Friday, November 21, 2008

Elementary, my dear

As great as my love for comics is, my fondness for mystery fiction — more specifically, detective novels — is a close runner-up.

My boyhood reading experiences encompassed the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (that's right — I read Nancy Drew books, and I'm man enough to admit it), Encyclopedia Brown, and Robert Arthur's Three Investigators. I soon graduated to more mature works: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Donald E. Westlake (and his various pseudonyms), Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and my youthful writing guru, Isaac Asimov. (Most people remember Asimov as a science fiction giant, but I admired his mystery stories even more, especially his series about the men's dining club known as the Black Widowers.)

Today, I eagerly devour every new work by my contemporary faves in the mystery field: Robert B. Parker, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Karen Kijewski, and Steve Hamilton.

Mysteries, for whatever reason, have rarely caught on in a big way with comic book readers — ironic, really, given that one of the world's largest comics publishers derives its name from the title Detective Comics. There have been some excellent mystery comics over the years, from Will Eisner's genre-spanning The Spirit (currently being revived by writers Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier) to Mike W. Barr's clever, Ellery Queen-esque Maze Agency. Most pure mystery titles, however, have remained cult hits at best... if they could be called "hits" at all.

Today's featured artwork from my Common Elements gallery salutes two of comics' finest detectives. Sporting the trenchcoat and pistol is hard-boiled private eye Ms. Tree; her malleable companion is Ralph Dibny, better known as the Elongated Man. Terry Beatty, who co-created Ms. Tree with popular mystery scribe Max Allan Collins of Road to Perdition fame, does the artistic honors.

Aside from her status as perhaps comics' grittiest P.I., Ms. Tree (you get that joke, yes?) holds the distinction of being one of the medium's most complex female leads. Widowed in her debut tale, Ms. Tree spends many of her subsequent adventures ferreting out — and gunning down — members of the mob that executed her husband. During the course of her career, Ms. Tree (whose first name, interestingly enough, is the same as my own) juggles a pregnancy, incarceration, a stay in a mental hospital, and a slew of weighty sociopolitical issues. Her history in print is equally convoluted, with four different companies having published her stories throughout the 1980s and '90s.

The Elongated Man appeared during the 1960s and '70s in the back pages of the aforementioned Detective Comics. (The main stories featured some guy who dressed like a bat.) Whimsical Ralph and his more level-headed wife Sue — who didn't have superpowers — solved mysteries together, like Nick and Nora Charles in the classic Thin Man films. (Ralph's code name is a play on "Thin Man" — another commonality he shares with Ms. Tree.) The Elongated Man mysteries were often "fair play," meaning that the reader could solve them from the clues in the story. Stretchable Ralph (his abilities derived from a soft drink called Gingold) was also a longtime member of the Justice League of America. DC Comics, in one of its typically boneheaded moves of late, recently killed off both Ralph and Sue. Now they occasionally appear together as "ghost detectives."

Terry Beatty's Common Elements entry has a backstory as colorful as that of its two protagonists. Terry created a previous version of this artwork that he subsequently posted on his blog. After looking at the image, however, he decided that he wasn't satisfied with how it had turned out — specifically, he saw some issues with the Ms. Tree figure he had drawn. So, rather than shipping the art to me, he started over from scratch and completely redrew the piece.

I've seen a scan of Terry's original work, and I would have been just as pleased with that iteration as I am with the final version. But I thought it commendable that he refused to release the commission until it met his professional standards. While I'm sure that Terry would defer the acknowledgment, that kind of dedication deserves notice.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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4 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous LongTimeFirstTime offered these pearls of wisdom...

Another great commission in your collection, Michael. I love Terry's commissions. It is too bad his Batman run came to an end, but there is an upside insofar as he had time to do these great drawings for collectors. Did you opt to go without colors?

3:53 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

LongTimeFirstTime: Thanks for the kind words. I'm a big fan of Terry's work, too (obviously!).

I did, in fact, request that Terry create this piece (as well as the two Bombshells! commissions he did for me recently) without added color. Since I began collecting original comic art, I've become partial to "raw" pencils and inks. For that reason, I never commission a piece in color, even when it's a standard option as it is on Terry's commissions.

In this case, it seems especially appropriate, given that most of Terry's work on Ms. Tree was published in black and white.

Thanks for asking!

4:04 PM  
Blogger dmarks offered these pearls of wisdom...

I remember The Elongated Man. Not as goofy as Plastic Man, as I recall.

Don't worry about them being dead. Comic book characters come back to life all the time.

8:53 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

DMarks: You're right -- Ralph occupied the intellectual middle ground among stretchable superheroes. He wasn't as silly as Plastic Man, but also was nowhere nearly so serious as Mr. Fantastic.

Interesting appendix to the above: When DC editor Julius Schwartz created the Elongated Man in 1960, it was a conscious attempt on Schwartz's part to resurrect Plastic Man, a Quality Comics character he had enjoyed in the 1940s.

Schwartz didn't know -- or, more likely, had forgotten -- that DC had purchased the rights to all of the Quality Comics heroes, including Plastic Man, four years earlier. Julie didn't have to create a new version of Plastic Man -- his company already owned the real one.

As for Ralph and Sue's deaths: It's not the deaths I mind so much, but the ugly way they were handled, Sue in particular. I know they're only fictional characters, but I hated to see them dispatched with such utter disrespect.

11:18 AM  

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