Book Review: "Seduction of the Innocent" by M. A. Collins
- by Señor Editor, 5 April 2013
1954 was a hell of a year for comicbooks. The industry faced it's greatest opponent yet in the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who lead the battle to safeguard the innocence of American children. The nation-wide controversy that forever changed comics and resulted in (among other things) the introduction of the Comics Code Authority is the setting that bestselling author Max Allan Collins chose for his latest crime novel, titled (after Wertham's work) "Seduction of the Innocent".
Collins' newest detective novel takes us to New York in the year 1954, right in the middle of the anti-comics media frenzy. The world of the novel is occupied by analogues of comic companies, publishers and people who played important roles in the controversyt. Here, however, the psychiatrist who started the war against comics gets killed soon after the hearings held by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Here's a bit more on the basics of what happens:
These are just the bare basics of the plot - keep in mind that the whole thing is actually much more complex, but I don't want to spoil what Collins has in store here.
Since there are essentially two stories told here, one being the murder mystery and the other being the witch-hunt against comics, I had my concerns about how Collins will manage to merge them into one, flawless book, without it seeming like any aspect of the story is playing second fiddle to the other. Well, I shouldn't have worried, because the way Collins tells it, ties everything perfectly. It's a smooth read from beginning to end, Jack and Maggie are very likeable protagonists, and you will find it very hard to put the book aside for even a moment (I had to, though - I enjoyed it so much that I didn't want it to end too fast).
This may be a work of fiction, but the amount of research that went into it makes for a more accurate and realized portrayal of the 1950s New York's comic biz than many a document could hope for.
The names of characters and companies have been changed (only slightly, in most cases) for the purpose of using them in the crime intrigue, but they are all firmly rooted in real life (just one minor example: the senate hearing of EF publisher Bob Price is almost exactly the same as his real life counterpart's - EC's Bill Gaines'), and it's great fun to spot various parallels and references if you're a comics history buff. If you don't know who each and every character is based on (I had problems with a few) then reading Collins' afterword will set things straight for you.
Which comicbook editor carried a monkey on his shoulder? Is character X supposed to mirror the real life person Y? Which artist was the womanizing, violent drunk and murderer-to-be? What about all those mob ties? ...If you didn't yet know it, you will soon find out that the people making comics in the '50s New York were often much more interesting than the colorful characters they created. Even when he's presenting the people and events in a more melodramatic, caricaturized way for the sake of the plot, Collins' knowledge of the times, and love of comics shines through, and gives the reader a great look behind the scenes of the "funny books" industry of the time.
The book's crime mystery itself is also a really good one, not surprisingly, considering Max Allan Collins' and the Hard Case Crime imprint's track record. It's not just any old murder mystery happening here either, it's one that's perfectly tailored for a book happening in this specific setting. I can't say more about it without spoiling it, so I'll just add that it's also nice that readers are actually given a chance to discover who the murderer is themselves, before Jack and Maggie do, if they really pay attention.
Another great touch in the book are the illustrations by Terry Beatty that precede each chapter. They are all done in a style similar to (and sometimes outright mimicking) the art of the controversial EC Comics, the company that served as Wertham's main scapegoat. I initially thought they could seem a bit out of place, but when I started reading the book I found out real fast that they suit it perfectly, really enhancing the whole experience and not taking me out of the book's plot at all.
This book is great fun and it's also a surprisingly great way to learn more about the atmosphere and specific of the mid XX century comics industry. Sure, this is an insider's view that's been tweaked in many places for the purpose of the story, but there's plenty of knowledge you'll take from it regardless. Highly recommended.
Max Allan Collins' "Seduction of the Innocent" is out right now, published by Titan Books and it can (and should!) be bought on the publisher's website.