Crime Does Not Pay #22
The very first story to appear in Crime Does Not Pay was the true-crime story of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, titled “Crime Kings: The Real Story behind Lepke.” The Story was scripted by Woody Hamilton and featured art by Harry Lucey, and in the introduction to the story, Hamilton writes, “America wars on crime each day of the year, but still diseased minds plot, plan and sweep cities with ruthless waves of brutality and vice…like an extensive education, the factories of evil nurse the warped minds of man and turn them to cunning, scheming monsters.”
This bleak view—one where crime, vice, and brutality are not just existent but multiplying, enshrouding the American cultural landscape—insists that, despite Lev Gleason’s editorial insistence and CDNP’s subtitle, the eradication of crime is a futile endeavor. No matter how clever the police are, nor how foolishly criminals behave, the machinations of evil are too deeply entrenched within the human condition. Individual criminals can be eliminated, but crime itself cannot. At first glance, this kind of deep pessimism verges on antinatalism, but assigning antinatalism to CDNP is too reductive and fails to account for the nuances that necessarily arise resulting from the nature of anthology series. Although antinatalism isn’t quite in the register of CDNP’s major themes, pessimism certainly is.
In Cosmic Pessimism, Eugene Thacker writes, “For pessimism, the world is brimming with negative possibility, the collision of a bad mood with an impassive world. In fact, pessimism is the result of the confusion between the world and a statement about the world” (emphasis added). Indeed, CDNP, and Hamilton’s opening, seem to be that very “statement about the world.” But even with that pessimistic about statement, CDNP still seems to have a sense of joy—of bemused merriment—about it. Perhaps, as discussed in previous entries to this blog series, that joy comes from the karmic retribution—the fictive tormenting of evil-doers—of those who deserve their punishment. Or perhaps there’s an additional angle to that joy, a kind of nihilistic
laughter. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche writes, “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” It’s this kind of Dionysian pessimism, Thacker writes, that is “a pessimism of strength or joy, a yes-saying to the worst, a yes-saying to this world as it is.”
As I read these lurid stories that illustrate the “ruthless wave of brutality and vice” that the creators and editors of CDNP produced, I see both sides of that laughter: the nihilistic laugh of recognizing the world for the dark, sadistic place it often is as well as the laughter of that world karmically consuming its own evil creations. And if there were any question as to whether these stories were meant to reveal the world as it really is, one need look no further than the cover’s claim that the horrors inside were “All True Crime Stores!,” not to mention the titles of the individual stories, many of which stressed the “reality” of their contents. If Lev Gleason’s editors were to be believed, the demiurgic forces of crime were hard at work in the mundane world, creating a kind of systemic evil that was a part of the fabric of everyday American life, and CDNP relished revealing these truths every bit as much as it enjoyed doling out karmic punishment to individual ne’er-do-wells.
For this entry, we’ll be looking at just two stories from CDNP #22 to consider my position, but make no mistake about it: in the roughly sixty-five (!) pages of this first installment of CDNP, pessimistic themes run rampant in every story except for one, which features kid-inventor Dickie Dean, a sort of wholesome, Buy-War-Bonds! filler story, the lead character of which would find a home in another Gleason publication. A biographical story about Wild Bill Hickock at first paints Hickock as an eradicator of evil, mercilessly killing anyone who would dare violate his rules or commit other acts of evil, but the karmic tables quickly turn on Bill after he accidentally shoots and kills his friend, Mike McWilliams. Just three panels after the accidental killing of McWilliams, Hickock is himself assassinated, holding his mythic aces and eights. Even the superhero story, featuring the weird hero War Eagle, imagines an America where the disabled are regularly pummeled and the country is simmering with both crime and Nazi spies.
But where can we most clearly observe the systemic, embedded, ineradicable evil CDNP posits? Where can we identify a scenario where the editors and creators alert us that evil is a part of everyday American life, in subtle, if not troubling ways? One instance of this occurs in the story “The Saga of Harpshead Road,” which features the art of Carl Hubbell. The three-page vignette recounts the bloody, sadistic exploits of the real-life Harpe brothers: serial killers, highwaymen, and pirates who confessed to no less than thirty-nine murders across the American south in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In Hubbell’s depiction of the Harp brothers’ atrocities (Harpe is misspelled in CDNP), the elder brother, “Big” Harp, shoots a baby for crying. Once a posse catches up to the monstrous Big Harp, they tell him that they “oughta cut him to ribbons,” and they do. Big Harp’s head is severed from his body and placed in the crux of tree facing the highway, and “soon, the country round learned to call this grisly trail “‘Harpshead Road.’”
Given the constraints of the page count, Hubbell’s story matches up with the real historical account of the Harpe brothers reasonably well, but more importantly for our purposes, it serves as a function of CDNP’s tell-it-like-it-is mission that not only reveals the long-standing seething underbelly of American life but that atrocities like those of the Harpe brothers are immortalized and made a permanent fixture of everyday life. The torture of Big Harp after his capture and the display of his severed head along the trail where he was apprehended harkens back to some more medieval form of justice, but it also makes the Harpe brothers a part of both the literal American landscape and the American mythos—an indicator of cultural identity. The Harpe brothers are distinctly American serial killers, and that they were dispatched with as ruthlessly as they were is every bit as much a part of a sense of karmic justice as those later criminals who were perforated by police bullets or beaten to death by an angry mob. That CDNP traffics in these types of stories is more than just violence for the sake of increased circulation. It’s a reflection of a broad, if not subconscious, cultural understanding about a major part of the American cultural identity: one that is conflicted between its pessimistic view of the world and its insistence that evil be punished and punished now.
Elsewhere in this first issue, CDNP explores the political and economic angle of the systemic evil that has wrapped its tendrils around American life. In the previously mentioned story “Crime Kings: The Real Story behind Lepke,” we get just such an instance. Following from Woody Hamilton’s introductory paragraph, indicting the diseased minds of crime, revealing these brutes precise for who they are, and the story’s star, Lepke, is depicted manipulating his mother, manipulating the juvenile justice system. As an adult, Lepke wastes no time in murdering cops, ordering the murder of a rival crime boss, murdering at least a dozen witnesses to his crimes, and having acid thrown in the face of a man not once but twice! A narrative double purpose is served when Lepke murders fellow criminals, at once giving these crooks their just deserts and demonstrating Lepke’s ruthlessness, and when innocents are murdered, this also demonstrates the crime boss’s brutality and simultaneously justifies the creative team’s assurance that he will suffer for his misdeeds. But woven within all of this is a cultural critique that implicates not just Lepke but the capitalistic American industrial system as a part of an immoral, criminal enterprise.
To be sure, this kind of narrative element is in-line with Lev Gleason’s own political worldview, but tangling organized, violent crime with American capitalism is important for reasons beyond the politics of Gleason, Wood, Biro, Hamilton, or Lucey. This kind of narrative choice reinforces the notion that the American system is inherently corrupt, and that no matter how far one may be removed from urban life or legally questionable activity, that person is touched by the kind of evil that doesn’t just rely on graft and greed but on murder, torture, and the like. Because evil has been systematized in this way, it has become inescapable, and the only hope left for the average person, presumably at least some of CDNP’s readership, is the reassurance that individual evil doers will get their comeuppance.
Hamilton and Lucey use an entire page to illustrate the links between organized crime and actions taken against striking laborers, first depicting Lepke and a few other surly looking gangsters who were “hired by large firms to break strikes that their unfair wage system had precipitated” (emphasis added). Lepke and his crew are then seen pummeling a few warehouse workers, threatening their lives if they don’t call off the strike. The following panels then depict the warehouse owner cementing his deal with crime bosses to continue to harass and assault striking laborers who are “ruining [his] business.” The page concludes with Lepke and his then boss, Kid Dropper, plotting to “drain [those] crooked capitalists white!” In this final intriguing turn, Hamilton and Lucey position organized crime as being less vile than “crooked capitalists” who exploit their workers and bankroll criminal organizations, paying those organizations to assault and murder employees who don’t toe company line.
Although comics and pulps are and were, undoubtedly, considered low culture, it’s clear from this first issue that Crime Does Not Pay had deep cultural and political concerns, and, further, that it would ask its readers to carefully consider the world around them. CDNP’s pessimistic view of the world as a cruel, corrupt place, whose very cruelty is perpetuated by systemic forces that, at a certain level, act without realization of their complicity in the rotting out of American culture. However, rather than engendering despondency, CDNP seems to ask readers, in a Nietzschean sense, to take the world, and all its ugliness, as it is—to revel in it. Rejoicing in the knowledge that they can confront this indefatigable darkness with laughter, and readers can take comfort in the imagination that those who perform evil will suffer as much or more than their victims.
Next time: “Standing on a bloody pedestal!”: Crime Does Not Pay #23
Zack Kruse is a comics scholar and writer. He can be head on the podcast Pictures Within Pictures and followed on Twitter @zackkruse.
Contents and contributors to Crime Does Not Pay #22:
Front Cover: Charles Biro
Editors: Charles Biro and Bob Wood
“Crime Kings: The Real Story behind Lepke” – script: Woody Hamilton, art: Harry Lucey
“‘Wild Bill’ Hickock” – art: Woody Hamilton
“Officer Edward Maher and the Mad Dog Killers” – art: unknown
“The Saga of Harpshead Road” – art: Carl Hubbell
“Two-Legged Rats” – art: Bob Montana
“The Mad Musician and His Tunes of Doom” – art: George Tuska
“Hollywood’s Panther Man” (prose) – text: Woody Hamilton
“The Case of the Twisted Cigarettes” – art: Richard Norman
“The Blackout Murder Mystery” – art: Norman Maurer
“Dickie Dean, the Boy Inventor” – art: Bob Montana
“The War Eagle” – art: Alan Mandel