Last summer, I was invited to write an entry for a reference book called Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. I had just written a chapterbook on Stephen King and comics (Drawn Into Darkness; look for it at fine eBook retailers everywhere) and I was still gonzo on the subject, so convincing myself to take the assignment took no effort at all. I had been angling to write about Archie comics – learning that King loved Archie struck me as both incongruous and perfect – but that entry had already been taken. Then I noticed that no one had taken on Tales from the Crypt; I snapped it up faster than a dervish on a roller coaster.
The real-life stories I dug up about EC and the anti-horror comics hysteria were nearly as fascinating as the comics themselves. In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. The book eviscerated horror and crime comics, charging that they were a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. EC publisher, William Gaines, volunteered to appear before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency… but his dependence on the diet drug Dexedrine and the subcommittee’s predisposition against comics did him – and the horror comics industry – no favors.
All of this background provides the springboard for Max Allan Collins’ fantastic new crime novel, also titled Seduction of the Innocent. Analogues of these real-world people and events (Entertaining Comics becomes Entertaining Funnies, Bill Gaines becomes Bob Price, and Wertham is Werner Frederic, etc) churn up their own worst case scenario. Do comics kill people? That never happened in real life, even though death threats abounded in the anti-horror comics frenzy. But here? Gaines once said, “If someone did something really bad, he usually ‘got it.’ And of course the EC way was he got it the same way he gave it.” Ironic justice, served up fresh and clever, is at impish play in Collins’ book, as it references a gruesomely infamous EC cover reveling in the aftermath of a hanging.
The murder in the middle of Seduction is only one of the clever dodges in the book. The painted cover is another outstanding piece by Hard Case Crime mainstay Glen Orbik (whose previous work includes Stephen King’s Blockade Billy, The Colorado Kid, and the Cemetery Dance 25th Anniversary Edition of It), drawing you into the book but giving up none of its actual secrets. The interior art by Terry Beatty is more straightforward, done in the style of classic EC artists like Wally Wood and Jack Kamen. We’re treated to a smorgasbord of characters – savory and not-so – and enough red herrings to keep readers on their toes, but not so many that things grow confusing. As in his outstanding Quarry novels, Collins steeps the landscape in vintage crime-fiction color: there are sultry women who prefer their clothes off (and when clothes are on, we are treated to a Spenserian litany of who’s wearing what); old-fashioned Mob bosses and their lunkhead goons; and in the middle, our hero Jack Starr, a recovering alcoholic with an ironclad sense of right and wrong, and a willingness to use his gun when all other options have run out. The finale reaches back even further, to Agatha Christie-type drawing-room mysteries, in which all the players are present in one place, and our heroes draw out the murderer with cunning and deduction.
At the same time, Collins subtly makes the story feel more modern without calling attention to it: black and gay characters appear, to no one’s real shock. Sexy sirens attract Jack’s attention, but he prefers smart girls. In fact, women in Seduction of the Innocent hold far more positions of power than a story like this would initially have you believe: there’s a CEO, a psychologist, and a comic-book illustrator who all go toe-to-toe with the men and usually win. The fact that they’re all smoking hot is incidental. Almost.
In the 1990s, EC Comics worked to bring their mostly moral stories of horror and crime to a new audience, reprinting every issue of Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and all the others. Hard Case Crime has much the same agenda: publishing both classic pulp novels long out of print, as well as new novels by today’s best writers in the same vintage style. Those horror fans who only know Hard Case from its passing trip through Stephen King country with The Colorado Kid (and his upcoming novel, Joyland) are missing out on some exciting, gripping work by Collins – not to mention Charles Ardai, Donald Westlake, and James M. Cain. Hopefully, Seduction of the Innocent’s background of horror comics and the mania they inspired (as well as the story’s unstoppable pull) will draw horror readers into Hard Case Crime’s slightly different – yet no less bloody – world of guns, women, and hard justice.
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Max Allan Collins is the author of dozens of mystery and crime novels, including his deliriously entertaining Quarry series, both in and out of Hard Case Crime. Seduction of the Innocent is the third book in his Jack and Maggie Starr series – following A Killing in Comics and Strip for Murder – and his first for Hard Case Crime.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His book, Drawn Into Darkness, explores the world of Stephen King and comic books. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.