Popular depictions of the comic book industry tend to focus on awkward, unwashed readers, hyper-vigilant defenders of their chosen realm of escapism, and the perpetually scoffing retailers who feed their habit. Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, the cast of Comic Book Men, Dave Lizewski from Kick-Ass; not exactly an intimidating lot. And to the extent film and television depict the writers and artists behind the comics, it’s more of the same stereotypes, but with thwarted ambitions added in.
That pervasive, if inaccurate, image of the subculture would seem an unlikely setting for a murder mystery. But anyone who’s studied the history of comic books, read Gerard Jones’s excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, and Alan Moore’s excoriation of the industry as founded on vice, knows better. The origins of the medium more closely resembled White Heat than The Big Bang Theory.
Seduction of the Innocent, from Hard Case Crime, is the third in Max Allan Collins’s trilogy of mysteries set in the comic book industry and featuring protagonists Jack and Maggie Starr. As the title alludes, it takes place in the mid 1950s, when Fredric Wertham’s alarmist book of the same name was published, shortly before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority and the bankruptcy of EC Comics. Collins covers the history in a gossamer thin veil – Werner Frederick stands in for Frederic Wertham, Bob Price for Bill Gaines, Hal Feldman for Al Feldstein – then twists the narrative by having the controversial doctor murdered in his hotel room, setting off an investigation that peeks into the turbulent lives of those very real artists.
Though the investigation takes up the entire second half of the novel, Collins doesn’t exactly prioritize the mystery. Frederick’s murder isn’t discovered until halfway in, after the tenuous position of comics in society has been established, we’ve visited the Senate Subcommittee hearing, and Jack Starr, the novel’s detective hero, has met a lovely blonde psychologist who gives him insight into Frederick. When Jack and his step-mother Maggie, who runs a comic strip syndicate, finally reveal the solution in a televised take on a drawing room scene, I was less interested in the killer’s identity than in the impact of the reveal on the various industry personae.
That’s both the novel’s selling point, and possibly its key weakness. For a reader primed to enjoy an insider’s take on comic publishing, or who knows the stories already and can enjoy connecting the dots, Seduction of the Innocent is a diversion, a light take on a subject that we sometimes take a little too seriously. But readers looking for a dense, satisfying mystery, or even rollicking pulp, will likely be disappointed. It’s the fan-oriented stuff that holds the plot together; take that away, and the seams start to show.
In that way, Seduction of the Innocent mirrors the significant shift in comic book readership from the years it depicts to the present day. In the 1950s comic books were ubiquitous, a truly mass medium with sales figures in the multimillions. By contrast, February’s best selling comic, DC’s Justice League of America #1 had sales of just under 400,000. Of those 400,000 a disproportionate percentage are older, male readers who have carried their fandom into their adult years. Publishers constantly talk about courting new readers and the current trend of relaunched titles and special “jumping-on” issues demonstrate the surface of that desire, but the content of the books, all self-serious tone and esoteric references, is aimed squarely back at those readers who are already hooked.
Which isn’t to say that Collins intended Seduction of the Innocent as anything more than a mash note to a medium he clearly loves (he’s also written some comics, including the graphic novel Road to Perdition) the hands who shaped it, for better or worse, and his fellow fans. As one of those fans I appreciate the secret handshake. The story of Frederic Wertham, the Senate hearings, William Gaines’s blackballing, and the end of the Golden Age of comics in general is fascinating whether you’ve read a comic before or not. But Seduction of the Innocent is less history lesson and more fan club meeting.
That said, more compelling central characters could probably carry much of the weight for those uninitiated readers, with the comic book in-jokes as colorful background. But the stakes for Jack and Maggie are low throughout. I was left with the feeling that if Jack had simply abandoned his investigation at some point and let the cops figure it out, nothing much would’ve changed. Maybe if Collins had borrowed a little more of the lurid plotting and exaggerated characters from the comics Wertham was so concerned about, and which the cover painting suggests, Seduction of the Innocent would have more lasting impact. As it is, it’s a quick, fun read, but one not meant to linger.