08 April, 2014

Review: Fall Guy For Murder by Johnny Craig

Johnny Craig is one of those artists we'd call mid list if he was an author. Prolific, talented, a cult favorite, but unable to adapt to a new publishing house. Tales From The Crypt, the Crypt-keeper, if you're a child of the 80's you may not recognize these horror icons as originating in the comic aisle. EC Comics was a casualty of the CCA but back in the day it was up there beside Marvel and DC and a host of other companies as a major player for your Saturday dime. Craig was one of their best artists, but he was also one of their slowest and least adaptable. When the horror line folded he wasn't suited to cross over into superhero work. With the 1950's on the rise, I hope work like Craig's gets a second life. Fantagraphics is doing their part by issuing a number of EC collections based on specific artists instead of specific titles or years.

Fall Guy For Murder and Other Stories is focused on Johnny Craig. Artistically, Craig was a very precise artist. His characters are ugly-pretty in the popular noir fashion of the day. As collected in Fall Guy they are predominately white, which was typical of the books as well. Craig's women have sharply angled faces with slashing brows and nipped waists. They're angry gold diggers looking out for themselves, taking the steps necessary to get what they want. His men are a series of failed Don Drapers, tired of the nagging, unable to meet the demands placed on them. Domestic violence is part and parcel of the murder plots. And yet. Craig's women are also sympathetic. They're placed in worlds they may have little control over and they lash out because of those limitations. Many of them are deeply loved by the men they are exploiting. Some of them reciprocate.

Craig generally worked on his own scripts and adaptations, giving his work an unusually cohesive feel. While his tales of vampires and schemers are fairly predictable to a modern reader, they are ruthlessly logical. Craig foreshadows his reveals with precision and care. He thought about his panels, the placement of objects or people. He thought about his twists, how they worked with their set up and the emotional payouts they contained. Even when the story reads as tediously familiar the art draws the viewer in. His work still pulls you into rooting for his poor doomed underdogs.

While Fall Guy For Murder focuses primarily on white characters there was a very interesting piece set in Haiti. I'd like to see if Craig had more non-white characters in his horror because what looks on the surface like a typical colonization story turns into something far more interesting. I'd like to think it's by design, but the few pages of the tale don't support a wide reading of his intent. The early depiction of the childlike Haitian people so eager to please their "B'wana-Steve" is typical of the period. They speak in childlike and imperfect english. They beat their drums and dance in joy while the white people marry. Their joy is in serving the white man as completely as they can and yet... In the end, he is betrayed. In itself, this isn't so interesting. The black servant shown as duplicitous is typical. Even the method of betrayal fit established stereotypes. What gives me pause and made me wish for more to examine was the reasoning behind the betrayal. The Haitians give "B'wana-Steve" exactly what he claimed to want. They don't inform him of the horrific repercussions of his desire, they only fulfill it. His word is his bond. Even his death won't free him of his fate as they solidify his punishment into an eternal sentence. They deliver him into hell with a joyful heart. I think Craig offered this revenge fantasy deliberately, and I'd like to think it brought a moment of pause to the young readers who encountered it.

4 comments:

  1. "They beat their drums and dance in joy while the white people marry. Their joy is in serving the white man as completely as they can and yet... [...] The Haitians give "B'wana-Steve" exactly what he claimed to want. They don't inform him of the horrific repercussions of his desire, they only fulfill it."

    That sounds a bit like the Sandra Hill novel Olivia Waite just reviewed, only inverted so that the romance shifts over into horror. Which, I suppose, isn't that surprising if the starting point is the same racist stereotypes.

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    1. The type of racism displayed both here and in the F review is very common in
      American literature. What interested me about the Craig piece is hard to quantify in less than 5k words. Generally the betrayal part includes an accusation - anger from the black character or a list of the white characters crimes. (In cases where it's not because the author invokes the animals stereotype). The presumed white reader is invited to condemn the black characters, even if they "have a point" in their sympathy for the duped white character.

      Here the white character is in charge of his own downfall. The black characters give no sly glance to each other or the reader. There is nothing indicating that they are driven by anything other than a true desire to help him. That he is asking for something horrific is on him. The implication is that his ignorance is his fault, driven by his own arrogance and inability to see outside his narrow perceptions.

      It would have been very unusual for a comic like EC to do a direct anti-racist piece. In fact, later including black characters in an equal manner is a part of what would eventually lead to their closing. It may be a coincidence that this piece skates the edges of typical racist representation while offering a different view but it could also be carefully deliberate. The suspicion that I'm being asked to judge Steve and not the natives is what caught my attention, despite the period typical generic racist trappings. Not sure if the piece was included for being unlike his other work or if he was deliberately subversive in other pieces,

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    2. "It would have been very unusual for a comic like EC to do a direct anti-racist piece. In fact, later including black characters in an equal manner is a part of what would eventually lead to their closing."

      I haven't read a lot of US literature, and I know next to nothing about comics in general but I can see why this is intriguing and it reminds me of some background reading I did on Norman Rockwell: it turned out that he wanted to portray more black people and in different ways, but he was held back by the people he worked for. Here are some details from the Norman Rockwell Museum:

      Rockwell recalled that he once had to paint out an African-American person in a group picture since The Saturday Evening Post policy dictated showing African-Americans in service industry jobs only. Freed from such restraints, Rockwell seemed to look for opportunities to correct the editorial prejudices reflected in his previous work. The Problem We All Live With and Murder in Mississippi ushered in that new era for Rockwell.

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    3. Oh yes, Rockwell was an artist who felt the strictures of the day deeply. It's evident in some of his later work for sure. In early century American media the representation of minorities, women, etc is a combination of racist and progressive. Black filmmakers were working in silents, for example. Part of the Jim Crow effect was a major repression in the arts. The Hayes
      Code came into American cinema under the guise of morality and radically changed film for decades. Comics were subject to the CCA, which was voluntarily adopted by the industry out of fear of deeper oversight, art was heavily policed.

      Song of the South, a deeply problematic film Disney would prefer to forget, was seen by many as too liberal. The slaves weren't dumb enough, the power differential not dramatic enough. Racial bias was enforced through media representation of minorities.

      That's all a complete oversimplification, but 20th century American media is a fascinating place. Just as Fox News has been used to dramatically change what Americans expect reporting to look like (and to drive home narrow acceptable viewpoints) so did earlier cultural curbs step in to shift white perception into more conservative and simplistic lanes, especially in the post WW2 period.

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