Welcome to our second guest post! This past Monday Mike W. walked us through one of his favorite story arcs of the early 1980s, a tussle featuring the Justice League and Justice Society against a revamped Secret Society of Super-Villains. Today we have a Bronze Age reading of a different stripe -- an illustrated novel. Your host for this literary excursion is Edo Bosnar.
Chandler: Red Tide (Byron Preiss Visual Publications and published by Pyramid Books, 1976)
Edo Bosnar: A big part of what we call the Bronze Age in comics was the experimental stuff. Not just the often trippy or off-the-wall stories in mainstream superhero comics by guys like Jim Starlin or Steve Gerber, but also the various innovative projects being published by someone other than Marvel or DC. An example of this is the Fiction Illustrated series launched by Byron Preiss in the mid-1970s. These were supposed to herald a new age in graphic storytelling. You can see the entirety of one of these offerings, Starfawn, over at Diversions of the Groovy Kind. Another, and perhaps the best remembered, is Chandler: Red Tide by the legendary Jim Steranko.
It’s a hard-boiled/noir detective story set in New York the early 1930s, featuring a P.I. named Chandler (an obvious homage to Raymond Chandler). Steranko did pretty much everything but the coloring in this, i.e., he wrote the story, drew all of the illustrations and very meticulously designed the whole package.
I’m not going to do a full review of the story, since it is a novel, or rather, a novella. Whatever the matter, a full rundown would be too time-consuming. Needless to say, it’s got all of the elements of a classic hard-boiled crime novel in the style of Chandler or Hammett: a tough private detective drawn into a bizarre murder case (a guy comes into his office saying he’s got 72 hours to live because he was poisoned, and wants the detective to find his murderer), and on the way there are intrigues involving organized crime and uncooperative police officers, a few plot-twists, including a bit of shocker at the end, and, of course, a femme fatale.
What I really want to do here is just highlight the book itself. Steranko wanted to make this look like something that’s halfway between a comic book and a standard prose novel. As you can see, there are pictures all the way through, and under each there are always exactly 13 lines of text, so it has a very uniform and well-ordered look throughout. Some of my favorite pages are those in which each of the panels forms an entire “splash” image. Like this flashback sequence:
It’s notable that Steranko really made an effort for this to be a genuine juxtaposition of words and pictures, rather than the sequential images with narration and/or dialogue inside the pictures that you get with comics. This actually sets it apart from the only other Fiction Illustrated title I’m familiar with, the above-mentioned Star Fawn, which does have occasional dialogue bubbles as in standard comic books.
I think Steranko mostly succeeded in his aim, as this is a really cool-looking book. The story, while nothing spectacular, is solid. It’s too bad he didn’t do a few more of these, just as it’s unfortunate that these didn’t catch on and become more popular. Preiss and a few others did make some later, similar attempts (most notably with Howard Chaykin), and while well-liked by fans and cult favorites now, they ultimately didn’t set the world on fire. All in all, this is an interesting relic of a time when a number of creators were trying to stretch the limits of what comics and graphic storytelling could be.
By the way, my copy is the original pocketbook format printed on newsprint-type paper, which I purchased online pretty cheaply about 6-7 years ago. Apparently there was also a deluxe edition, which was 8” x 10” in format and printed on higher-quality paper – the few times I’ve checked (e.g. on eBay), copies of that, when offered at all, are never listed for less than a $100. Ouch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’re going to get some nice, new deluxe reprint, either: a few years ago, several comics-related websites posted announcements that Chandler would be reprinted by Titan Books, but so far nothing has come of this.