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Paul Gravett:

The Connisseur Of Crime & The Incredibly Strange

In the following interview, Paul Gravett discusses his new books, Best Crime Comics  and Incredibly Strange Comics, with Matthew Badham. The interview was conducted in July 2008 and was quoted in a three-page feature in the current issue of Judge Dredd Megazine, #276.

How did you decide what to include in Best Crime Comics?

Basic criteria were to go for quality and striking complete stories. As well as appealing to comics fans, this compilation is intended to reach out to the general ‘civilian’ audience, the crime readership, so I was after some famous names both from crime fiction and graphic novels to grab their attention. Names like Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane, for example, both of whom wrote original stories of Secret Agent X-9 and Mike Hammer specifically for newspaper strips. Past masters like Will Eisner, also to tap into anticipation for the new Spirit movie, and other American greats like Jack Cole, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Johnny Craig, Alex Toth. Or modern authors like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. I also wanted to make sure these really are ‘the Best’, so I looked for classic and contemporary gems and not solely from the US/UK but Europe too, so it was vital to include Jordi Bernet who also did the cover, Jacques Tardi, Muñoz & Sampayo and others. And I was after, wherever possible, strong original stories rather than adaptations.

Crime really thrives on strong contrasts of black and white. So it was also important to present the best possible artwork for the public. Ideally I wanted to avoid using rather muddy, screened, grey-toned versions of colour American comic books. So I sourced the best printings, preferably in black and white - in some cases from original artwork, or from rare surviving negatives or British reprints - and my partner/designer Peter Stanbury put a lot of care and skill into restoring these stories and converting them to the best black and white we could get.

When Mammoth first approached me some years ago, they had not even started Best New Manga, now a big success edited by Ilya and moving into its third volume, all in colour, this October. Back then they wanted to start with a Best Manga book compiling all Japanese material but this would have been too complex and pricey to secure the rights. When Best New Manga took off, and rightly so, they asked me again, as they were starting a companion line of genre reprints. One condition I asked for was that they enlarge the page format from their regular small paperback size. That works OK for manga with usually only a few panels and not much text per page, but you can’t reduce complex American comic book pages down so small, they’d become unreadable. They took my advice and expanded the page size from the word go on this series, so that really improved first David Kendall’s Best War Comics and then Peter Normanton’s Best Horror Comics. When it came to my Best Crime Comics, they made a further format change, an extra 10mm or so on the width, which really helped us show the comics larger on the page for improved impact and readability. They even improved the whiteness of the paper to beef up the solid blacks.

Was there any stuff left out that you would have really liked to see get in there?

Yes, loads actually, more than enough for a sequel volume and hopefully if this sells well, the demand will be there. For starters, neither Raymond Chandler nor Leslie Charteris made it in, and I was in touch with Ed Brubaker too, who really belongs in a book like this. I’d also like to include some Japanese and Korean examples, some women writers and artists too, and maybe some adaptations or originals by more contemporary non-comics crime writers. Some material was off-limits, at least for now, due to the cost or availability of rights. I was keen to include some previously unpublished work too, and sadly had to drop one story due to being capped at 480 pages. I’m also open to suggestions if anyone wants to contact me.

You’ve stretched the definition of what a crime comic is in the anthology. Moore gets in there with a piece of reportage about filming a From Hell documentary. Gaiman does his magic realist thing. Was that always your thinking, to include more esoteric pieces and what do you think they bring to the anthology?

Definitely, the crime fiction genre is constantly evolving and being reinvented so I wanted to reflect some of that. I was particularly pleased at the way the two Alan Moore stories work so well to open and close the book. Old Gangsters Never Die started life as a song by Moore and David Jay of Bauhaus, recorded by their band The Sinister Ducks. It has a sleazy period cabaret feel or an illegal speakeasy atmosphere, very theatrical, like a piece of performance art, as our host relates the violent ends of assorted gangsters. It’s the perfect intro to the heydays of Twenties and Thirties organised crime that follows. Then I Keep Coming Back forms the perfect conclusion as we end up in Spitalfields, in the pub where Jack the Ripper picked some of his victims. Alan conveys the feelings he experiences himself of the murderer’s presence, in the pub and in his own mind, still with us to this day. The two stories also gave us perfect opening and closing images for the all-black endpapers - the spotlight coming on illuminating the microphone and curtains and the streetlight as a lone woman leaves the pub and walks into the night. A lot of thinking went into this book, believe me!

What is about crime fiction that continues to fascinate the general, mostly law-abiding, public? Why is it that we like to read about murder and mayhem, and why do you think that we sometimes like to see the bad guy win, as in some of the stories in Best Crime Comics?

Most of the older crime comics I’ve picked here tend to be very moralising, showing that crime leads only to death, prison or execution, that Crime Does Not Pay. That said, many of these tales do spend most of their pages showing us how depraved and exciting being a criminal can be and leave it only to the last few panels to show their capture or downfall. Crime fiction has many fascinations, as it allows us to confront our own dark side and potential for evil, to explore moral dilemmas and, in detection-based or whodunnit-style stories, to try to solve the mystery and to enjoy figuring out the deductive process. There’s a vicarious electricity to witnessing lives out of control, acts we might never see let alone do in real life, the heightened drama that is mostly missing from our humdrum days. That’s one reason why Frank Miller’s Sin City has totally re-energised the genre, in comics and now in films, with its over-the-top, operatic brutality.

Did it frustrate you that you weren’t able to credit every creator in Best Crime Comics, with some strips credited to anonymous? Can you tell us something about the research that went into the book?

I had some amazing help from collectors and experts, here and in the US, like Frank Motler, Ian Rakoff, George Hagenauer and others, but some art, and especially some stories, are almost impossible to credit with certainty. That’s why we dedicated the book to these unknown creators. It’s a crime that they were not allowed to sign their work and remain unknown to this day. I also had a lot of help from friends who lent me their pre-Code crime comic books to read through in search of the best.

What did you learn about crime comics by putting together the book? Did you discover any creators that you weren’t aware of or have you been a crime comics aficionado from way back?

The crazy thing is that this once rich genre was allowed to vanish from American comic books once the Comics Code cracked down in 1955. It’s not surprising because the Code limited the potential for dramatic stories immensely by insisting, for example, that legal authorities should always be shown with respect and no details of how a crime is committed should be explained.

So no wonder crime fiction flourished elsewhere, in books and magazines, on television, and the movies too, but apart from some TV tie-ins from Dell and maybe some newspaper strip reprints, the genre was largely dormant in comic books through the 1960s. That’s why Gil Kane tried His Name Is Savage in the late Sixties, and Jack Kirby launched In The Days Of The Mob in 1971, both in magazine rather than comic book format, to try and reach a more adult audience. Sadly, both lasted only one issue. DC really should release a complete edition of Kirby’s Mob, including the entire, unpublished second issue. I am sure it would sell.

Jim Steranko loves the crime genre too and his Chandler: Red Tide was a landmark graphic novel homage in 1976. Frank Miller always wanted to create crime comics too. If you check out his early stories for fanzines, they were mainly crime genre. But  by the 1980s in American comics books, superheroes were the only game in town. In many ways, when Miller broke through on Daredevil, and later Batman, they were perfect for him to turn into gritty urban crime stories, albeit big, romantic ones with costumed superheroes.

But crime in comics never went out of fashion across Europe and elsewhere and it was here ever since the 1970s that some of the greatest work has been produced in the genre, especially moving away from the Crime Does Not Pay morality play to more nuanced dramas in which good doesn’t always triumph over evil and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other. Alack Sinner by Muñoz and Sampayo or Torpedo 1936 by Abuli and Bernet are powerful adult series, the sort of thing that was impossible under the American Code.  I also rate Igort’s work very highly from Italy, a class act.

Before Miller’s Sin City, the breakthrough comic book in America was Max Allan Collins’ and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree. A widowed, vengeful P.I., she’s as tough as, if not tougher than Mike Hammer, who was Collins’ biggest influence. It’s no accident that Miller drew some centre-spread pin-ups in the first few Ms. Tree issues. Over the last ten year or so there’s been a renaissance of crime comics in the States. I wrote a rave letter to David Lapham because I was blown away by his first Stray Bullets.  Brubaker and Bendis are doing amazing work too. John Wagner’s History of Violence, Warren Ellis’s Fell, even Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery and Hannah Berry’s Britten & Brülightly, are great recent examples by British writers.

Which were your favourite strips from the book and why?

Hard to choose as I rate them all but I’d single out two for special mention: Blind Man’s Bluff, the 87th Precinct story based on Ed McBain’s characters about a deranged blind painter, is the last ever comic drawn by the lost genius Bernie Krigstein, never reprinted before since it appeared in 1962, and ranks as one of the strangest, most surreal sagas in American comics! I am also really glad that the Italian maestro Gianni de Luca’s Commissario Spada, a classy 1970s cop series, has finally been published here in English for the first time. He’s got the best detective’s nose since Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy!

Any more ‘Mammoth Book Of…’ anthologies on the horizon for you and can you please tell me about them if there are?

David Kendall is doing the next one, The Mammoth Book Of Zombie Comics, out for Halloween, which should be a gruesome treat. There are other genres I’m tempted by and I’d be interested in another Crime one, so buy plenty of copies of this one please to prove that "Crime DOES Pay!"

And now, to Leather Nun: How did the idea for this collection of weird comics come about?

OK, first I should explain that, unlike Best Crime Comics, this second new book, The Leather Nun & Other Incredibly Strange Comics, is not a thick anthology of complete comics but a small hardback, really a gift book or stocking filler, showing 61 weird and wacky comic covers and alongside them some quotes, panels and info all about them. I’ve amassed some real oddities over my many years of exploring comics, I seem to be drawn to them, as I’m constantly surprised by what people have done in this medium. The idea was to appeal to people’s taste for the tasteless and bizarre or simply odd, so all the comics had to have a striking title and/or cover. But they had to be incredibly strange inside as well, so I could explain the stories and the history behind each comic and its creators.

This collection, by its very nature, was always going to be an esoteric collection. What, in your opinion, is the oddest thing in the book?

As I say in the intro, "Strangeness is in the eye of the beholder". If you stop and think about it, so many comics are decidedly strange and yet we accept them, even take them for granted. Here’s a nerdy guy who bursts out of his clothes and turns green when he gets angry, and yet The Hulk is a popular icon and multimedia star. One seemingly very odd comic that does get a lot of reaction is Amputee Love, a one-off American underground comic from Last Gasp in 1975. I had hoped this might have been the book’s title but it was probably too strong and sensitive a subject, so we went for The Leather Nun instead. This is a perfect example of an Incredibly Strange Comic with an unforgettable title, a great suggestive cover and once inside, while the artwork is nowhere near as polished as the cover, it surprises and grabs you by being a totally honest, empowering story about a woman who gets over the trauma of losing a limb and finds that she, and others like her, can enjoy a fulfilling sex life. There’s an autobiographical element to it too, as the writer Rene was a double amputee and her non-amputee partner Rich did the drawings. But I also like the incredibly bland, unintentionally weird comics like one about the history of prunes.

Which is the most disturbing strip in the book?

Well several might qualify but for disturbing imagery I’d mention Neraka, Malay for "Hell", a comic which shows in graphic detail the grisly punishments of sinners. Amazingly this was intended for kids. It’s one way to terrify them into behaving, I suppose. The other would be My Friend Dahmer. This gets some gasps from people who expect some shocking imagery about the serial killer. What’s far more disturbing about this comic is that the cartoonist Derf knew Dahmer at school and show how his psychopathia was ignored or ridiculed by students and teachers, how no one helped him and how he literally slipped through the net. That’s a truly chilling read.

How did you go about sourcing information about and copies of all these wacky and way-out comics?

Well I’ve amassed quite a few of these myself over the years but several experts and collectors lent me their rarities or suggested oddities I should try tracking down. Of course the internet puts you in touch with people worldwide who were very generous with their suggestions and information. By and large, much as I love them, I’ve avoided odd comics that are more familiar to Marvel and DC fans, like all those loopy Mort Weisinger Superman family yarns or the Lee and Kirby monsters like Googam, Son of Goom. They’re strange but not incredibly strange enough, for my purposes. I wanted to go into some shadier, murkier territories like the underground comix scene, adult sex comics, government, marketing and educational comics, religious tracts, anti-Communist propaganda, and crazy material from Mexico, Italy and elsewhere. Although I’ve included notorious classics like Hansi The Girl Who Loved The Swastika and Fatman The Human Flying Saucer, I hope that at least some of these Incredibly Strange Comics will surprise pretty much all but the most encyclopedic comics swot!

Are there any weird comics that you’re particularly proud of rescuing from the dustbin of history?

A couple of my favourites would be Mod Love, a little-known true 1960s timepiece in a fantastic psychedelic style, unusual because it’s set in swinging London but published by the very square Western in the States, and a 1930’s book of astonishing Australian aborigine comics by two white sisters living in the outback. But not all the comics in here are golden oldies. I’ve picked out several quite recent examples too, like the brilliant Trucker Fags In Denial and a special issue of the "furry" comic Genus spotlighting Lesbian Unicorns. Now there are some untapped niche markets for you!

Presumably these comics were designed to be titillating and sometimes disturbing. But is there an important lesson here about junk culture as well? About how lo-fi and pop culture can deal with taboo subjects in a way that more rarefied art forms such as ballet, opera and even literary fiction might find themselves unable to?

Well some of these comics do just what it says on the cover, especially the porno ones like La Donna Ragna, a female nymphomaniac Spider-Man, but yes, comics outside the mainstream of mass entertainment can tell astonishing, even insightful tales. All it takes is one person, a pen, some paper, or these days a Wacom tablet, and a story and a burning desire to tell it! It’s precisely because comics have, until recently, fallen "below the critical radar", as Art Spiegelman of Maus fame once put it, that mavericks and independents have been able to express themselves unrestrained by any expectations, formulas or quality control.  There’s also a fascination in seeing how comics are hijacked by institutions to make sledgehammer messages for the masses, and how much these are steeped in the beliefs, values and paranoias of their times. The deeper idea behind this book, like all my others really, is that there is so much more to comics that most people realise. That kooky front cover is just the start, what lies within can be even more astounding and sometime rewarding.

And finally, what would you say to a ‘Meg’ reader who was thinking about buying these books. What’s their selling point for your average 2000AD and Megazine fan?

A good deal of my taste for the extraordinary and mind-warping came from ingesting 2000AD‘s Thrill Power from the very start. So I think there’s something in this book to grab pretty much every reader of 2000AD and The Megazine, because we are all fellow connoisseurs of the incredibly strange.

If there’s anything you want to say, Paul, just throw it in the mix.

I’m already compiling a sequel, so anyone with an Incredibly Strange Comics they think cries out to be included, please do get in touch. I’ll also be doing some illustrated talks, and hopefully an exhibition at the Comica Festival at the ICA in London in November.

Posted: September 21, 2008

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Judge Dredd
Megazine #276

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Crime Comics
Incredibly Strange Comics
Interviews
Paul Gravett

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Featured Books


The Mammoth Book Of
Best Crime Comics

edited by Paul Gravett,
designed by Peter Stanbury


The Leather Nun & Other
Incredibly Strange Comics

edited by Paul Gravett,
designed by Peter Stanbury


Judge Dredd
Megazine #276

edited by Tharg


The Mammoth Book Of
Best New Manga Vol 3

edited by Ilya


The Mammoth Book Of
Best War Comics

edited by David Kendall


The Mammoth Book Of
Best Zombie Comics

edited by David Kendall


The Mammoth Book Of
Best Horror Comics

edited by Peter Normanton