BULLETS & BALLOONS: CRIME, MYSTERY, AND THE HISTORY OF COMICS

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.

Part One
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.

Part Two
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.

Part Three
Traversing the Earth (but mostly big cities), fighting for the common people, the “superhero” was born.

Part Four
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.

Part Five
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.

Part Six
The first representation of black characters in comics to be drawn realistically and treated as equals, even capably superior, can be found here.

Part Seven
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.

Part Eight
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.

Part Nine
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.

Part Ten
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.

Part Eleven
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. 

Part Twelve
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.

Part Thirteen
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.” 

Part Fourteen
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.

Part Fifteen
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.

Part Sixteen
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.

Part Seventeen
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.

Part Eighteen
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?

Part Nineteen
After WWII, and with assistance from Big Business, the FBI, and the Republican Party, barnstorming fundamentalist religious groups would help drive crime comics off the market and censor the entire industry, as part of a return to “traditional Christian-American values.” 

Part Twenty
What conservatives really needed to imprint their brand of politics upon the average frustrated citizen was a new cause celebre. A fresh boogeyman, something homegrown. They soon found the perfect subject: Americans were now consuming comic books, with millions of copies of the new medium selling monthly.

Part Twenty-One
It was a campaign, and a process. Our red threads can follow the connecting sequence of events, observing a nation’s anxieties exploited and subverted, as reactionary propaganda and mass media began swaying public opinion and “firing up the base.”

Part Twenty-Two
Crime was big. Comics were big. Crime, mystery and thrills sold comics. Even if parents were concerned about America’s youth having access to them, nothing was going to change unless market forces or legislation dictated their doing so.