In the early 1960’s, Dell’s Four Color Series experimented with giving some of the great detectives the Superman treatment by trying them out as comic books. The newsstands’ luster was raised by the appearance of original stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen. Unfortunately, these experiments did not bear fruit, and neither detective earned enough attention (read profit) to merit a full series. Fortunately, Coachwhip Publications, who have re-issued, among other classic mysteries, the entire Todd Downing series, have published these novelties that are sure to thrill the inner fan boy in all of us.
I have long since hung up my hat as an aficionado, yet once I was an avid collector of DC Comics. My favorites were anything Batman-related (Detective was the best one) and The Legion of Super Heroes, but I bought most of the Superman-related titles, too. I had managed to amass a tidy pile, nothing super-rare but every issue precious to me, when my mom had one of her misguided parental brainstorms and, concluding that comic books are dust magnets, threw my collection away! I managed to stow (yes, stow!) one box, along with a lifetime’s worth of resentment, in the back of my closet. Now every time an old comic sells for tens of thousands of dollars, I glare at my mom, as if to say, “See what you cost me?”
One of my favorite memories of Detective Comics was how sometimes they crossed over into my other passion, the one for murder mysteries. There was a time when Batman functioned as much as a detective as he did an action figure. He was the brainy super hero. Murder would occur, clues and suspects abounded, and the Caped Crusader would analyze in his Batcave with as much finesse as Holmes did at 221B Baker Street. I felt challenged as a reader to solve the case before Batman did. In fact, I imagined myself as Robin, the Boy Wonder, who served here as Watson to his mentor, focusing our mental powers to unmask killers. Then, of course, Batman would have to use his utility belt lasso to take down the culprit, for less intellectual readers than I demanded this of him. Even so, these stories felt much more sophisticated than my Hardy Boys books, where the toughest crime you might find was a smuggler’s ring at Pirates’ Cove. Soon, however, they paled in comparison to the complex cases I started reading about Hercule Poirot, Sir Gideon Fell and Ellery Queen, and gradually I gave up the exploits of the Man of Steel for the Man of the Little Grey Cells.
Recently I saw an ad about the Ellery Queen comic book, and I snapped it up. An ad for the Sherlock Holmes prompted a second purchase. I tried to savor both, but it felt so cool to kick back in bed, reading comic books again, that I ate them up. Somehow, my past had merged with my present as two of the greatest detectives in fiction stared back at me from the panels where men in cowls used to fight. Just how well did these new adventures capture at least the spirit, if not the intellectual equivalent, of the originals? Well, since you asked, let me tell you . . .
Anyone who is familiar with the career of Ellery Queen knows that nobody mastered the branding of the Queen label quite like cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee did. Consider this: the novels and stories spanned 42 years, encompassing several authors near the end who ghost-wrote (or co-wrote) the final books. There was also a whole slew of hard-boiled novels published under the Queen name. Then there were the adaptations of Queen’s adventures in a myriad of forms. Nine films were made between 1935 and 1942, none of them classics but many of them enjoyable (and a few egregiously bad). Queen was much more successful in radio from 1939 to 1948. The biggest tragedy for me is that the majority of these episodes were destroyed or lost, although some have survived, some were turned into short stories by the authors, and others were published in script form by Crippen and Landru, bless them. Then came television, with two mediocre series in the 1950’s bearing little resemblance to Ellery of the novels, followed by a TV movie based on Cat of Many Tails but switched to groovy 60’s New York and starring Peter Lawford, and – saving the best for last – the delightful series starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne that was drenched in period and offered clever puzzles starring guest stars from classic cinema and TV, but unfortunately only lasted through the 1975-76 season.
Dannay and Lee cleverly went about recruiting new fans among the younger generation with board games, jigsaw puzzles, and a series of mysteries for children about Ellery Queen, Jr., eleven titles ghost written and published between 1941 and 1966. And of course, there were comic books. Beginning in 1940, Ellery Queen regularly appeared as a comic book hero. Coachwhip’s release represents the fourth go-round. After all this, I find it utterly ironic today that, not only is Queen not regularly re-published, but younger mystery fans have neither read nor heard of him.
The Queen comics here turned out to be a lot of fun. The artwork is so-so – I had a hard time telling characters apart, for instance – but the stories themselves are enjoyable mystery adventures, with an accent on the “adventure.” Most adaptations of the Ellery Queen character lightened the intellectual load and made the man slightly harder-boiled. The radio show often was set in the world of gangsters; same with the 50’s TV shows. (This may be why I love the Jim Hutton version which, if not entirely accurate – Hutton makes him too bumbling – at least focused solely on Ellery’s intellect. Again, this may be why it was cancelled.) Ellery in the comics has evidently sent away for that muscle building program usually advertised on the back of magazines. This guy is built, as is evidenced when he goes scuba diving in “The Underwater Clue.” The glasses he wears make him look a little too much like Clark Kent. A lot of beautiful dames figure in the cases, a fair number of them femmes fatale. But there is always an element of mystery, a clue or two that helps Ellery and his ever-present dad, Inspector Queen, figure out which of the suspicious characters lurking about is the culprit.
Often, the stories introduce an element of the supernatural. This is always debunked by Ellery and the real, human, agency exposed, but it makes for some of the best panels in adventures like “The Mummy’s Curse” or “The Witch’s Victim.” One of my favorites, “The Voodoo Victim,” leads us to the precipice of believing in zombies only to have Ellery use pretty good logic to bring the case back down to earth. As you can see from the titles, every effort was made to draw in young readers with a thirst for monsters. Ultimately, I fear that kids must have found these stories too dry for their tastes; hence, the fourth incarnation didn’t seem to last very long. Ah, youth is wasted on the young.
Turning to the Sherlock Holmes comic, one can see that a great deal of respect for the original was put into this. Action is still placed wherever it can be, with chases and explosions and someone trying to kill Holmes every three pages. But mostly, ratiocination is the order of the day, as it should be. Holmes regularly deduces reams of information about people from the slightest glance, and the deductions make perfect sense. Perhaps the weakest adventure is “The Tunnel Scheme” featuring Professor Moriarty, because the arch-villain’s scheme to take over the building of the Channel tunnel in order to mask a huge crime is beneath the genius we all know Moriarty to be. Still, the Professor is drawn well, with a high bald dome and evil eyes. Watson looks way too much like Nigel Bruce throughout, thus making this Doctor far too old for this very handsome, athletic Holmes. But their relationship is well written. In fact, all the characters, including the suspects, are stronger, better defined, than in the Queen comics, and the dialogue, while not as erudite as in the original stories, has a distinctly Victorian feel about it.
So taking all of this into account – clever original adventures, a feeling for the time period, well-drawn characters, and an emphasis on Holmes’ deductive methods rather than any attempt to turn the detective’s cloak into a cape, and you can pretty much figure out why this comic didn’t make it past two issues. I’m not sure if any other attempts were made, although I seem to remember a Classics Illustrated version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. But that issue may reside in my dreams, along with a whole stack of yet-to-be-discovered graphic novels featuring Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Sir Henry Merrivale and the like. I don’t blame you if you shake your heads at the folly of the comic book industry for failing to tap into these unsung heroes for the kid market. Or, if you’d like, you can always follow my lead and blame my mother. Works for me every time!