A COMIC BOOK REVIEW BY DAVID L. VINEYARD:
ELLERY QUEEN #1. Ziff-Davis, Spring 1952.
Crime more than mystery and detection has been a staple of comic books from the beginning. Two-fisted gumshoes and tough cops have always outnumbered the more intellectual types, but a few did manage to sneak in both in comic strip reprints and original material.
Among that small company who had multiple titles of their own over the years from multiple publishers are Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and Ellery Queen.
Ellery Queen may seem an odd choice for the comics, but having succeeded in every other media, there he was in Crackajack #23 (May 1940) from Dell Comics, running through issue #42 (December 1941) alongside Frank Thomas’s costumed hero, the Owl, and reprints of Tarzan, Red Ryder, Wash Tubbs, and Dan Dunn.
Ellery next appeared in four issues of his own title from Superior in 1949 with art from EC horror comic staple Jack Kamen and L.B. Cole, then in 1952 Ellery returned in two issues from Ziff-Davis.
In 1961 Ellery was back at Dell in Four Color Comics with art by Mike Sekowsky, a journeyman artist who also helmed Peter Gunn’s only comic book appearance and was the first artists on DC’s Justice League of America, as well as working on Wonder Woman and many other iconic characters.
But here we are concerned with the Ziff-Davis issues from 1952. Ziff-Davis aimed its titles at older kids and adults and as a result has an eclectic run of titles from staples like science fiction, horror, and westerns to oddities like Sky Pilot about a missionary in the far North, Crime Clinic about a prison psychiatrist, and Captain Fleet about the captain of a freighter. Ellery would seem a perfect fit.
Ziff-Davis was also set apart by its garish painted covers, often by pulp and later men’s magazine favorite Norman Saunders. Both issues of Ellery Queen sport Saunders’ covers with a muscular Ellery behaving more like Mike Hammer than Ellery Queen.
Issue #2 even has a beautiful blonde being threatened by a brute with a red hot poker. Luckily the stories inside are a bit more subdued.
Ellery Queen #1 for some reason has Ellery looking like actor William Gargan, who replaced Ralph Bellamy in the Columbia movie series. (In issue #2, again for no reason, he looks like Bellamy, though both are by the same artist.) The book features Ellery in two stories; the first a disposable crime tale “The Corpse That Killed” that Ellery ‘solves’ by simply trailing some hoods to a cemetery. (See below.)
The second is more ambitious, and actually features some detective work on Ellery’s part in a fairly interesting mystery, “The Chain Letter Murders.”
The story opens as an elderly woman walks into an office, pulls out a gun, and kills a man. She flees, but falls in front of a bus and before she dies is overheard to say: It’s better this way.”
Inspector Queen is still baffled when Ellery shows up, and they have hardly begun to sort that one out when the new boxing champ is murdered in his shower after double crossing a gambling ring. Ellery follows damp footprints to the room of a man in the iron lung — who confesses he killed the boxer, his last statement before silence: “It’s better this way.”
But this time they find a letter in the killer’s apartment and a list of names. Ellery tracks down the next man on the list and prevents his murder, but again the would be killer only says: “It’s better this way.”
Hiding the fact he and his father intervened in time to save the next man on the list, Ellery persuades the potential victim’s wife to pretend to be grieving, and he and his Dad wait for the inevitable suspect to show up.
They follow the man to the remote Temple of Hope, home of the Mighty Eye cult and watch as the man pays an unseen figure and leaves. Now Ellery has it figured out, and pretends to attempt and fail at suicide to draw out the cult leader. It seems the man was using the cult to front a clever murder racket.
Taking advantage of people he knew were suicidal but lacked the courage to die, he enlisted them in “the Legion of the Damned,” telling them they would receive a list of others like them wanting to die, and when they killed that person they would move up on the list, their own death a little closer. Then he contracted out to people who wanted someone dead and put their name on the list for money. Send out a chain letter, and the deed was as good as done.
Alas, I don’t know who the writer and artist were, but the art is good and the story a bit closer to an actual mystery than we had any reason to hope for. There’s no challenge to the reader (there is in at least one of the Dell Four Color comics), but there is a fairly baffling mystery, and to be fair, it’s a pretty good idea — for a comic book mystery.
Okay, it wouldn’t hold up in print, but for a comic book of that period it isn’t bad, and I’ve seen and heard more preposterous plots on radio and television dramas and more than a few movies. For a comic book, it’s about as close to the real Ellery Queen as we could hope.
Except that we did get the real Ellery Queen once. The Maze Agency (Comico, 1989) was a comic book about a pair of private eyes, and in issue #9 the creators, long time Queen fans, got permission to have Ellery help them out in a mystery.
It’s a nice little coda to Ellery’s on-again off-again comic book career. It certainly beats Charlie Chan’s final bow in The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.
Anyone interested can download the two Ziff-Davis Ellery Queen’s for free at goldenagecomics.co.uk where they will also direct you to free downloads of comic book readers (cbr and cbz) that are easy to install and use. There are also issues of The Saint available and much great old stuff from the early comics that is in public domain.