The character, Greyshirt, launched his career in Tomorrow Stories published by America’s Best Comics (ABC). Greyshirt is the former gangster, Franky Lafayette. In an act of betrayal his former partner and life-long friend, Johnny Apollo, caused an explosion that killed Johnny and disfigured Franky’s face. Since the public believed Franky dead, he decided to fight crime and adopted the identity of the mysterious Greyshirt. For those of you not familiar with Tomorrow Stories, each issue features four stories focusing on entirely different heroes. To my surprise, ABC decided to create a full-length comic featuring a character from this anthology. While I enjoy Tomorrow Stories, I feel that the characters would be too gimmicky to carry the story for 20-plus pages. I have a feeling that ABC knew this as well, because strictly speaking, Greyshirt is not the emphasis of Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset. Rather, it is a tribute to the very popular crime comic books of the 1940s and ‘50s, and therefore, pays much more attention to the gangsters, prostitutes, and generally scummy people than it does to the title character. For all intents and purposes, Greyshirt is a crime comic book.
The history of crime comics is long, sordid, and complicated. In a nutshell, they were extremely popular and came under fire from so-called experts as being a major factor in the rise of juvenile delinquency. Parent, teacher, religious, and educational organizations caused such an uproar with boycotts, comic burnings, and negative publicity that a senate subcommittee was formed to investigate the issue. The subcommittee did not find a direct correlation between comics and juvenile delinquency, but the comic publishers decided to institute a set of standards anyway to appease all the criticism that comics had been receiving. Soon after, newsstands would only, with a few exceptions, sell comics with the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” logo on them. The Comics Code Authority pretty much decimated the crime comic industry by not stamping their approval on them. With newsstands unwilling to sell their comics—out of fear that religious or parents groups causing others to boycott them—these publishers either went out of business or moved on to different ventures.
Greyshirt is an expedition to comics’ past in both structure and content. A one-page serial, multiple stories, excerpts from the Indigo City Sunset, the fictional newspaper of Greyshirt’s home city, and comic strips are all structural components of early comic books. Greyshirt emulates this past by utilizing these very same components. The newspaper excerpts, which may seem out of place in a comic book, are in fact reminiscent of the past. Comic publishers had to enclose a certain amount of text for comic books to be considered magazines, which cost less to mail. These excerpts are used to tell additional stories about criminal and shady element of Indigo City. Each issue of Greyshirt is pretty much self-contained like comics created “back in the day.” Since newsstands bought comics directly from the publishers in bulk never knowing what they would receive week-to-week, they could never guarantee a customer that they would have a particular issue to sell. Therefore, publishers had to make sure their readers wouldn’t get frustrated by having to search every newsstand in town for the “third part of six part series.” When comics did offer continuing stories from one issue to the next, they usually consisted of one or two pages in order to limit the number of pages “wasted” for someone who didn’t have the previous issue. Greyshirt‘s use of these elements can be an example for present day publishers. By offering comics that readers don’t need tons of back issues in order to understand the story lines, publishers can cater to new and occasional comic book readers.
Just as the structure of Greyshirt offers modern readers into the past, the content cries out, “Crime Comic.” If the clever Rick Veitch, Greyshirt‘s writer, were writing comics after the Comics Code Authority started its fascist regime, crime comics may have survived. Veitch has found a way to write a comic with a hero without actually focusing on him. The writer uses the “Young Greyshirt” story line (each issue has such a story) in order to focus the time before Frank Lafayette took on his Greyshirt identity. We see young Franky grow from a trouble-making, little boy into a young gangster with a promising career in the first four issues. So, instead of another comic with a hero fighting crime, the reader is offered one with stories about the lives of criminals and the back-stabbing, prostituting, and killing that naturally follows.
The influence of Will Eisner’s classic comic, The Spirit permeates virtually every page of Greyshirt: Indigo Sunrise. But what makes it unique is Veitch’s ability to take that source material and create something that is unique and stands on its own feet. Greyshirt has become more than the material that has spawned it.
Just as in many classic Spirit installments, Greyshirt does not even play a large role in the stories that he actually does some crime fighting (always the second story in each issue). These stories focus on the activities of the bad guys, and not until the end does Greyshirt mysteriously show up to foil the crime. Never do the stories show Greyshirt in the process of solving a case. This motif that started in Tomorrow Stories and continues in Greyshirt also allows Veitech to write stories that focus on criminals. One prime example is “Recognition,” the crime-fighting story in issue #4. Although the story is 10 pages long, Greyshirt is only depicted in three panels, and in one of those panels we only see his legs. Again, the emphasis is on the criminal.
Each issue references the fictional comic book “Hoodlum Hit,” which features stories about the “real lives” of notorious gangster Franky Lafayette and Johnny Apollo. These references drive the point home that Greyshirt is a crime comic. We are reading stories about the criminal lives of Frank and Johnny who are reading about themselves in this fictional, crime comic book. If “Hoodlum Hit” is a crime comic, then so must be Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset because they basically contain the same stories.
To further its connection to the past, Greyshirt offers an element of horror, another very popular genre of the ‘40s and ‘50s that fell victim to the Comics Code Authority. Indigo City is the home of a mysterious creature called “The Lure,” which lives in the city’s sapphire mines and most residents believe to be an urban myth. It appears to be a huge, tentacled monster that sucks the life right out of people. I believe if there is any connecting theme from issue to issue it is the mystery of the Lure. It is the one element that may keep readers returning for the next issue. Like the citizens of Indigo City, we want to know exactly what the Lure is and where it came from.
Although Greyshirt: Indigo Sunset may look like a comic about a masked hero, don’t be fooled. It is a crime comic through-and-through. I can see the appeal that they had in the ‘40s and ‘50s. As a character and hero, there is nothing special about Greyshirt. We know that because if he were removed from the story, the stories would still be pretty good. We would still have the criminals, prostitutes, and generally scummy people to read about. Just don’t let your mother or teacher catch you reading it or we just may have another senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in the United States on or hands.
// Graphic Novelties
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