics, for the most part, are some of the earliest stories in the medium to really gain attention next to their more gruesome horror counterparts. And yet, in a collection this comprehensive, it feels like there’s something missing.
Where’s Batman? The Question? Some of the original pulps from The Shadow or The Phantom? We do, luckily, have Will Eisner’s Spirit and Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond’s Secret Agent X-9, but that’s about all we would normally recognize. Compilations like this do help to showcase some underappreciated stories, namely a story from the 40s by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but it does point to a larger issue in comics study. I can look on my book shelf and see compilations of short stories, poetry, and essays, but outside of Best Crime Comics, I don’t really have any comprehensive comic compilations. And, as so many creators have some of their best work in superhero comics garroted by IP piano wire, how often can we see a more complete look at the best in the medium outside of the occasional character compilation? Long-running arcs and character-focused stories are more popular in comics currently, but these shorter stories are where comics initially gained their popularity. When are we going to see them again in these compiled formats for a broader audience to see the best of the medium without crate digging?
Having series like The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, or the now defunct Best American Comics, gives the medium a chance to really showcase what it can be. Nothing helps to get someone into comics more than just a couple really good short stories. But, as things are now, I can’t see a way for that to happen outside of buying a few dozen digital issues and picking out the best from those to give to someone. To really shine, though, comics needs a good way to shows its best to a new audience.
Get excited. Get compiled.