A great pulp detective story that digs into comic book history.
Max Allan Collins
What They Say
Comic books are corrupting America’s youth!
Or so the esteemed Dr. Werner Frederick would have people believe—people like the Congressmen holding hearings on banning violent crime and horror “funny books.” And when the crusade provokes a most un-funny murder, Jack Starr—comics syndicate troubleshooter—has no shortage of suspects. Was it the knife-wielding juvenile delinquent or the naked seductress? Perhaps a frustrated publisher or an outraged cartoonist. Or was it a comic book reader…?
Dr. Frederick Wertham was one of the worst things to hit the comic book industry. In 1954 he published Seduction of the Innocent, a book in which he outlined how crime and horror comics were destroying America’s youth—tantalizing them with lurid images of antisocial behavior and promoting a delinquent lifestyle. His main target was EC, the publisher behind hits such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, but he also went after Superman as fascist ideal, Batman for his potentially homosexual (and pedophilic) relationship with Robin, and the bondage and lesbian undertones present in Wonder Woman. Wertham’s book created such a stir that it spurred Senate hearings on the subject. While no official order was given by the Senate, the committee did admonish the industry at large and urged it to police itself, leading to the creation of the Comics Code Authority. In 1954 comic books were at the height of their popularity, but after the hearing and the overzealous attempt on the part of the industry to sanitize itself, their circulation rapidly declined. Many people wanted to kill Wertham, and in Collins’ book, we get just that.
Or at least an approximation, at any rate. Instead of Frederick Wertham, Collins gives us Dr. Werner Fredericks, and instead of Seduction of the Innocent, he writes Ravage the Lambs. Superman is changed to Wonder Guy, Batman to Batwing, and Wonder Woman to Amazonia. Much like the intro to Dragnet used to say, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Seduction of the Innocent (Collins’ crime novel, not Wertham’s non-fiction) takes place in more-or-less an alternate reality. The main character, Jack Starr, is son to the late Major Simon Starr, and partial owner of Starr Syndicate with his stepmother Maggie Starr, “the World’s Second Most Famous Striptease Artist (after Gypsy Rose Lee) (retired).” Starr Syndicate is one of the most successful sellers of comic strips to national newspapers, and Jack’s job is to make sure nothing bad happens to it. As a private investigator he researches potential hires, makes sure that troublesome artists turn in their work on time, and occasionally tries to solve a murder. In this case, Maggie attempts to put Wertham in a delicate bind by offering him a national advice column with the stipulation that he could not write about comics in it. Because Starr works with some of Wertham’s favorite targets, this would put him in an ethical bind as his attacks could be construed as hypocritical given that he works for the same company that distributes the comics he loves to attack. The plan might have worked but was never given the chance because somebody murdered the good doctor. With the very real possibility that the culprit might work in the comic industry, Maggie puts Jack on the case to see if they can head off any potential PR disaster.
This novel is as much a love letter to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels as it is to the comic book industry. Jack plays the Archie Goodwin role and Maggie is Nero Wolfe. Like Stout’s detective, she lives and works in the same building, leaving it only in the direst of circumstances. Jack is her leg man, gathering all of the evidence and doing the dirty work while she pieces the facts together and sets the trap. Collins works the Goodwin-Wolfe dynamic well here, and he does an especially strong job of using the crime fiction style. Jack tells the story and he injects a great deal of narrative voice, including a love of parenthetical asides, such as in the description of Maggie’s career. For some reason it took me a few pages to get into the novel because of that style. The voice is so heavy that it served as a distraction at first, but once I got past that I tore into this novel. Like all good crime stories the plotting is drum-tight and the characters fun and engaging. From a purely stylistic standpoint, this is very well done.
What makes this book particularly fun, though, is the use of the comic book industry as a setting and the way that Collins uses that history to inform his fictional world. Each chapter features art in the classic EC style drawn by Terry Beatty that highlight the fact that this is a book about comics, as well as what happens in the chapter that follows. That the art apes the EC style is also a nice homage to the fact that EC was one of Wertham’s major targets. It’s a nice touch that really adds to the story.
Obviously comic books and its history inform practically every aspect of this novel. I’m not a comic expert, but I know enough to recognize the amount of research that went into making this story. There is a thrill in recognizing the real people behind the characters, such as William Gaines and Al Feldstein, Will Allison, and Tarpe Mills. Collins is nice enough to provide an afterward where he lays out who he used and how he used them in this story along with the parts of their characters that he embellished or outright fabricated for dramatic effect. He also provides a nice short bibliography about the comics industry that is well worth a look for those interested in the stories behind the funny pages.
I won’t pretend that my love of comic books doesn’t inform my opinion about this work, but even if I weren’t such a fan, I would still give this book a good review. Collins does a masterful job of paying homage to both Rex Stout and the comic industry in general. In an interview with Colin Smith at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, Collins said that he planned the Jack and Maggie Starr series as a trilogy touching on three different stories within the comic book industry: the debate over Superman’s ownership, the tragic relationship between Al Capp and Ham Fisher, and Frederick Wertham’s book. With any luck this will turn into a much larger series in its own right because the characters and the comic book background is so much fun and really makes this stand out from other crime novels on the shelf. Highly recommended.
Content Grade: A+
Published By: Hard Case Crime
Release Date: February 19, 2013