Ellery Queen: The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader
January 17, 2011

I picked up this box set containing the first (and only) season of the Ellery Queen TV show over the holidays, and I’ve really been enjoying it. This mid-70s mystery series was The Love Boat of crime, in that it cast older stars whenever it could. In the first three episodes, these luminaries show up, among others: Ida Lupino, Joan Collins, Ray Walston, Orson Bean, Don Ameche, Anne Francis, and Guy Lombardo playing himself in the New Year’s episode.

Ellery Queen Mysteries cover
Ellery Queen Mysteries
Buy this DVD

The only continuing characters were the gawky-cute Jim Hutton as Ellery, David Wayne as his father, the police inspector, and the unknown-to-me Tom Reese as Sgt. Velie. Oh, and John Hillerman played the recurring Simon Brimmer, a criminologist and radio host who obnoxiously interfered in cases but always got the murderer wrong.

These are old-fashioned mysteries, as you’d expect from the crew who brought us Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, producers Richard Levinson and William Link. Motive and characterization take second place to figuring out the clue, often a dying message. Ellery plays fair with us, though, stopping the show just before the final act to tell us when we should be able to figure it out. The episodes reward attention as a result; I’ve found that I can’t watch them while doing other things, as I can so much other television. The clues can be obscure, but the puzzles are fun.

To go along with the more leisurely pace of 70s television, the show itself is set in 1947, so there’s the additional appeal of period clothes, cars, technology, and so on. If you’ve read a lot of the Ellery Queen books, some of the cases will seem familiar, or bits of the setup will, anyway. A one-hour TV show has less time for complicated deductions than a novel. (The pilot episode, “Too Many Suspects“, for example, is loosely based on The Fourth Side of the Triangle, which was ghost-written by Avram Davidson.)

Joseph Maher and Jim Hutton (Donald O'Connor in background)

Joseph Maher and Jim Hutton (Donald O'Connor in background)

Anyway, the fourth episode (not counting the pilot movie) may be of particular interest to readers here. It’s titled “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader“. (All of the episodes were “The Adventure of”.) Tom Bosley stars as Bud Armstrong, a murdered cartoonist who works for “Capricorn Comics”. Suspects include Donald O’Connor as “an ambitious lettering man”, Joseph Maher as “the layout expert”, two guys I didn’t recognize as a “background artist” and a “figure specialist”, and Lynda Day George as a “disillusioned secretary” (she kept getting hit on).

Art from Ellery Queen episode

Art done one panel per drawing page

The sample art shown over the intro is interesting. It’s much larger than it should be, with a panel taking up an entire blank board page. The figures are almost Kirby-like in their action and exaggeration, but the fedora-wearing hero reminds me of Eisner. Maybe Ditko’s a good comparison? The lettering is horrible, badly spaced in the balloons and varying in size.

Art from Ellery Queen episode

Bad lettering and a Kirby-like bad guy

The cartoonist is planning an action-packed version of Ellery’s adventures, without his permission, and as the detective tries to figure out who to get mad at, he works his way backwards through the craftsmen: from letterer to coloring and shading, then to background artist (who’s wielding a magnifying glass), then pencils. (That artist is holding a knife for inspiration, I guess, or modeling the hand. Note that the flow is almost manga-like, separating figure work from backgrounds instead of separating pencils from inking, which isn’t mentioned in the episode.)

It seems that Armstrong has his own studio, where everyone else does the work and he generates ideas. Ellery is becoming a comic book character (in the Wham! Pow! Zap! style, as Queen puts it) due to an unexpected clause in his new publishing contract. Ellery doesn’t like the idea of being shown as a fist-swinging brawler, so he threatens the cartoonist, who then winds up dead. Uh oh!

Ellery challenges the viewer to solve the mystery

Ellery challenges the viewer to solve the mystery; the art has changed size

It’s ok, he was unpleasant to everyone. But Ellery has even better reason to solve the mystery than in most of his cases, since he’s under suspicion. He winds up in jail for a short bit, where he does nothing but read comics, including Captain Cosmos and Future Man, while drinking a glass of milk. Meanwhile, the letterer is working on a funny animal strip called “Swamp Critters” because he wants to be an artist and “there’s growing pressure in Washington against sex and crime in comic books.” Wow, that’s a plot twist I didn’t expect! Sadly, the actual solution doesn’t have much to do with it. I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to check out the set yourself. I recommend it!

7 Responses  
Grant writes:  

Great article on Ellery Queen. I loved that show. In fact, I liked that whole “Monday Night Mystery” revolving show series with Cannon, McCloud, Columbo, McMillan and Wife, Banacek, etc. Great stuff.

The Comic Book Crusader episode sounds like a hoot! I’ve never seen that one. The first drawing looks very Kirby’esque. The art on the second one doesn’t look familiar. It doesn’t look like Ditko to me. More like Don Heck maybe.

Johanna writes:  

Thanks! I think I must have seen these at one point, but been too young to remember. The DVD set is a lot of fun and good quality video, too.

Richard J. Marcej writes:  

I was a kid when it first ran but was a big fan of the show. I’m sure I never guessed the mystery for each episode but enjoyed watching it. I remember first seeing Jim Hutton in the movie “Ensign Pulver” (lousy sequel to “Mr. Roberts”) and always liked his sort of laid back/befuddled style of acting.

Are there any extras in the set?

Reading about the “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader“ episode got me thinking, you could probably come up with a list of TV Shows and Movies that contained stories about comic books and comic strips. Stories that contained actual comic artwork.
Off the top of my head, I can think of:
TV – Ellery Queen : “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader“
TV – (the original) Hawaii 5-0: (an episode that involved a cartoonist drawing one of 5-0 into the strip to stop a killer
TV – (the original) The Avengers: (an episode involving a comic book artist and it’s winged avenger character.
Movie – “How To Murder Your Wife”: Jack Lemmon film featuring him as syndicated cartoonist.
Movie – “That Certain Feeling” (I think that’s the title): A Bob Hope film where he played a ghost assistant to an obnoxious syndicated cartoonist.

That’s all I could think of but I’m sure there’s more.

Johanna writes:  

The set has a booklet with some photos and episode descriptions. On the discs, there’s supposedly a short video interview with Mr. Link (since Mr. Levinson has passed). I say supposedly because I haven’t found it yet, but I’m only a third of the way in.

~chris writes:  

My mom and I loved watching this series when I was a kid, and I bought the DVD set for her for Christmas.

A TV show that contained stories about comic books– “Bob,” starring Bob Newhart, in which he portrayed the creator of a Silver Age-y superhero comic book, “Mad Dog.” The character is revived as a ’90s violent Wolverine type, and Bob is hired to work with a younger creator on the comic. Much of the show takes place in the comics company bullpen. Sadly, the show ended the comic book theme after the first season, and the show wasn’t as good anymore (and was quickly cancelled). Lisa Kudrow (pre-“Friends”) played a recurring character. A highlight of the show was that every episode contained a solo scene (no humans) with Bob’s housecat Otto, similar to Eddie the dog’s scenes on “Frasier.”

Johanna writes:  

I’d like to see Bob now. When it was airing, I wasn’t paying attention. Didn’t some of the Image guys guest-star on an episode?

~chris writes:  

Not just some Image guys, but Jack and Roz Kirby!

I wish they’d put this on DVD.


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