A Connoisseur in Degenerates

The comic book industry has been one built on commercial and narrative innovation, but it has long been sustained by imitation and repetition. And in the summer of 1942, Lev Gleason Publications offered one such innovation, the popularity and repetition of which would drive and nearly destroy the industry: The Crime Comic. Developed by Charles Biro and Bob Wood, Lev Gleason Publication’s Crime Does Not Pay was the first of its kind. The series began with issue #22, and in 1948, Gleason was claiming a readership of six million—a figure padded by comics’ pass-around nature. Eager to capitalize on the successful formula developed at Gleason, other publishers quickly followed suit, and crime comics became the comics industry’s best selling genre, issuing over 150 new crime titles between 1947 and 1954.[i]

Jack Cole. “Murder, Morphine, and Me.” True Crime Comics #2, 1947.

In part, because the fate of crime comics is inextricably entangled in the comic book panic of the late 1940s and 1950s, they are often treated as artistic oddities, simple vessels for brutal violence, or a historical place holder between generations of superhero comics. Less often are there questions of why crime comics gained so much popularity or how the narratives function to reflect cultural anxieties. Although the majority of this blog series will be reviews of crime comics of the 1940s and 1950s, I want to take the time to provide a historical, artistic, and literary context for these stories. In comics genealogy, it was crime comics that begat the horror comics craze. In comics legal history, it was crime comics—and their persistent use of the injury to the eye motif—that were center stage for Fredric Wertham and the anti-comics crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s. In American culture of the era, crime comics represent not just a shift away from the saccharine—and often bizarre—world of the superhero but a reflection of a culture that lost its innocence, assuming it had any to begin with. In the political climate of the mid-twentieth century, crime comics asked readers to consider class struggles and the relationship of the underclass to the law. And while superhero comics certainly act as modern American mythology, early crime comics are a Nietzschean counter-space where comics readers were forced to confront the fact that the gods were dead.

Charles Biro. Crime Does Not Pay #46, 1946.

In considering these questions of how and why, it’s first worth noting that, while innovation in the comics industry is often linked to particular artists, writers, and publishers, these innovations are better understood as emerging from a complex network of individual artistic, cultural, and market-driven forces that layer over time. A clear example of this layering of networks can be found in the crime comics boom and its fizzling out in the mid-1950s as a part of the fallout from the 1954 Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency and the subsequent development of the Comics Code Authority. An examination of the networks that both brought about and ultimately destroyed the crime comics genre reveals that there were high stakes in the production of these narratives. Specifically, crime comics’ dominance in the marketplace revealed cultural and class-based tensions between conservative political interests and the readers and producers of these stories. These political stakes, of course, have ongoing ramifications for the comic book industry, but, more broadly, they are a part of the anxieties that permeated the Depression/wartime/postwar era and revealed themselves in a variety of popular media like the pulps, hard boiled fiction, and film noir. In crime comics, readers were introduced to stories of depravity and Americans living on the margins of society, both as criminals and victims. Murder, poverty, drug addiction, and the general dangers of urban life were frequent topics for these comics, and that publishers persistently claimed the stories were based on real events offered readers a view of the world far removed from relative security of superhero fantasies. As a counter-narrative to capitalist rhetoric of the mid-twentieth century, war-time propaganda, and postwar notions of American exceptionalism, crime comics created a narrative space where readers across class boundaries were asked to confront an imagination of America where social, political, and criminal justice were fleeting.

Fred Guardineer. “The Wild Spree of the Laughing Sadist–Howard Dunker.” Crime Does Not Pay #57, 1947.

What is at stake in reading crime comics as more than a historical footnote or as gore filled tales of depravity is three-fold. First, it demonstrates that comic book producers responded to the market in a way that transcends genre interests and creeps into the political. Whether conscious or not, comic book artists and writers responded to their own lived experiences, the culture around them, and the political and economic conditions they lived under. More often than not, comic book artists and writers were living in urban locations, made very little money, and worked in what were effectively comic book sweatshops. Further, many were the children of immigrants and/or industrial workers, a significant portion of the American underclass. So, that these artists would be inclined create stories about characters living on the margins of society is unsurprising. However, that their publishers, like Lev Gleason, were so enthusiastic about publishing these kinds of stories is important for readers to take note of, if for no other reason than the popularity of comic books during the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1947, the height of Crime Does Not Pay’s popularity, one out of every three periodicals sold in the US was a comic book—totaling roughly 180 million comics per year. Moreover, 95% of American boys and 91% of American girls aged six to eleven read comics; 87% of teen boys and 81% of teen girls read comics; 41% of men and 28% of women[ii] eighteen to thirty years old read comics.[iii] However, the takeaway here is more than the comics industry’s ability to reach an audience; it’s that the industry offered readers a distinct counter-narrative that painted American society, particularly urban life, as a place where Robert Warshow’s “gangster as a tragic hero” thrived, revealing that political and moral authority was not always wielded justly or, more subtly, that American society was interested in the welfare of all its citizens. With these readership figures in mind, comic book publishers had tremendous power to reach and influence readers, and given the politically charged content of crime (and eventually horror) comics, it’s no wonder that conservative interests attacked the industry.

Paul Parker. “Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond: Scorpion of Crime.” Famous Crimes #1, 1948.

Secondly, a large number of crime comics were produced by veterans of World War II, and given the content of these comics, it seems clear that crime comics are not just a product of the American streets but of war itself. The genre was not introduced in comics until well after the United States had entered the war, and its sales figures peaked in the years following the end of the war as many veterans attempted to readjust to civilian life. Just as these comics delivered a counter-narrative to wartime propaganda, they served as a means for tracking the disillusionment of soldiers that were not found on the cover of Life Magazine. One way to demonstrate this is to consider the generic innovations and changes in comics after the introduction of crime comics, particularly post-World War II. First, this was a period when publishers continually worked to out-gore each other in the interest of competition and increasing sales, and as 41% of adult males were reading comics, it likely comes as no surprise that the kind of violent realism that crime comics claimed to offer would be more appealing than superhero fantasies to someone returning from combat or other military service. Furthermore, in comics genealogy, it is crime comics that give rise to the horror genre, which were produced by the same publishers and artists that worked on the crime genre. Just as importantly, it was from crime comics that realistic war comics also emerged, the most significant of which came from EC’s war line, edited by Harvey Kurtzman. These comics were often critical of the futility and brutality of war, and the effects it had on the combatants as well as the citizenry. So, in both a direct and long-term sense, it’s the political messaging—partly delivered through narrative violence—where crime comics offered readers the means to challenge the politics of war and consider the post-conflict realities for veterans.

George Evans. Crime SuspenStories #23, 1954.

Finally, in the history of comics production, crime comics play a significant role in understanding how political and economic concerns not only shape the content of the medium and its myriad genres but the distribution of profits and the treatment of labor. Although Lev Gleason Publications had only a small line of comics in production, the titles that Gleason produced were typically true to his leftist politics, and the first issue of his superhero title Daredevil immediately pitted the titular hero, and other characters from Gleason’s publication line, against Adolph Hitler. The issue was released in July 1941 and was as much a part of capitalizing on the American cultural moment as it was a reflection of Gleason’s own anti-fascist, leftist attitudes. The story was artistically produced by Crime Does Not Pay’s Biro and Wood, which only further entangles the duo in the politics of Gleason’s publishing practices. Gleason’s politics were of such concern to the American government that he was tried and convicted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1946 for his involvement in the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Moreover, as a part of Gleason’s publishing practices, Gleason was true to his leftist economic view, and committed to splitting the profits of Crime Does Not Pay with his collaborators. Such a practice was certainly unusual in the cut-throat comics publishing industry of the period, and it was a far cry from the subsistence wages that many comics producers made, forcing them to moonlight and/or produce comics at a break-neck pace. Generally speaking, creators fought for this kind of treatment for decades before any significant headway was made during the independent/black and white boom of the 1980s. That Gleason introduced this kind of publishing practice as early as the 1930s is not only remarkable but a clear indicator that a politics contra to traditional American capitalism were a significant motivating factor in the kinds of comics Gleason produced. As such, titles like Crime Does Not Pay are deeply embedded within the leftist politics that came under fire immediately following World War II and must be read within that context.

Crime comics offer us a remarkable view of an American counterpublic of the mid-twentieth century, one that, for myriad reasons, is unfamiliar to many modern readers. My aim is that, through this blog series, we will be able to tease out and gain an understanding of that counterpublic, as well as how it found an artistic voice in crime comics.

More plainly, writing and talking about crime comics makes me feel like a li’l fuzzy baby bunny filled with worms and ticks, and I hope reading about them makes you feel the same way. Strap in, kids. It’s gonna get weird.

[i] Benton, Mike. The Illustrated History of Crime Comics. Dallas, Taylor Pub., 1993.

[ii] The figures for women readers changed dramatically with the introduction of romance comics in 1948.

[iii] Waugh, Coulton. The Comics. Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 1991.

Zack Kruse can be found on Twitter and elsewhere at @zackkruse.