by Casey Burchby
How dangerous or offensive were pre-code crime comics – really? Most of us probably agree that the anti-comics hysteria of the early 1950s was ludicrously overblown, and can probably also think of a few current issues that are similarly hyper-inflated by reactionary gasbags. Dr. Fredric Wertham’s claims (enshrined in his ridiculously titled pseudoscientific 1954 screed Seduction of the Innocent) about the ill effects of comic books on easily-corruptible young minds probably said more about Wertham’s Germanic way of seeing the rest of humanity than they did about observable reality. But how do these Golden Age crime comics look to contemporary readers? A couple of new releases collect some of the best pre-code crime comics and prove that they still pack a wallop, both in terms of their swift, punchy visual storytelling, and in their ability to deliver real shocks.
The Simon and Kirby Library, launched last year by Titan Books, includes a volume simply titled Crime that collects outstanding genre work by the legendary duo Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The selections here are mostly from 1947-1948, when the two freelanced for Hillman Periodicals (publisher of Real Clue Crime Stories) and Crestwood Publications (Justice Traps the Guilty). However, there are also two stories here from the 1950s that demonstrate the shift in style, tone, and subject matter occasioned by the adoption of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Both of these later stories seem markedly anemic when compared to those that come before them – both literally and figuratively bloodless.
Simon and Kirby’s pre-code work was never as lurid or gruesome as other crime comics of that era (see below), but they were certainly violent and blood was often visible. Still, the worst acts happened “off-screen.” Simon and Kirby’s story of America’s “first serial killer,” H. H. Holmes of Chicago, merely shows the madman chloroforming a victim. How Holmes dealt with corpses is hardly even hinted at. However, other stories involving gunplay do show bloodied and/or dead victims.
The Titan volume’s real value is that it documents two young, energetic creators experimenting with a medium still in its infancy. We see them finding new ways to tell tightly compressed stories with great economy, while avoiding cliché and easy ways out whenever possible. Kirby already had a way with faces. His tendency to vary line thickness helped him differentiate characters’ features, which made the dynamically staged action that much easier to follow. There’s never any confusion as to who is punching who, whereas in other artists’ hands characters can be lost in the tangle of a brawl.
Crime Doesn’t Pay, more than any other single title, was responsible for the existence of the Comics Code. Routinely cited by Werthamite proponents of censorship in comics, Crime Does Not Pay was indeed a graphically violent book that pulled no punches in depicting the brutality of the criminal underworld. But the criminals in these stories never won; as its title suggests, punishment or comeuppance always waited at the end.
Dark Horse, who put out a nice “best of” paperback collection of Crime Does Not Pay stories last fall, has now initiated a run of hardcover collections that archive the entirety of the book’s 13-year, 126-issue run. The first volume is just out, and collects issues #22 through #25 (1942-1943). (Note that publisher Lev Gleason continued the title’s numbering from his Silver Streak book; #22 is indeed the first issue of Crime Does Not Pay.)
In Crime Does Not Pay, we see what the early ‘50s hysteria was all about. Prisoners kill cops; a woman leaps from a burning building and is then seen covered in blood on the sidewalk below; and one of the book’s most memorable – and still alarming – covers depicts a man pushing a woman’s head into a lit stovetop element, her hair aflame. The horrific images are still effective. Also effective are the incredibly innovative layouts of the stories, even in these earliest issues; the stories are terrifically compelling, with dynamic visuals and crisp text.
Both volumes are packed with entertainment value that hasn’t flagged in 70 years. They also serve as primers for a whole genre of comics that continues to be fruitful today – even though we now tend to see more melodramatic noir-inspired stories as opposed to the “true crime” stories that were the bread and butter of Crime Does Not Pay and Simon and Kirby’s work. Violent and thrilling, both of these volumes are highly recommended.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.