Crime Does Not Pay: A 1943 cover by Charles Biro.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: Lev Gleason
First Appeared: 1942
Created by: Charles Biro and Bob Wood (editors)
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Fredric Wertham, in his 1954 anti-comics tome Seduction of the Innocent, noted the existence of what he considered a particularly vile genre of comic book. Comics of this genre would follow a criminal's career as he rose in power and influence until, at the bottom of the last page, he died violently. The supposed message, that anyone choosing a life of crime would come to a bad end, was completely obscured by the real message — that before …

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… doing so, he'd live an exciting and affluent life. The supposed purpose of such stories was moral instruction for young people, whereas the pathetically obvious true purpose was to sell them lurid crime stories. Wertham claimed this genre was unique to American comic books.

Wertham must not have seen the gangster movies of the 1930s and '40s, or noticed the crime pulp magazines of the same time. For that matter, he must not have read very much of the work of Daniel Defoe, who besides writing Robinson Crusoe was also a prominent 18th-century exploiter of this genre.

Be that as it may, the genre was absent from comic books until 1942, when editors Bob Wood (who had written several characters for MLJ Comics) and Charles Biro (who co-created Steel Sterling for the same publisher and Airboy for Hillman Periodicals), working for publisher Lev Gleason (who had started out packaging comic books for United Feature Syndicate, distributor of Nancy and Gordo), launched Crime Does Not Pay — which went on to become one of the hottest selling comic books in American history.

Crime stories had been done before in comics, of course. A prominent example is Dick Tracy, a pioneer in graphic depiction of violence to the American public, but Tracy is far from the only one. In fact, the very first successful single-genre comic book was DC's Detective Comics, where Batman later began. Every story in that title was about a crime of one sort or another.

But those all focused on the folks who track criminals down and bring them to justice. What had not been done before in comic books — tho it was common in film and prose fiction (and had even been tried as comics stories in pulp magazines as early as 1935) — was to focus on the criminals themselves. In Crime Does Not Pay, the crooks were the stars. The law functioned mostly as an obstacle to their goals. Even in the book's logo, the word "crime" dwarfed all else. Of course, the bad guys did get their inevitable comeuppance, but by then, the reader's sympathy wasn't always entirely against them.

Crime Does Not Pay started with #22, dated June, 1942. (Issues 1-21, titled Silver Streak Comics, had featured standard superhero fare such as Captain Battle and The Silver Streak himself, and was notable mostly for having introduced The Claw and Daredevil.) With #24 it added a host/narrator, Mr. Crime, a chalk-white spectre who dressed like a 19th century undertaker and sometimes functioned as an anti-conscience, whispering evil advice into the ears of the stories' actual characters. Incidentally, Mr. Crime was the first such regularly-appearing host/narrator for a comic otherwise devoid of continuing characters, and with good reason — Crime Does Not Pay was, among its other innovations, the first American comic book without continuing characters (what with the protagonist of each story dying at the end, and all).

Later, another regular character came along — private detective Dan Turner, who belonged to the same "hard-boiled" genre as Ken Shannon and Johnny Dynamite, making the stories no less violent and tasteless than the regular ones, with criminal protagonists who died in the end.

In its first two or three years, the title did reasonably well but didn't set any records. But as the country entered the post-World War II era, Crime Does Not Pay began to take off. By 1947, it was outselling anything Gleason's outfit had ever published, and imitators were starting to crop up. By 1950 every comic book rack in the U.S. sported titles like Crime Can't Win (Marvel), Justice Traps the Guilty (Prize Comics), Crime Patrol (EC), Crimes by Women (Fox Feature Syndicate) and lots, lots more — including Gleason's own Crime & Punishment. But the original was always the leader of the pack — not just in circulation (at one point, a cover blurb claimed readership of six million), but also in drawing heat.

By that time, the anti-comics movement, with Wertham as a prominent spokesman, was in full swing. Those under fire included grisly horror comics such as The Vault of Horror (EC) and Adventures into the Unknown (American Comics Group), blatant exploiters of sex such as Phantom Lady (Fox) and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (Fiction House), and of course, crime comics like this one. Attacks appeared in magazines such as Saturday Review of Literature and Parents magazine, occasional books such as Wertham's, and ultimately the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. By the mid-1950s, anti-comics sentiment was soaring, and it was getting hard to find distributors willing to take on the more controversial ones.

The comics industry responded by instituting The Comics Code Authority, overseen by the newly formed Comics Magazine Association of America, in 1954. With distributors refusing to handle non-Code-approved comics, it was join or die. Only two publishers held out and survived — Gilberton, the publisher of Classics Illustrated, and Dell, which was assumed to have a wholesome product by virtue of its alliance with the powerful Disney name. Even Treasure Chest, which was endorsed by the Catholic Church, prominently displayed a Comics Code seal. The first Code-approved issue of Crime Does Not Pay was #143 (March, 1955).

For a comic book like this one, the Code strictures were drastic. The word "crime" could no longer be larger than other words in the title — in fact, Gleason had fought hard for the word not to be excluded outright (like "horror" and "terror" were). Detailed planning of crimes could not be shown, nor could disrespect for law enforcement officers — and there went most of the dialog. Excessive violence was prohibited, as were all forms of torture, and for that matter, "gruesome behavior" in general — so much for the action. Criminals could not be featured prominently, or in a sympathetic light — and that was it for the characters.

It was debilitating, and the comic was indeed debilitated. Crime Does Not Pay stumbled on for a few more issues, but ended with #147 (July, 1955). Crime & Punishment bit the dust a month later.

Within months, the entire genre was extinct in comics. But in movies, TV, prose fiction etc., the criminal who lives high on the hog before getting gunned down in the end is still with us — whatever Fredric Wertham might have thought.


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Text ©2001-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Lev Gleason Publications.