by Paul Buhle
Crime Does Not Pay: Blackjacked and Pistol-Whipped, a Crime Does Not Pay Prime, Dark Horse Books: Milwaukie, OR, 221pp, $19.95 pbk.
(Swans - November 7, 2011) This is a long-awaited treat for we comics-history devotees who never laid hands upon an old copy of the nation's once premier selling (and perhaps most-cursed) series. The story inevitably goes back to one of the most intriguing of comic book giants or perhaps semi-giants. In the wide open days of the Depression and Wartime, new publishers rushed into fill apparent gaps in adolescent (and GI) cravings, won and lost fortunes, and earned the ire of supposed educational reformers bent upon eradicating a new danger to children's morals as well as their eyesight. Even in these circles, publisher Lev Gleason was sui generis.
Crime Does Not Pay lasted less than a decade and no comics-reader starting in 1960 was likely never to have heard the name. But it sold millions from its appearance in 1946 and more than sales alone, took the industry by storm. How did it happen? Denis Kitchen unravels a story in "Biro & Wood: Partners in Crime," that perhaps no one else could tell.
The selection of two dozen stories for reprinting goes back to Kitchen tracking down comics old-timers during the early 1980s, pursuing an ex-publisher widely considered a crook (but also the legal successor to the vanished Crime Does Not Pay enterprise), and turning up details of the story, clue by clue. The saga comes close to a good crime story. During 1942, artist-editor Charles Biro and artist Bob Wood cooked up a scheme to get rich. They had already begun collaborating with the Lev Gleason and his little Comic House in creating an anti-fascist hero, Daredevil, who assaulted Hitler on the iconic comic's cover. Gleason was the man to see, because he could make production work. The grand days began in 1943.
But there was a hitch. Gleason, a left-winger as well as an able businessman, had been important in raising money for the Spanish Civil War volunteers (this was known as "premature anti-fascism," a sure sign of red sympathies) and especially the refugees surviving outside Spain but desperately in need of medical and other assistance. He also published a short-lived weekly radical magazine, and a progressive knock-off of the notoriously right-wing Reader's Digest that lasted several years. As soon as the Second World War ended, the investigations of suspicious subversive connections began, and Gleason found himself in front of a Congressional investigating committee. He refused to give up membership lists of the refugee-assistance organization, and was awarded with a three-month prison sentence as well as a fine. He paid the fine, and his sentence was suspended. (According to rumors, he knew whom to pay off.)
The hiccup covered, Crime Does Not Pay roared along at a clip of two to four million copies monthly. Why was it so successful? In the immediate postwar years, the craving for superheroes fighting the fascists quickly dulled, a good thing because a flood of comic variety met the postwar audience (with more money to spend), including Funny Animals, Science Fiction, Girls Comics and lots else, with some of the weirdest as well as the best drawing in the history of the mainstream. By the late 1940s, EC's burst into the highest levels of creativity, realistic war comics, SciFi and Mad, were just around the corner because the way had been prepared for them.
But Crime Does Not Pay hit the mark for reasons that were less savory. They were violent and pandered to a prurient fascination with the mentally disturbed killer, the psychotic brutalizer of women, the loner who cannot help himself (women murderers can be found, but they are far fewer) and so on. The keenness of the narrative and the art by a number of the industry's sharpest (Dick Briefer, who also drew for the Daily Worker, was one of the most talented) made the garishness both more acceptable and more awful. Denis Kitchen's comics collaborator, John Lind, did the selection of these beautifully awful stories and the excellent design of the volume.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book. (back)