Comic book fans probably know writer Max Allan Collins best from his Road To Perdition series of crime graphic novels. But Collins is also a crime historian in his own right, having collaborated extensively with Mickey Spillane, and others. With a new collaboration between Collins and the departed author hitting on May 8th – titled Lady, Go Die – we checked in with Collins to find out what his Top 10 Crime Comics of all time are. So without further ado, we’ll turn it over to him:
“Before I get into this list, I should cop to excluding anything or anybody modern. I am notorious for not encouraging the competition.”
1. DICK TRACY. In 1931, after a decade of unsuccessful submissions to the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, Chester Gould finally gave up on humor and tried something different – a detective strip based on real-life G-men like Eliot Ness and equally real-life bad guys like Al Capone. Gould’s geometric expressionism looked like bad art to some, but the public loved it, particularly when his villains grew grotesque (Flattop, Pruneface, the Mole) in an effort to compete with wartime front pages. IDW is reprinting Gould in fat two-year collections, and perhaps his greatest story – “The Case of the Fiendish Photographers” – will be featured in the next volume.
2. FEARLESS FOSDICK. On the verge of being forgotten today, that gifted misanthrope Al Capp – creator of Sadie Hawkins Day and the Shmoo – was responsible for the greatest of all comic strips, LI’L ABNER. For decades a liberal, Capp in the ‘60s descended into conservatism and madness, losing his reputation over strident humor and college-campus sex scandals. But in his heyday, he was acidly hilarious, and he skewered DICK TRACY in the famous strip-within-a-strip, FEARLESS FOSDICK, hillbilly Abner’s favorite comic. Fosdick shot huge holes in villains and bystanders alike, a loveable moron who became as well known as Tracy himself. IDW is publishing ABNER volumes, too.
3. THE SPIRIT. If you only know Will Eisner’s character by way of Frank Miller’s misfire film, you are missing out. The Spirit was the lead feature in a comic-book Sunday section insert in the ‘40s and ‘50s, courtesy of comics veteran Eisner (SHEENA, BLACKHAWK), who thumbed his nose at super-hero conventions, making hero Denny Colt an everyman in a rumpled suit and domino mask. Eisner wrote tight little stories with twists out of Damon Runyon, and used rain and shadows for noir effect long before the term noir was minted. DC has reprinted this lavishly, but beware the war years when the feature was ghosted.
4. BATMAN. Bob Kane gets the byline, but writer Bill Finger was the uncredited co-creator of the Caped Crusader. Batman began in 1939 as Dick Tracy in costumed hero drag, down to the kid sidekick (Junior/Robin) and the grotesque villains (Flattop/Joker). In the ‘40s and ‘50s, ghost artist Dick Sprang used huge props and pop-art-worthy imagery to inspire the eventual TV series, so hated by insecure comics fans unaware the series gave comics a new life. Few characters are more pliable, working well as campy kid’s stuff or in the Dark Knight variation invented by Miller and so embraced by Hollywood.
5. SECRET AGENT X-9. Writer Dashiell Hammett was the biggest thing in mystery fiction in 1934 when King Features teamed him with young hotshot artist Alex Raymond to compete with DICK TRACY. Beginning a decades-long writer’s block, Hammett only lasted a year on the G-man strip, Raymond a bit longer before giving all his attention to FLASH GORDON. The strip continued in various hands for decades, but that glorious, hardboiled year of Hammett/Raymond remains a highlight of crime comics. Artist Al Williamson and writer Archie Goodwin teamed from 1967 to 1980 to return the strip to glory, as SECRET AGENT CORRIGAN.
6. RIP KIRBY, created in 1946, was Alex Raymond’s post-war return to the detective field after abandoning the hugely successful FLASH GORDON. Written by Ward Greene and then Fred Dickenson (who stayed with the strip after Raymond’s tragic early death in 1956), KIRBY was beautifully drawn in classic illustration style and filled with lovely young women, in particular Rip’s girl friend Honey Dorian. Bespectacled Rip (sidekick/butler Desmond is an ex-burglar)is both two-fisted and brainy. Artist John Prentice continued the strip until 1999, a worthy successor to the great Raymond. IDW has reprinted the complete Raymond run.
7. MIKE HAMMER. In 1941, comic book writer Mickey Spillane wanted to do break away from costumed heroes and do a detective strip. The first iteration was “Mike Lancer,” followed by “Mike Danger,” but WW 2 interrupted. Post-war, Spillane couldn’t sell the comic-book feature, instead doing a novel version called Mike Hammer. When Hammer exploded in popularity, Spillane and artist Ed Robbins provided a comic strip – and within a year, the sex and violence of the strip earned its cancellation. Hermes Press will soon publish the complete run of what is probably the most accurate translation of a literary P.I. to the comics pages.
8. JOHNNY DYNAMITE. The creator of Johnny Dynamite is unknown – possibly it was writer Ken Fitch, and artist Pete Morisi may have been co-creator. Certainly Morisi is the artist whose distinctive, blocky style characterized the surprisingly adult feature, an unabashed “Mike Hammer” imitation, from the brawling private eye Johnny to loving secretary Judy, cop pal Lt. Hennesey, willing dames, thuggish adversaries, and a distinctly vengeance-oriented theme. Appearing in 1953, at the peak of Spillane’s popularity, JOHNNY DYNAMITE has earned a cult following, and was revived for a Dark Horse mini-series in 1994. Two stories were collected in Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures (2010).
9. MODESTY BLAISE. The female James Bond, Modesty Blaise and her platonic cohort Willie Garvin starred in a comic strip in the UK from 1963 to 2001. An unusually early female protagonist, Modesty is both tough and feminine. Created by writer Peter O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway, MODESTY BLAISE would likely be a more familiar name in the USA had either of the film adaptations been successful. O’Donnell also wrote successful Modesty Blaise novels, a rare comics to prose transition. After Holdaway’s death, Enrique Romero took over, with several other artists contributing stories during the strip’s long run. Titan has been reprinting the strip.
10. CRIME SUSPENSTORIES. Crime comics were enormously popular in the early 1950s, before spoilsport Dr. Wertham came along. Recent volumes have collected the seminal CRIME DOES NOT PAY comics of Charles Biro and Bob Wood, as well as the crime comics of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, working in the nominally “true” vein. But the greatest crime comics of the early 1950s are found in EC’s CRIME SUSPENSTORIES and SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES, particularly those by Johnny Craig, who both wrote and drew his stories. Craig’s art was a blend of Milton Caniff and Will Eisner, and he worked endless imaginative variations on James M. Cain’s POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Reprints are available.
Lady, Go Die hits bookshelves from Titan Books on May 8th.