When Crime Does Not Pay was launched in 1942, its publisher, Lev Gleason, immediately attempted to set readers straight about the new series. In his editorial introduction to Crime Does Not Pay #22, Gleason assures readers CDNP is more than “just a magazine,” it has a clear social agenda:
It is dedicated to the youth of America with the hope that it will help make better, cleaner young citizens. The object of the Editors is to bring home sharply, to make crystal clear, that CRIME DOES NOT PAY! Crime never pays, it is a sucker’s game. Criminals are not heroes, they are not even brave or “nervy”—they are cowardly rats. Sooner or later they get their just reward. Their fate is prison and death.
Throughout the short introduction, Gleason alerts readers to the title of this “completely new kind of magazine” five times, and the introduction works within a tried and true model carried over from the pulp magazines of the era—mixing pizazz with stern warnings about the content and the dangers within—designed to make the reader curious and excited about the violence inside. And, of course, one might cynically observe that Gleason was also doing a bit of handwashing by rhetorically positioning CDNP as a bulwark against crime and criminals, while simultaneously profiting from their likenesses, their misdeeds, and, most importantly, their violence.
There certainly seems to be some merit to this cynical view, and one might even argue that Gleason saw such a perspective coming, given the tenor of his editorial. And, to be sure, it was in part this cynical view that later crusades against comics—crime comics in particular—exploited. However, I would like to cut at this a different way. Let’s take Gleason, and his editors Charles Biro and Bob Wood, at their word. Better yet, let’s take Gleason, Biro, and Wood as witnesses and respondents to a cultural moment. And within that cultural moment, one can easily observe an America only recently emerging from the Depression, an America observing the popular rise (and popularization) of organized crime from the prohibition era, and an America that had only recently entered its second World War. These, along with other cultural concerns, like race, labor, and gender issues were at the tip of the country’s tongue, and have been widely explored by other historians and scholars of popular media. And while these previous studies either gesture or point directly towards historical and sociological links between the content of popular media and the cultural landscape of twentieth century America, what they seldom consider are the, sometimes subconscious, philosophic and intellectual rationales for arguments that “Criminals are not heroes, they are not even brave or ‘nervy’—they are cowardly rats. Sooner or later they get their just reward. Their fate is prison and death.”
What undergirds this sense of righteousness that allows, even demands, that one individual’s life necessarily should be snuffed out by either another individual, a group of individuals, or the state? There are myriad possible answers here, and some of obvious philosophic paths to follow are Foucauldian discourses on biopower and Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, among others. And while those discussions would seem fruitful, they’re not entirely satisfying. What sticks in my craw are the phrases “just reward” and “their fate”—that criminals not only deserve whatever bad things happen to them but that it’s inevitable. That inevitability implies some kind of divine or cosmic forces will ensure the death, torture, or imprisonment of criminals (sometimes all three!); further, the mystical implications of a word like “fate” have the subtle, but definitely added, effect of positioning whoever kills a criminal as an agent of fate—either divine or cosmological—thus absolving that person from any moral or legal burden for taking a human life. And when criminals die as a result of nature or freak accidents, fate and the cosmos are even more easily invoked. Put differently, my major interest is in what gives license to the good guys in comics—what are the ethics and popular beliefs that permit them to dispatch with criminals and undesirables? What gives them the “right to kill,” as Steve Ditko would articulate decades later? I argue that the pulp publications and comic books of the mid-twentieth century were a part of a wide-ranging anatheistic enterprise interested in Theosophic imaginations of karma, cosmic pessimism, and individualist philosophy. What was at stake in this enterprise was not the construction Manichean notions of good and evil but the development of the ethical parameters for in a world where God had long been dead.
World Wars I and II only increased this religious, intellectual disillusionment, which was artistically reflected in movements like Modernism. In the global search for a replacement for Christianity and a sense of cosmic justice, many turned to Spiritualism and Theosophy as prescribed by H.P. Blavatsky, and the vocabulary of Theosophy became (and remains) a part of the cultural discourse. In The Key to Theosophy, Blavatsky posits a distinct notion of Karma, which she explains in the following way:
…it [is] the Ultimate Law of the Universe, the source, origin, and fount of all other laws which exist throughout Nature. Karma is the unerring law which adjusts effect to cause, on the physical, mental and spiritual planes of being. As no cause remains without its due effect from greatest to least, from a cosmic disturbance down to the movement of your hand, and as like produces like, Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer. Though itself unknowable, its action is perceivable. (131-132, emphasis original)
Blavatsky expands upon this understanding by explaining the distributive properties of Karma, and, because every human being is connected, at least at the spiritual level, we all collectively suffer or rejoice at the hand of karma (133). Resultantly, one can imagine both cosmic punishment and reward, and, therefore, when a sin is eradicated, the whole of humanity is lifted. However, this collective, distributive nature of karma does not preclude either individual punishments for misdeeds nor individual agents of karma. For Blavatsky, karma can only be understood by its observable effects—not its originator, and no one can clearly identify the means or motives of that prime mover.
Of equal importance, according Blavatsky there can be no ultimate forgiveness from God. The results of a crime, be it individual or collectively enacted, cannot be obliterated. It has a ripple effect that runs throughout the universe, and there must be a reckoning—that ripple must run ashore. The cosmos must be put back in balance, and this balance, of course, is achieved through karma, which “may be instantaneous, [and the] effects are eternal” (149). With this merciless cosmic understanding in mind, and because there is apparently no way to deny how or that karmic justice is meted out, this leaves plenty of room for individual agents of cosmic/karmic justice to punish criminal actors with extreme prejudice and without requiring the motive of revenge to justify their actions. Rather, they are acting on behalf of karma, of an imagined sense of cosmic justice.
To be sure, an understanding of the violence enacted in the crime comics of the 1940s and early 1950s cannot simply be winnowed down to being just a practical, artistic expression of Blavatsky’s karma. There are major societal and philosophic underpinnings, namely the rise of philosophies championing radical individualism and a distinct kind of free-market economics. However, for the purposes of this blog series, we will sidestep those concerns and leave them for another project. (One, I’m already hard at work on, trust me.) Moreover, given the Marxist politics of a publisher like Lev Gleason, it’s difficult (but neither unreasonable nor impossible) to tie his editorial and artistic motives to earlier philosophic anarchists like Max Stirner, American thinkers like H.L. Mencken, or the economics of Ludwig von Mises. So, in the interest of remaining focused, we’re going to principally concern ourselves with this distinct notion of karma, which is rooted in Blavatsky’s imagination of the cosmos but manifests itself, almost exclusively, through violence. This dark karma is not necessarily limited to crime and horror publications of the era, but these publications give the clearest voice to such a notion, thus allowing dark karma serve as the guide post for a strand of American popular media that continues until today, justifying the physical punishment, torture, and killing of criminal human beings. After all, they had it coming, right? “Sooner or later, they get their just reward,” as Gleason reminds us.
The principles laid out here and in my first entry for this series of essays, will guide us along through a reading of, first, the initial eight issues of Crime Does Not Pay (#22-29), and will then move on to the other crime series that followed, occasionally returning to CDNP. My hope is that these short essays and commentaries will not just be interesting but situate these comics with an intellectual and cultural framework that demonstrates the long-ranging implications of these works—a means of better understanding ourselves.
Next time: “Right Down in the Swamp!” Crime Does Not Pay #22
Zack Kruse is a comics scholar and writer. He can be heard on the podcast Pictures Within Pictures and followed on Twitter @zackkruse