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Borderland Speakeasy: Echoes of Vengeance

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Thursday, Jan 14, 2010

The first story in the first issue of Crime SuspenStories presents an interesting case of a tale that reverberates back and forth through the last half of the twentieth century.


First published in October 1950 by the notorious EC Comics, Crime SuspenStories #1 opens with “Murder May Boomerang,” drawn and most likely written by the legendary Johnny Craig. In the 2007 EC Archives edition, author Max Allan Collins notes that “Murder” was probably inspired by the short story “Revenge,” by Samuel Blas, which had appeared in a 1947 issue of Collier’s magazine.


In Blas’s story, a husband seeks to avenge his wife’s rape, while in the EC Comics version, a son is driven to murder after his father is brutally attacked. In both stories, the crime that sets off the quest for vengeance is random, the victim beloved by someone, and the bleak, ambiguous “moral” seems to be that every act of violence haunts the victim and perpetrator forever; one brutal act can never erase a previous one.
  
After following the thread backwards from the 1950 issue of Crime SuspenStories #1 to the 1947 issue of Collier’s, strands start to appear elsewhere. Moving forward to another October, this time in 1953, the lesser-known comic Witches’ Tales featured an adaptation of Blas’s story by Manny Stallman. This version emphasized the horror aspects over Craig’s, which was decidedly more noir.


Then in yet another October, in 1955, Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted on television. Its first episode: “Revenge,” starring Hitchcock favourite Vera Miles, and the awesome Ralph Meeker (whose portrayal of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly—another haunting and strange story—has never been surpassed). In its use of off-camera violence, and especially the climactic shot of the two main characters staring out of their car’s front windshield, each person lost in a haze of terror, this version of the story bears a striking resemblance to Craig’s “Murder May Boomerang.”


Which brings the thread back again to Craig, who might not have been inspired by Blas, after all. Max Allan Collins probably knows better than anyone, and even he says it’s only “likely” that Blas’s story was the original. In writing about other work by Craig in the Crime SuspenStories archive collection, Collins notes how many of them seem to have been inspired by the noir novels of James M. Cain, but that Craig probably wasn’t aware of Cain’s work at the time.


As noted, Craig’s “Murder May Boomerang” changes the central element of the story to a son’s anger over his father’s assault, but this bears further examination. The father is sickly, poor, worn down by a life of struggle. Early on we learn that his wife has died, and he raises his son by himself, working nearly to death in order to put his boy through college. After years of toil by father and son, the boy eventually finds a well-paying job. He loves his father, and longs to repay the older man’s years of sacrifice. Just when everything seems to be going well for the first time in their lives, the brutal and random assault happens.


The father-son bond (and the sort of tragic love it inspires) seems to resonate strongly with one of Collin’s most famous works, Road To Perdition series of graphic novels, published between 1998 and 2004, and adapted into a 2002 film. Collins’s story finds resonance in turn with the iconic manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, first published in 1970, which also sparked a film adaptation (a film series unto itself). Tragic themes of revenge and the father-son bond run strongly in all of these works.


All of this leads forward to the end of the century, with 2000’s film, Memento, inspired as well by a short story (“Memento Mori,” by Jonathan Nolan, brother of the film’s director, Christopher). This film seems to wrap up all of the threads I’ve laid out: it has a similar revenge plot to Blas’s original short story (husband seeks to avenge his wife’s attack); it has the tragedy-tinged father-son bond from Craig’s version of the tale (in the relationship between the characters of Leonard Shelby and Teddy); and the key “twist” of “revenge-gone-wrong” (as well as a philosophical questioning of the meaning of revenge) is also central here.


After reading Crime SuspenStories #1, and then following these interconnected strands, I’m led to the strange but somehow fitting bit of summing-up that happens at the point in Memento when Teddy tells Leonard: “You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth.”


Datashadow


This is the second of two comics-related columns I’m writing for PopMatters. Each column aims to appreciate and examine an aspect, moment or theme from within a given work, and to draw connections to similar works of art outside the world of comics:


—“Borderland Speakeasy” explores classic horror and mystery reprints (such as the recent EC and Warren Comics archives), along with modern crime (non-superhero) comics.


Some links of interest:


Read a full copy of Jonathan Nolan’s short story “Memento Mori”


Read a full-color scan of “Revenge,” in Witches Tales #21, from October 1953


Watch “Revenge”: The first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, from October 1955 (full episode, in three parts):


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3

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