My 2019 Reading Stacks #5

Crime Books!

Mystery! Guns! Danger! Crime! More guns!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

At the beginning of each year I spend weeks writing year-in-review entries that cover the gamut of my entertainment intake, including capsule reviews for all the books and graphic novels I’ve read. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it.

As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections I’ve read throughout the year in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will pop up here and there, albeit in a minority capacity for a few different reasons. Triple bonus points to any longtime MCC readers who can tell which items I bought at which comic/entertainment conventions we’ve attended over the past few years.

And now…it’s readin’ time again!

17. Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, Killing Town. I first knew of Collins back in the ’80s when he was writing the Dick Tracy comic strip, enjoying his own creator-owned series Ms. Tree with artist/co-creator Terry Beatty, briefly taking over Batman for DC after Crisis on Infinite Earths (in which he became the first person ever to reboot Jason Todd), and, again with Beatty, co-creating Wild Dog, the Iowan vigilante who would later be fairly reimagined on TV’s Arrow. From there I moved on to his mystery novels, including his “Quarry” series and his historical-fiction tales starring Eliot Ness. This is my first Collins book in a long time, which began as a manuscript gifted to him by the world-famous Mr. Spillane, who wrote this first attempt at a Mike Hammer story shortly after WWII and then threw it in a drawer for the next sixty years.

Completed and augmented by Collins for publishing on the occasion of Spillane’s 100th birthday, Killing Town is the sordid tale of a guy visiting his dead war buddy’s hometown of Killington (ah, those carefree 1940s, when town founders were so on-the-nose with their naming) to deliver a thing to the widow, only to get caught up in a bum murder rap, a crooked police force, a femme fatale, and…the local fish glue factory? It sounds like a dubious setting till you realize any factory is bound to be filled with cavernous storage rooms, deep vats, precarious catwalks, unsafe machinery, and other elements that come in handy for cliffhanger deathtraps and violent climaxes. Collins’ intro indicates he tamed down some of Spillane’s flourishes that hadn’t aged well, but fans of old-fashioned two-fisted fast-paced tough-guy adventure, mysteries with a short list of suspects, and icky twists predating Chinatown should feel right at home.

18. Steven Grant and Mike Zeck, Damned. The writer/artist team that gave Marvel its first Punisher solo book reunited in 1997, returned to the world of crime drama (though this time with nary a super-costume), and set up their project at Homage Comics, then an imprint of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Comics, which in turn began as a key part of Image Comics. After DC hired away Jim Lee and acquired Wildstorm, Homage got buried in the mix and everyone forgot to market any and all things Homage. Grant and Zeck nonetheless finished Damned on their own terms.

The sordid tale of a freshly released ex-con visiting his old crime partner’s hometown of New Covenant (man, these small towns and their noses) to deliver a thing to a sister, only to get caught up in a frantic search for a MacGuffin stash, a nagging parole officer, a femme fatale, and no small amount of fatal gunplay. While the echoes of Killing Town weren’t lost on me (published twenty years apart, bought eighteen months apart, and read weeks apart), Damned is leaner and meaner, centered on a protagonist not destined to star in his own CBS series, and blessed with the art of Zeck, an old favorite from my childhood (having drawn memorable runs of Spidey, Cap, and Marvel Team-Up in addition to the Punisher). That this book fell through the cracks and didn’t herald much of a non-superhero crime-comics wave (well, apart from the complete Ed Brubaker oeuvre) is a shame.

19. Jeremy Whitley and Emily Martin, Princeless vol. 2: Get Over Yourself. The further adventures of Princess Adrienne, a self-liberated former fairy-tale-tower captive who sets forth to rescue her sisters likewise held captive across the land, aided and abetted by her half-dwarf friend Bedelia and without the help of, and despite the antagonistic efforts of, any number of males throughout the land who underestimate, objectify, and/or pale before the combined might of the young ladies. It’s unpredictable, rollicking, all-ages fun and there’s a goodly pink dragon in case your younger bookworm relatives need more incentive.

Mage v.1!

Not quite a Round Table. Art by Matt Wagner, Sam Kieth, Jeromy Cox and/or James Rochelle.

20. Matt Wagner, Mage: The Hero Discovered, Vol. 1. When I discovered comic shops back in 1985, Comico the Comic Company was among the fine purveyors of printed matter that wasn’t reaching ordinary newsstands, and yes, their name really was Comico the Comic Company. I quickly latched onto Bill Willingham’s Elementals but missed out on their other stylish series of the time. Wagner went on to greater fame with Grendel as well as numerous projects at DC such as Sandman Mystery Theatre, The Demon, and assorted moody Batman fare. Mage has been collected a few times over the years, but it took me this many decades to get my hands on Volume One of Series One at a convention at long last.

Our Hero Kevin Matchstick is an average guy in a lightning-bolt T-shirt introduced to a whole new world of fantasy when a cagey wizard named Mirth awakens superpowers within him and minutes later has him chasing down inhuman henchmen from another dimension. Along for the ride is a black teenage girl nicknamed Edsel, who wields an enchanted baseball bat and who presaged the current tidal wave of kickbutt nonwhite women saving the day in genre comics. Wagner at the time was a young artist coming into his own with a rounded style that stood out from the pack, riffing faintly on King Arthur but building his own world with its own rules. (He’s been in the biz long enough that his son Brennan is now collaborating with him on new Grendel stories. I feel so, so old.) Hopefully it won’t be another twenty years before I can stumble across Volume 2.

Flaming Carrot!

From those halcyon days when black-and-white comics were an acceptable artistic choice and everyone loved using Frankenstein. Art by Bob Burden.

21. Bob Burden, Flaming Carrot Comics, Vol. 6. One of the many black-and-white comics that ’80s readers never knew about if they only bought their comics from groceries or drugstores. Flaming Carrot was uniquely batty, addicted to non sequitur, surrounded on all sides by wacky eccentrics, and besieged with menaces constructed entirely of random words and objects. Technically the baseline plots were lucid, but not in a way that asked to be analyzed. The women were largely drawn in a dated, boys-club hubba-hubba manner that used to be called “cheesecake”, which wouldn’t withstand six seconds of scrutiny on Twitter today. That last aspect was never my thing, so I’m not remotely tempted to defend it with a casual “You had to be there.” It sucks to admit, but in hindsight FC’s adventures seem…less readable than I remember? Chalk it up to nostalgic reverence for that bizarre Dadaist superhero vegetable of yesteryear.

More to come!

[See also: Stack #1 | Stack #2 | Stack #3 | Stack #4: The Wuthering Heights Special]

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