When I read the first half (and only the first half) of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay a few years ago, I found it pretentious and boring and chucked it. That book, in case you were lucky enough to avoid it, was loosely based on Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and the shameful treatment they recieved from the burgeoning comic book industry.
Well, A Killing in Comics is less-loosely based on Jerry and Joe, and I'm pleased to report it's a far better book. It is, in fact, a joyful read from start to finish, by a guy who really understands and appreciates comics.
What impressed me first was Mr. Collins' Hammett-like narration. The hero, Jack Starr, is only marginally a private detective, but he fills that role well and relates his tale with style and wit.
In an afterword, the author warns us that the characters and events do not directly parallel those of real life, but some of them are pretty dang close. Siegel and Shuster become Spiegel and Shulman, the creators of Wonder Guy (who grew up as Wonder Boy in Littleburg). Batman becomes Batwing (who has a partner named Sparrow), with creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger portrayed as Rod Krane and Will Hander. And among the second banana superheroes mentioned are Amazonia, Marvel Man, the Blue Barracuda and Red Archer. Mag titles are fun, too, including Active Comics, Detection Comics and World's Strongest. And it all happens in a world that includes real characters and creators, like Flash Gordon and Alex Raymond, Dick Tracy and Chester Gould.
There are many realistic looks at the business and creation of comics in the forties, and the more you know of that era, the more you'll find to appreciate. One bit I especially liked was an oil painting of Wonder Guy, described as "the work of an artist who used to provide raunchy covers to Donny's old pulp magazines. Somehow that said it all - that the signature painting of the red-white-and-blue hero of America's youth had been executed by a guy who more commonly depicted slobbering males (mad scientists, cannibals, Red Indians) in the process of ripping the remaining shreds of clothing off tied-up nubile maidens."
That real world artist, of course, was H.J. Ward, many of whose Spicy covers have graced this blog. I had a chance to admire his painting of Wonder Guy's inspiration (above) a few years ago in a San Francisco museum.
All the comics-related fun aside, this is a good classic mystery novel. Throughout the book, chapter headings are provided by artist Terry Beatty, and just before the conclusion (when all the supects are confronted in one room by Jack Starr) those illos are employed to recap the mystery and challenge the reader to name the culprit. A cool technique.
I'm happy to report that a new edition of A Killing in Comics is now available here: A Killing in Comics (Dover Mystery Classics). Jack Starr returned in Strip for Murder in 2008 and Seduction of the Innocent in 2013, both of which are on my reading list.