A Series by Dale Berry
MWA NorCal board member Dale Berry is a San Francisco-based writer and illustrator, who has produced independent comics since 1986. His graphic novels (the Tales of the Moonlight Cutter series, The Be-Bop Barbarians with author Gary Phillips) have been published by mainstream, as well as his own imprint, Myriad Publications, and his graphic short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His life has included stints as a carnival barker, Pinkerton’s guard, professional stagehand, fencing instructor, and rock radio DJ. He and Gary Phillips wrote the chapter on Graphic Stories for MWA’s How to Write a Mystery.
The tradition of crime and mystery authors contributing to comics is almost as long as crime and mystery have been a part of comics itself. And the genre, whether it’s in novels, pulp magazines, radio dramas, films, or comics, has always reflected the fears of its times.
No longer dependent solely on newspaper syndicates, several publishers—some large and corporate owned, some smaller and independent—had begun generating their own comic-filled books. Many were already producing pulp magazines and brought those sensibilities and genres with them when they began creating content in the new medium.
Traversing the Earth (but mostly big cities), fighting for the common people, the “superhero” was born.
Plot, dialogue, and characterization began to have an edgier, more adult feel. Artwork began to rely on more sophisticated, commercial art techniques. Traditional comic strip-inspired cartooning gave way to rendering with more realism. Page layout and panel-to-panel continuity, the ways in which a comic book is read and the story is visually told, began to take on more cinematic, sometimes almost expressionistic, dynamism.
Seemingly every progress America discovered for itself, it also attempted to destroy. From equality to jazz, atomic power to comic books, nothing our nation has developed has come without internal conflict and a human cost.
The first representation of black characters in comics to be drawn realistically and treated as equals, even capably superior, can be found here.
At the juncture of publishing and race, art and commerce, America’s North and South, the red threads of our Evidence Board connect us to one of the early black creators, his relationship to a pornographer with gangland connections, and a tale that involves pulp fiction, true crime, and the very origins of America’s comic book industry.
In comic book history, female representation and equality can seem problematic. In crime, mystery and superhero comics especially, the question of sexism is a bit of a moving target, even today.
The earliest crime comics to feature serious independent female headliners could be found in the subgenre of “fearless girl reporter” strips. These series usually showcased single newspaper women, focused on finding the truth and usually fed up with the incompetence and inaction of shallow male editors, fellow reporters or cop boyfriends.
Comic books’ first masked, female crimefighter would emerge in March 1940, while 1941 saw the debut of comics’ first masked heroine actually created by a woman.
With the need to defend democracy, those early lady crime busters who had emerged in the first years of comics—the girl reporters, investigators, and masked vigilantes—began morphing into full-fledged women warriors.
Today she is known for a long career that includes the classic crime thrillers Strangers on a Train (1950), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) and its four sequels, the million-selling The Price of Salt, plus a 1991 nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature. More unknown is Patricia Highsmith’s early years supporting herself as a comic book scriptwriter.
Something new occurred in 1942, when a writer named Mickey Spillane debuted a tougher-than-tough private eye named Mike Lancer for Harvey Publications’ Green Hornet Comics #10, in a story entitled “Mike Lancer and the Syndicate of Death.”
From Walpole to Poe to Woolrich, Holmes to Spade to Nancy Drew, some famous names have comic adaptions. Holmes has had several. Some who had them, maybe you’d never expect.
Comics publishers go licensing-crazy, from The Maltese Falcon in 1948 to the Hardy Boys in the early 1970s. The classic mystery form was also showcased in this period, as comics like 1948’s Whodunit? told short stories scattered with clues so the reader could guess the culprit before the last page.
Though christened after WWII, most film scholars will cite the years 1941 to approximately the mid-1950s as the “classic era” of the American movie genre called film noir, from roughly John Houston’s adaption of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to about Robert Aldrich’s Cold War-tinged Kiss Me Deadly. Interestingly, the “classic era” of crime comic books parallels these years exactly, emerging and vanishing for many of the same reasons.
Perhaps the best embodiment of the post-war comic book’s hardboiled tough guys would emerge at the very end of the classic film noir cycle, as comics were under intense social criticism and censorship. And it would come from a creator who was also a cop.
We’ve talked about crime and horror comics, genre spirit-cousins since the pulp magazine days of “Weird Menace,” coming under extreme criticism and eventual censorship by the 1950s. We’ve mentioned this led to collapse within those genres, and the entire comic book industry, at that time. But how exactly? What started this, why did it occur and who was responsible?