Shots fired in the war on crime. Artist: Kemp Sterrett.


Medium: Newspaper comics
Distributed by: The Ledger Syndicate
First Appeared: 1936
Creators: Rex Collier (writer) and Kemp Sterrett (artist)
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The comic book Crime Does Not Pay was famous for telling lurid crime stories that made protagonists of the bad guys — a technique alleged by would-be censor Fredric Wertham, whose fulminations in the late 1940s and early '50s helped usher in The Comics Code Authority, to be a form of depravity unique to comic books, …

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… denying what everybody could see for themselves, that this style of storytelling had been anticipated not only by the movies and pulp magazines of the 1930s, but also by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe, who, besides Robinson Crusoe had written several pirate stories that way. Here's a precedent from the comics themselves. The Ledger Syndicate (Lady Bountiful, Somebody's Stenog) launched the daily newspaper comic War on Crime on May 18, 1936.

It was half a decade since Dick Tracy had inured audiences to graphic violence as a comic strip theme. Also, it was an era when the recent memory of the Prohibition era had left many "celebrity criminals" lingering in the public consciousness. War on Crime told the stories of how many of the big names, such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, had met their ends, and it wasn't shy about treating readers to gunfight scenes.

The scripts were written by Philadelphia Ledger crime reporter Rex Collier, working from actual FBI files. (He'd won favor with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover from his earlier crime coverage.) It was drawn by former magazine illustrator Kemp Sterrett, working in a style so similar to Frank Godwin (Rusty Riley) that at one time, this feature was mistakenly credited to Godwin.

Collier stayed for the strip's whole run, but Kemp left after a little over a year, and was replaced by Jimmy Thompson. Thompson had worked on several newspaper comics, but later moved to comic books, where he did such features as Captain Compass and Rodeo Rick.

Collier's stories were fast-paced, but his background wasn't in comics, so he often failed to make use of the medium's strength. Often, his captions would tell readers what they were looking at, such as "He fired back." He sometimes wasted a lot of words describing scenes that the reader could take in at a glance. But a bigger problem was running out of material.

War on Crime chewed up star gangsters like Dial H for Hero chewed up superhero concepts. After a couple of years, having told the stories of Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson and the rest, it was down to the likes of Two-Gun Brunette, whoever he is. Or she. It ended on January 22, 1938.

The strip was reprinted in Famous Funnies, but that was the extent of its media penetration. A decade or so later, EC Comics did a comic book with that title, but it wasn't related.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The Philadelphia Public Ledger.