Book Review by Kerey McKenna.
I am talking about funny books, kids.
The most popular entertainment medium of all here in 1954. My city boasts twenty comics publishers putting out 600-some titles every month, selling eighty to one hundred million copies a week, reaching an audience larger than movies, TV, radio and magazines combined (they figure a comic book gets passed around or traded to six or more readers). It’s an industry employing a thousand-plus writers, artists, editors, letterers and assorted spear carriers...It’s a form of story-telling that arrays newsstands with superhero fantasy and talking ducks, through those are outnumbered of late by monsters both supernatural and humans, as well as cowboys and Indians, romance and war, and science fiction...The chief audience is kids but grown-ups indulge too, especially veterans who learned to read portable funny books, bought at the PX, in the Second World War and more recently in Korea….
What’s important for you to keep in mind is how big, how popular the comic book industry is right now.
And how everybody and your Uncle Charlie wants to kill it.
What the hell...every murder mystery needs a victim…”
In this entry for Noir November let’s take a look at the Jack & Maggie Starr Series, historical fiction novels, written in the pulp mystery tradition that explore the formative years of the American Comic Book industry. Who better to tell a Noir style story in that time than Max Allan Collins, who twice won the Shamus Award for excellent writing in the P.I. mystery sub-genre, and has written prose novels, graphic novels, and comic books. His historical fiction gangster comic series Road to Perdition later adapted into the beloved Tom Hanks movie of the same name.
Today much of comics IP is held by the monolithic “Big Two Publishers” who are themselves divisions of two rival large multimedia empires. On the whole comic books are now sold to “the collector’s market” of invested (adult) fans buying directly online or at specialty comic book stores. This is in stark contrast to the so called Golden Age, a wild and woolly time for the nascent comics publishing industry. Focused primarily in New York City, with a mob of small publishers fighting for space on the newsstands for an audience of primarily children, teenagers, and the emerging counterculture. The men and women of the early comic book industry managed to make a place for themselves at the end of the Dirty 30’s, fight through the war years, and arrive in the 1950’s to get their shot at post-war American prosperity. Assuming that they didn’t find themselves censored, swindled out of their royalties...or dead.
In a New York City filled with colorful characters, both in and out of the funny pages, is Jack Starr, a tall, handsome and square jawed former Army MP and very specialized detective. He only investigates one type of crime and works for only one client: Jack investigates crimes related to comic books and the funny pages. His only client is his late father’s company, the Starr Syndicate, one of the outfits that licenses characters from comic books to newspapers to be published as comic strips. Jack is a “troubleshooter” for the syndicate. Attached as they are to the august institution of newspapers, the syndicate wants to avoid or manage scandals that would damage the wholesome image of the superheroes and cartoon animals that they sell to newspapers around the country. In addition to fearing loss in sales, the Starr Syndicate has good reason to avoid close public scrutiny. The basis of their empire of family friendly characters used to be printing race forms and “art books” (wink wink nudge nudge, know what I mean). Despite a shift to more wholesome fare in the 20’s, Mafia families bought shares of competing publishing syndicates and later comic book publishers. In addition to getting a piece of the action of sales, during Prohibition they insisted that the lumber used to print material in dry NYC be shipped on big trucks and imported from wet Canada.
Usually Jack’s job is fairly simple: running background checks on new employees, leaning on artists who fall behind on their deadlines, and trying not to get distracted by his knockout of a boss Maggie Starr, his stepmother and father’s widow. Only five years Jack’s senior, Maggie is a former striptease artist who inherited the majority of her late husband’s comic strip empire. Not ashamed of her past, and having a keen mind for business, Maggie even became a restaurateur, opening the “Strip Joint,” an upscale Manhattan Steakhouse where patrons dine on strip steak, surrounded by wall art from famous comic strips and waited on staff that are clearly part time or former...well you get the idea.
When their industry threatens to get ink in the crime blotter instead of the funny pages, like the murders of a publishing magnate or of a doctor who claims comic books create juvenile delinquents, Maggie puts Jack to work quickly to find the party responsible and bring them to justice to get the story out of the papers as fast as possible.
The Jack and Maggie Starr mysteries are, in the pulp noir tradition, fun if formulaic mysteries with just enough brawling and sex to keep you going to the next chapter. Jack Starr’s witty internal narration, and illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by Terry Beatty done in a classic pop art style, add a nice touch to the homage to classic pulps. Aside from the eccentric Jack and Maggie, most of the characters of the 1950’s comic and cartoon world are clearly based on real personalities of the time but with the names barely changed in ways that would make Law & Order claims of “ripped from the headlines” blush. For example the colorful ubermensch hero “Wonderguy” was created by two naive young men, “Harry Spiegel” & “Moe Sholman” who would not get the full share of the fortune their character makes in merchandising. Other popular superheroes are “Batwing,” created by “Rod Krane,” and “Amazonia” created by a Harvard professor a bit on the kinky side. Wanting to put the kibosh on all these characters is noted child psychologist Dr. Werner Frederk who publishes a sensational book “Ravish the Lambs” and testifies before congress accusing comic books of being the key factor in post war juvenile delinquency.
The historical fiction here is not as divergent from real life as say The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Those familiar with the history of American comics will readily catch the “Brand X” references. But if you’re less familiar with the history of the industry, don’t worry. The “Brand X” names aren’t too distracting and might even encourage you to learn more about the real movers and shakers, heroes and villains of the period, especially apropos in the wake of the passing of one of the last great living links to that time, Stan Lee.
Whether you are either an old hand at P.I. style noir mysteries or a fan of comic books I would certainly recommend giving any of these books a read.
Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival. Check it out at www.watchcityfestival.com.