Title: Seduction of the Innocent
Author: Max Allan Collins
Cover Artist: Glen Orbik
Interior Artist: Terry Beatty
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
Any comic book fan with a basic understanding of the industry’s history will usually shake their heads in dismissal if you utter the words “seduction of the innocent.” Simply put, Seduction of the Innocent was to the comic book industry in the fifties what the PMRC was to the music industry in the eighties. But whereas the PMRC mainly got explicit lyrics slapped on the albums, Dr. Fredric Wertham’s novel succeeded in helping to create the Comics Code Authority, and thus completely sanitized comic books for years to come.
Given the government’s crusade against comic books, Dr. Wertham’s pot stirring, and the colorful cast of comic book writers, artists, and editors, it was only a matter of time until someone found this as a treasure trove for historical fiction. And what better than to turn it into a mystery by Max Allan Collins.
The first thing to know about Seduction of the Innocent (Max Allan Collins’s, not Wertham’s) is that while Collins certainly knows his comic book history and how to weave it into fiction, it’s definitely a fictional story rather than any kind of historical account. Much like James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Seduction of the Innocent takes actual companies and lampoons them into fiction, although Collins’s version sticks closer to the source than turning it into a dark parody. If you’ve read some late golden/early silver age comic books, then you’ll probably figure out a good deal of what’s representing their real life counterparts. But even if you don’t, you can still enjoy it just as much.
Perhaps that’s the part that sells Seduction of the Innocent. That while it’s certainly an homage to the outlaw comic books, particularly EC Comics, the book isn’t afraid to divert from history for the sake of the story. And even more important is the fact that Collins doesn’t use the book as an excuse to write a preachy rant against censorship.
In fact, that’s what makes the characters work here. The fact that they aren’t here to represent anything but themselves. To be honest, the protagonist Jack Starr isn’t anything extraordinary. He certainly is a decent fit for the novel, and proves an entertaining narrator. But despite having some unique traits, such as being the vice-president of Starr with a private investigator’s license, you’ve seen this detective before. Tall, can hold his own in a fight, a witty and cynical sense of humor, past problems with the bottle, and always winds up with dangerous situations and beautiful women. You know the guy.
However, the other characters, particularly those based on real-life counterparts, break the mold and keep the story from being redundant. Whether it’s Jack Starr’s step-mom, stripper-turned-president of Starr Newspaper Syndication Company; Lyla Lamont, wild artist who’s not shy of showing some skin; or Pete Pine, comic book creator with a terrible temper coupled with bad vices.
The real mark of Collins’s dedication to the story, not the message, is Dr. Werner Frederick. Like real life counter-part Dr. Fredric Wertham, he holds a burning crusade against comic books. But more than simply having a different opinion, Dr. Frederick twists the truth by taking comic book panels out of context, and worse, falsifying information. But Dr. Frederick is no straw man. Like Dr. Wertham, he also holds a burning crusade for civil rights (having a clinic in Harlem), and despite his zealotry against comic books, it could be seen as well intended. Which is to say that he makes for an interesting character.
As far as the mystery is concerned? Well, it starts out as a train track novel. And by train track novel, I mean a novel that could’ve gone a completely different direction had the author chosen to. Almost the first half of Seduction of the Innocent is a tale about the comic book without any murders, and had it continued that way it could’ve of been, should I say, a literary novel (well…maybe not thick in prose, but certainly consisting of great characters and themes)? And a good literary novel at that.
But of course we get ourselves a murder, and with it a fun whodunnit? If you’re familiar with Collins’s other works, then you’ll find yourself in familiar territory. And that’s not a bad thing at all, particularly when it’s an entertaining story.
Ultimately, Seduction of the Innocent is a safe bet. I can’t think of a reason why most readers, particularly comic book readers, would hate this book. With great characters, witty prose, and a mystery that legitimately keeps you guessing, Seduction of the Innocent is a fun read from start to finish.