Saturday, April 9, 2016

Queen Watch: "The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"

"You can't be. Your chin's not right."
Phil Collins (not that one), "The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"

Who are the suspects? Some overworked, underpaid comic book artists. A pretty secretary with pretty secretary problems. And... one Mr. Ellery Queen.

Stories where the hero is framed for a crime and needs to clear his (or her) name have long been a stock feature in crime dramas. And they still are. Jim Gordon - less than innocent in truth - was recently set up for killing a fellow cop on Gotham. But it's something of a surprise to see it coming up this early in Ellery Queen. Luckily it's done well, taking advantage of the unusual dynamic between sleuth and authorities in this case.

What puts Ellery under suspicion in this case is the unauthorized use of his name and (a warped version of) his image in a comic book from the seedy-seeming Capricorn Comics. At least he thinks it was unauthorized, although the publisher insists the fine print in Ellery's contract gives him permission. The slam bang action in the comic has little in common with Ellery Queen's novels, which we can assume to be similar in tone to the sprightly television program we're watching. Bizarrely but fittingly, the image of the comic book "Ellery Queen" looks a lot like Steve Ditko's Objectivist pulp hero Mr. A, although A wears a mask and Queen's face is actually supposed to look like that.

Ditko later toned down his Mr. A concept somewhat in creating the Charlton superhero the Question. Alan Moore subsequently worked elements of both characters into the honorable but twisted and homicidal Rorschach in Watchmen. Now, I doubt that any of this was on Robert Van Scoyk's mind when he wrote the episode, especially since some of these things hadn't happened yet. But Rorschach-y elements grafted onto the Queen character do form the basis of his objections. He doesn't want his character, an avatar of himself, to be a fists-and-guns enforcer. In the course of saying that he says some possibly intemperate things, setting up his later problems. After stewing at home he goes out for a walk at night. When the publisher is shot to death his father and Sgt. Velie find him wandering the park in an obvious but beautiful day for night shot.

As Nathanael Booth points out in his own recap of the episode, well worth reading in full, there actually was an Ellery Queen comic, in Whitman Comics' Crackajack Funnies. (Gotta love titles like that.) Perhaps in deference to this history, Van Scoyk and whichever members of the writing staff helped him did their homework on the industry. One character makes reference to increasing public concern over violence in comic books, and within a few years of the setting date, the industry would be challenged by both Fredric Wortham's moral panic-inducing Seduction of the Innocent and Senator Estes Kefauver's congressional hearings. Also accurate is the depiction of sweatshop conditions for most creators. This turns out to be key to the motive behind the killing.

Ah yes, the victim. Played by Tom Bosley, the beloved Mr. C on Happy Days in the show's most against-type casting to date, he makes what could be called reasonable points in his face-off with Ellery. He's much worse with his staff, an archetypal tyrant of a boss. With the secretary he reveals himself to be a sexual harasser as well, although it appears that he managed to charm her earlier in their working relationship. The poor girl has awful taste in men. When she ropes her current boyfriend into providing her an alibi, he gives off the vibe of a serial killer trying to act like a normal person. That's probably unintentional, but you never know.

"Comic Book Crusader" introduces a new element into the mix: Frank Flanagan, ace reporter for the fictional New York Gazette. Flanagan is a somewhat cartoonish character himself, a blowhard who talks about himself in the third person but maintains loyalty among his sources through his relative generosity. While Simon Brimmer is an absolutely vital foil to Ellery Queen, Flanagan is somewhat marginal, even if he'd like to believe differently. He does have drive, though, and cunning, enough to make things uncomfortable for the Queens, as well as helping a little to dig them back out.

Which brings us back to the frame-up. It's actually one of two frame-ups, another being embedded in the conspiracy as a kind of plan B. Inspector Queen knows that his son isn't a killer, but the words "his son" are at the root of the problem. An employee of the comic book company fingers him as having a violent confrontation with the victim the night of the murder, he has no alibi, and the murder weapon eventually turns up in his study. If the head of the Homicide division shields a family member under those conditions, it looks like the worst kind of nepotism. So the weaselly Deputy Commissioner is there to remind him.

No struggle necessary, nor for that matter does Inspector Queen face any family-vs-job dilemma. Ellery turns himself in. Once in lockup he takes a calm, even Zen approach to proving his innocence. He looks to the comic books he railed against to clues that might help him. Velie, showing touching concern, thinks he's cracking up.

Fundamentally, this is not a show where you suddenly find out that the heroes are really villains. Nobody watching in 2016 will believe that Ellery Queen is about to be revealed as a murderer. Nobody believed it in 1975 either. But because of his very privileges, the ability to drop in on crime scenes and muse over them like crosswords because of who his father is, things can look very bad for him if someone who's wronged him takes a bullet. This week's evil scheme shows cleverness on the part of both the real killer and the writer.


susan said...

This is another really interesting description of the particular episode and the background.

Yes, it seems to have been always true that comic book artists were paid and treated as badly as animators. It makes you wonder just how much people will abide in order to continue doing work they love.

It's interesting that framing the hero for a crime has become a standard plot device that can still have twists and turns that keep us interested. So far we've only seen the first season of Gotham but we have enjoyed what what we've seen. I'm very fond of the Cobblepot character (and Carol Cain as his mother - remember her in The Princess Bride?). The city itself is one of the major stars of the show, a mean metropolis where the sun never rises, let alone shines. It's reminiscent of 1940s LA, 1980s New York, with a touch of 1890s London tossed in. It's also entertaining to see the characters that will later plague Batman as they develop. The reason Oswald Cobblepot is sensitive about his nose is obvious, but others are cleverly added in a tongue in cheek fashion - the unusually agile teen who steals milk to feed her feline friends and a little girl who decorates her home with creeping vines. I'll be waiting to see the high school dropout whose jokes nobody laughs at and the one who loves trick puzzles. I know there are many more I never came across, but since you're far better informed about comic book history than me, you're more likely to recognize hints or brief appearances of others.

On the subject of super hero tv shows we also saw two others - Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Unlike the kind of (almost) charming Gotham both of them were disturbingly grim and violent. Violence and a focus on characters undergoing severe emotional trauma is something that seems to have become routine in tv mystery/crime dramas. In the past you could pretty much count on British mystery shows in particular to require some intellectual ability to solve the crime. Nowadays that's taken a back seat to the leading characters personal lives. It was two highly regarded first seasons we've watched - Happy Valley and Broadchurch - that made it obvious that the more innocent (yet deadly) days of Midsomer Murders was long gone. No more frolicking eccentrics on the village green while the church organist lies impaled among his pipes.

Ah well, back to Ellery. It's almost hard to imagine Tom Bosley as a tyrannical boss and sexual predator. That the mystery was solved is a given but the idea Ellery was ever suspected of having committed the murder was a good idea to keep everyone interested. I'm beginning to think we may indeed have to see if we can find the series to watch again.

Ben said...

That's an important point. There are certain kinds of work that you won't even start learning to do unless you have an affinity for it. But you still need to make a living if you're going to keep doing it, and that's an uphill battle. Different kind of battle then than it is now, but the principle's the same.

As related to the Batman comics, the Gotham chronology is a little scrambled. Some characters are older in relation to others than they are in the source material. This doesn't bother me too much, though. The show's corny but always fun. In the second season Jim Gordon's a little more morally compromised than he had been, which seems to be unavoidable on that police force. I love the Bruce/Selina chemistry too. They're both two kids in love and people from completely different worlds.

After seeing the Daredevil movie a few years ago I came to the conclusion that it would have been more fun if they'd remembered that the character existed before Frank Miller. For the first fifteen years or so Daredevil was a kind of derring-do hero with very modest powers and some colorful villains. Miller took it over and made it more of a film noir meets Bruce Lee movie kind of experience. It was interesting, but it was also tailored to his particular talents. Subsequent creators tried to copy the darker tone, and it could be kind of a drag. So it was with the movie as well, and it sounds like the TV show. Similarly the Alias comics that introduced Jessica Jones were a showcase for their writer and artist. They don't necessarily translate well to a new medium.

Broadchurch has gotten quite a reputation. It's got a couple of ties to Doctor Who, I know, both through David Tennant and the writer/producer. I'm sure there's still a lot of good English crime writing. Still, how much "find dead teen/get blotto/cheat on wife" do you need?

Hope you do get a chance to see EQ again. Some episodes are better than other but it's a fun show on its own wavelength.