Murder Me Dead

by Kevin Mathews


Murder Me Dead

(El Capitan Comics)

American comics have become so closely associated with the super-hero, it is difficult to imagine an American comic which does not feature a muscle-bound protagonist clad in spandex and tights.

The super-hero comic had thrived richly during the war years as the Axis powers provided real life monstrous villainy which translated into millions plus sales of four color bedlam for pre-pubescent boys savoring the defeat of Hitler and his evil cronies in every single issue of Captain America, Human Torch, Hangman, Sub-Mariner, Black Terror et al.

The end of World War II also signaled the end of the “Golden Age” of super-hero comics as if the absence of the Axis threat served to extinguish the relevance of the super-hero within the post-war milieu. In its place would rise a wave of comic books that focused not on the exploits of garishly costumed heroes in their undying battle against crime and evil, instead it concentrated on the latter. It was the time of the crime comic.

It begins rather innocuously enough in 1942 with the publication of Crime Does Not Pay. Published by Comic House and produced and edited by Charles Biro and Bob Wood, Crime Does Not Pay was utterly distinct from the other comic books in the marketplace. It featured strips and actual articles about real criminals. Most crucially, it was unbelievably violent, which was probably what the public wanted, because by 1948, Crime Does Not Pay was selling a million copies every month as adults and children alike were enthralled by the gritty realism offered within its pages.

The popularity of Crime Does Not Pay did not escape the attention of its competitors and the great crime comic deluge had commenced as publishers like Fox (Murder Incorporated), Ace (Crime Must Pay the Penalty), Hillman (Crime Detective Comics), Marvel/Atlas (Crime Exposed and Crime Fighters), St. John Publishing (Authentic Police Cases and Crime Reporter), EC (Crime Patrol) and even DC (Gang Busters) leapt head first into the fray.

Inevitably, as the widespread success of crime comics (and its thematic progeny, horror comics) grew, the voices of indignation increased in direct proportion. By 1950, the uproar against comics (its detractors never bothered to distinguish amongst the different genres) reached fever pitch, led by Dr. Federic Wertham, a noted psychologist and comics’ fiercest critic. Due to Dr. Wertham’s efforts, on April 21, 1954, the Senate Committee of the Judiciary to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency began their investigation into the effects of crime comics on children. Although the Committee fell short of recommending legislation to ban crime and horror comics, they suggested instead that the publishers clean up their industry or the government might have to do it for them. The result was the formation of the Comic Code Authority and the end of crime (and horror) comics. Which paved the way for the return of the super-hero comic (in what has been termed “the Silver Age”) and the genre’s ultimate domination of the comic book industry.

David Lapham has lived both sides of the comic book coin. Starting out as the principal artist for Valiant Comics’ Shadowman, Harbinger, and Rai, he moved on to Defiant Comics in 1993, where he co-created Warriors of Plasm with Jim Shooter. After the demise of Defiant Comics, Lapham seemingly disappeared. He returned with his own publishing company — El Capitan Comics — and a new book, Stray Bullets. Anyone familiar with Lapham’s super-hero work was shocked to encounter what looked suspiciously like a crime comic. And that it was, clearly influenced by such post-modern crime movies like the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Lapham’s Stray Bullets lived up to its name — dangerous, unpredictable and potentially lethal, a return to the gritty realism of comic books deemed socially unacceptable three decades earlier. For his ambition and vision, Lapham has won an Eisner, the comic industry’s highest award, as the best writer/artist of 1996 and has been nominated every year since in that category.

Murder Me Dead is Lapham’s first project outside of Stray Bullets and Lapham himself describes it as “an eight-issue tale of murder, greed, cute little babies, mean old women, lost souls, con men, dirty dealin’, music, violence, gangsters, back alleys, resort hotels, prison, love, lust, and murder.”

This first installment sets the tone perfectly — it begins with the dangling dead body of Eve Kroft, apparently at her own hand. The protagonists are slowly revealed — Steven Russell, Eve’s suspiciously ambivalent husband; Raymond Kroft, Eve’s brother (convinced of Russell’s guilt); Barbera Kroft, Raymond’s wife (Russell’s secret lover); Sam Fred, a PI hired by the Kroft family; Tony, an old friend of Russell and Tara Torres, an old unrequited love of Russell — each with their own motivations, fears and flaws.

Lapham’s clean, unfussy, neo-realistic style lends itself well for the black and white comic format, which is highly suitable for the noir-ish elements of the hard-boiled plot. Lapham’s narrative is always kept functional and straightforward — in rather cinematic fashion. Never breaking out of the basic panel grid to provide a flashy moment, which certainly aids in understanding and enjoying the storylines and characterizations. Lapham’s figures are excellent, the faces of his protagonists are easily identifiable for ethnicity and background, and their visages shimmer with emotion as they deliver the cropped speeches and plot revelations.

In the space of a mere 20 pages, Lapham’s lays out the intriguing premise — the world of Steven Russell and the Kroft family — and it is one that anyone who enjoys reality-based story-telling that digs deep into well of human frailty would certainly relish.

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