10 April 2013

A Mystery with Not-So-Secret Identities

A while back, I had the idea for a mystery story set in the world of mid-1900s American comics publishing. I’m still working on that, but in the meantime I sampled Max Allan Collins’s A Killing in Comics, the first in a series of mystery novels set, well, in the world of mid-1900s American comics publishing.

I should have expected Collins to have worked out this idea already. He’s written many comics himself, including the Dick Tracy newspaper strip for many years, the Ms. Tree private-eye stories, and The Road to Perdition. Collins was the Batman scripter who gave the second Jason Todd his past as a runaway with criminal parents.

Collins is also a prolific writer of prose mysteries, including his award-winning Nathan Heller books, another series built around major modern disasters, and numerous novelizations. So basically he’s already worked out every idea for a mystery story.

A Killing in Comics is clearly inspired by Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow, which has become the authoritative history of the start of the American comic-book industry. It’s a roman à clef about the first generation of DC Comics, or more particularly about the men who worked on its most famous creations, Superman and Batman. But in this book those trademarks are cleverly disguised as Wonder Guy and Batwing.

Thus, instead of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the book gives us Harry Spiegel and Moe Shulman—but they’re almost exactly as Jones characterized the Superman creators. On the Batman side, Bob Kane becomes Rod Krane, Bill Finger becomes Will Hander, and Jerry Robinson becomes…nothing, because unlike the other creators there’s no clear moral conflict in his career. Editor Mort Weisinger is on the scene at Sy Mortimer but as of 1948 hasn’t reached his full potential as a villain.

The detective, Jack Starr, is the troubleshooting vice president of a newspaper syndication service. Though he refers to his father as “the major,” reminiscent of Maj. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, this business is actually successful. It’s also run by a version of Gypsy Rose Lee, a retired stripper of an intellectual kind. That’s the most fictional part of the book.

As with Oz the Great and Powerful, the story is a little less interesting than watching it play out just on the edge of its source material without stepping over the line onto that territory. In this case, the mystery depends on all those comics pros being capable of killing the equivalent of the president of DC Comics. So of course “any resemblance to actual persons…is entirely coincidental,” as the copyright page says.

Further volumes in Collins’s Jack Starr series appear to be inspired by the Li’l Abner Broadway show of 1956 and its roots in newspaper comics, and by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s anti-comics crusade.

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