Home Publishers Dark Horse Reprints in Review: The Lurid World of Pre-Code Crime

Reprints in Review: The Lurid World of Pre-Code Crime [Column]


The Simon & Kirby Library – Crime.jpg

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.


  1. That’s the period too of when Kirby and Simon produced over 100 pages of comic EACH MONTH!!

    All hail the King!

  2. what the hell is the “Germanic way of seeing the rest of humanity”? is it different then the Latin or Slavic or Polynesian way?

    what a dumb phrase. come on, you’re better than that, the beat.

  3. Yeah! Excatly Darrell Tucker! when I intimated that a “Germanic way of seeing the rest of humanity” was a meaningless, stupid and ignorant phrase, what I really meant was I don’t think anyone should ever make fun of German citizens and that Nazis weren’t all that bad. Very perceptive of you. You’re quite clever!

  4. >> what the hell is the “Germanic way of seeing the rest of humanity”? is it different then the Latin or Slavic or Polynesian way? >>

    Of course it’s different. Different cultures tend to inculcate different worldviews in those who grow up in them. Not to the point of homogeneity, but it’s not an empty distinction. Surely we’re not now deciding that we must say all cultures are the same.

    But the implied article would be “the,” it’d be “a.” Cultural tendencies have a lot of variation; they’re not one size fits all.

    That said, I don’t think Wertham’s claims say much about his cultural background so much as his sloppy, unrigorous reasoning and his desire to sensationalize for profit, neither of which are notably “germanic.”

  5. the definition of Germanic that I’m familiar with is linguistic in origin and so when explaining cultures i would certainly call the distinction empty. if they author meant German, and therefore a way of seeing the rest of the world inherent to citizens of Germany, I would consider the cultural implications to be negligible. It’s a stereotype. Lazy short hand to describe behavior that does not hold up to scrutiny.

    such generalizations have their place I suppose but in this instance I found it meaningless, stupid and ignorant. unless you think people from Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich all have some cultural bond that would make them more likely to write a book like The Seduction of the Innocent than say someone from Paris, Tokyo or Brisbane. I definitely don’t.

    if you want to talk about cultures, don’t bring up language families or even nation states. talk about a specific cultural phenomena and how it applies to the generalization you’ve made and the implication therein.

    apologies for probably taking the phrase too seriously but reading that just got my boxers in a bunch.

  6. Jaroslav Hasek is right. It is dumb. And far out. Wertham´s book is scary, but it is scary not because he was a nut but because he was voicing the opinions of a lot of his collegues. One just has to read a chapter like “I want to be a sex maniac – Comic Books and the Psychosexual Development of children” to see how he ticked. His conclusions had nothing whatsoever to do with cultural bias but what he and a lot of psychiatrists thought to be hard medical facts. No wonder they thought that electroshocktreatment or lobotomy were the future.

    And he knew best. “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry […] can fail to to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature “Batman” and his young friend “Robin”. (Seduction p. 190.) No wonder his book was so successful. He just threw fuel into the fire.

  7. I am looking forward to seeing how Marvel works out -since they dropped the code when a Bush was in power,while digging themselves out of bankruptcy. Now we have a new EiC w/out the Code smack dab in a new Century w/new owners of Marvel. sigh…meh: As long as they keep printing homo-erotic power fantasies with naked men wearing colors spray painted to their bodies w/in frequently recycled themes/plots at the low low price of going on over $4/comic -who would notice?

  8. Hi…

    Another great related article for y’all ta feast yer little ‘consumer’ eyes on…:

    Comic relief
    Making the incipient homosexuality in superhero comics more visible has prompted a backlash far more complex than the one faced by comic books in the 1950s

    Although all of your little consumer-eyes read ‘homosexuality’ in the sub-title, its an article about the Code, and Wertham so… ENJOY

  9. …Oh my, Im back:
    A reason to have a ‘Code’ would be to make sure particular themes/plots are not systematically regurgitated – like starting w/these five:


    HC: So if you were to make a list, what would be the top five fantasy clichés that people should avoid?

    PR (Patrick Rothfuss): Boy, it’s hard to limit it to just five…

    1. Prophecy. I don’t ever want to read another novel about “the chosen one.”

    2. The helpless damsel. I’ve known a fair number of damsels in my day. The vast majority of them don’t need saving.

    3. Elves with bows who live in trees. Dwarves with axes who live in caves. It was fine when Tolkien did it, but that was 60 years ago. It’s time for us to move on.

    4. Brooding vampires. Any sort of vampire should probably be avoided at this point. The genre is kinda overrun.

    5. Dragons. As above.

    (Personally, instead of ‘Dragons’ I would say: raising the price of comics above $2.00 -instead of charging an amount that only forces people to go online and empower network analysis and data mining engineers to help predict *and as a result culturally dictate* how we make decisions on what ‘we choose’ to buy).

  10. Actually there already is a ‘Code’ in place…
    -was Marvel’s “The Brotherhood”, or Com.x’s “Clas$$war” really a ‘threat’ to the welfare of our country. I mean, its not like those comics were about devaluing the dollar, creating an electrical car and then recalling all of them to be destroyed, or sending jobs to India/Mexico/China, …or bailing out AIG or removing the Glass/Stiegal act… or forcing everyone to buy health insurance while the price of gas, food, interest rates increases and unemployment increases. …Just say’n: Have fun paying going on $4.5 for your New Code. We have gone from NuMarvel to NewCode…maybe?

  11. I seem to remember seeing a comic book that featured an article on Billy the Kid when I was in elementary school in the 1950s. I believe it may have appeared in “Crime Does Not Pay ” but I may be mistaken. I have been trying to locate a copy of this particular comic book. The title page showed a young man with two guns shooting and killing two law officers. Do you have any information on this particular article and on which comic book it appeared?

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