19 April 2017

Scattered Thoughts On Crime Comics

Colossi writer Ricardo Mo asked on Twitter this morning: "What is your definition of a crime comic? Something like Parker or Criminal is obviously 'crime' by anyone's definition. But what about Sleeper? He is undercover in a criminal organization, doing criminal things. But it seems like some might consider it 'spy/espionage'? Where do you draw the line? Is there a line there?"

The question immediately sparked me remembering a Greg Rucka quote from some random podcast about the nature of crime revolving around people doing terrible things for money or because of passion. And while I do think that is a great way to sum it up, it is not really an acceptable answer to put in 140 characters as a response. Comics for eighty years have been about criminals, thieves, and murderers being stopped be it by Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc. But I would not put a "crime comic" label on most of those stories (more on Batman in a bit).

Excerpt of the Comic Book Code of 1954.
This question would've been easier to answer in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Crime comics held a big piece of the pie back in the day before Frederic Wertham and the creation of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA prohibited the presentation of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority", added the requirements that "in every instance good shall triumph over evil" and banned "instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities." Even the use of the word "crime" was subject to numerous restrictions.

The CCA went a long way from shutting down the Joker as a mass murder for twenty years (and any possible suggestion that something else was going on between Batman and Robin besides their already problematic nocturnal activities).Superman became everyone's patriotic father figure, giving out thirty years too son Ronald Reagan winks while just a decade removed from wrecking a slum because it was a root of crime. But while cape comics were changed to comply, books like EC's Crime SuspenStories were cancelled and EC itself was irreparably harmed by the new guidelines effects on crime and horror comics.

But then we reached a point and decided Wertham was a cranky old man who didn't conduct his supposed research on the level so thank you. Fuck you. Bye. And crime comics flowed back onto the scene. Now when someone says "crime comics", I instantly think of Brubaker and Phillips' Criminal, Aaron and Latour's Southern Bastards, Aaron and Guera's Scalped, even Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker. All of these feature a major character or characters who's whole point of being is to operate on Rucka's definition.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent was noir thirty something Archie out to kill his wife for her money and to hook up with Betty. Southern Bastards heavily features a high school football coach who essentially runs Craw County as its crime boss. Everyone in the county is gunning for him after his brutal murder of a hometown war hero and a run of bad luck on the field. Southern Bastards can nearly come across as a deep fried Sopranos that's just missing a psychiatrist at times. Scalped is the ramifications of years of mystery and violence on a reservation catching up as a Chief launches a casino to help manage his business of drugs, prostitution and money. Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker takes a more grounded approach to Batman's rogues gallery. Joker is a crime boss using a strip club as a front and popping pills to try and make it through the day. Killer Croc serves as his heavy henchman with a unique way of getting rid of bodies. Two Face isn't robbing the Second National Bank of Gotham on February 22nd. He's a crime boss worried about his secret of bigamy. There's also a rape scene that's repulsive in a book where Batman pops up but DC gonna DC sometimes.

So what makes Joker a crime book while Batman comics aren't? I think there's a difference between the unsettling feelings you get reading a comic where Alfred Pennyworth gets his hand chopped off only to regain it six months later and a comic where the Joker has a man skinned alive because he didn't like the way he was looking at his girlfriend. It depends on violence. But there is something deeper than that. To be a crime book, the focus has to be on someone who commits terrible criminal acts for clear motivations besides "Batman made me do it!" and this person has to be viewed as a protagonist in some fashion. Southern Bastards' Coach Boss was the town's evil fuck of a high school football coach in the first arc. He murdered the star of the book in cold blood. But Aaron and Latour flipped the script and made him a protagonist in the following arc. I was actually cheering for this man who murdered his shitheel father.

And that is the key for me. A crime book is not a crime book just because it has crime in it. It's a book where the bad guys win. Not literally. But when they get you to root for them in their endeavors at some point. It is when it takes you out of the moment and say "yeah, that makes sense" only to horrify yourself when you consider the consequences. A crime book is where bad people and their actions make you reconsider (ever so briefly) your self identification as a good person.

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