What They Say:
Uncut and uncensored, the infamous precode Crime Does Not Pay comics are finally collected into a series of archival hardcovers! With brutal, realistic tales focusing on vile criminals, Crime Does Not Pay was one of the most popular comics of the 1940s. The series was a favorite target of Dr. Fredric Wertham and other censors and is partially responsible for the creation of the stifling Comics Code Authority. Now revered and mythic, this collection of the first four hard-to-find Crime Does Not Pay comics features a fine roster of Golden Age creators and a new introduction by Matt Fraction (Iron Man, Casanova)!
Writers: Woody Hamilton, Bob Wood, Dick Wood
Artists: Harry Lucey, Carl Hubbell, Bob Montana, George Tuska, Richard Norman, Norman Maurer, Alan Mandel, Bart Tumey, Buriokoff, Dick Briefer, Frank Giacoa
I’m always amazed when reading older comics just how text heavy they are. The pages are crammed with purple prose that often describes what the reader is seeing on the panel. Craft-wise it’s a mess, but in terms of comics history, it’s a great example of how they were once written. That’s the real joy of reading Crime Doesn’t Pay—not for the stories (although they can be fun), and not for the art (although perfectly serviceable, none of the artists really play with the genre)—but for the history. Crime Doesn’t Pay plays a special role in American comics as one of Fredric Wertham’s favorite examples of how comics corrupt children and turn them into deviants. Along with Tales from the Crypt and other great EC comics, Crime Does Not Pay lead to the creation of the stifling Comics Code Authority.
Each issue contains approximately ten stories, the majority of which detail the exploits of real, twentieth century criminals like John Dillinger or Dutch Shultz. Other stories deal with historical figures such as Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, or John Overs. Finally, each issue also included a murder mystery that the reader was supposed to solve—much like old Encyclopedia Brown adventures, only more grisly—and in the first issue, the humorous Dickie Dean, Boy Inventor, and the superhero The War Eagle. This collection also keeps the ads that originally ran in the issues for items like war bonds and telescopes.
Reading it now, it’s funny to think that some believed that this series would lead children to a life of crime. For one thing, for all the lurid sex and violence (as much as could be shown back then, anyway) each story ends with the criminal getting his/her just deserts—hence the title. In addition, the comic always makes it clear that this is deviant behavior that should not be emulate or praised. My favorite example is the opening splash page for the Millen-Faber case:
“Abe Faber graduated with honors from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology and today might have been an electrical engineer helping his country destroy its enemies….Instead, he lies in a cold grave because he chose a life of CRIME rather than one of accomplishment. His partners in crime, Murton and Irving Millen might also be living and serving this country, but they too chose the path of ruthless crime and their reward was DISGRACE and DEATH.”
This was written in a scroll beside the picture of Faber, dressed in a blue mortar cap and graduation gown, firing a tommy gun, an electric chair beside his feet. If I could find a print, I would love to have it as a poster. The jingoism of the text, the lamenting of Faber and the Millens choosing a life of crime over one of service (apparently military service), juxtaposed with the image of the recently-graduated Faber wielding the tommy gun is hilariously absurd, as is the text. Once again, how this would lead kids to a life of crime is beyond me, but the whole Wertham Seduction of the Innocents blame-game was about as absurd as the splash page.
To use a dead cliché, I think the problem some people have with this comic—other than the sex and violence—is that Crime Doesn’t Pay wants to have its cake and eat it too. There’s a certain amount of glorifying the criminal life, but at the same time it vilifies those that engage in it. It’s essentially saying, “Look at all these cool people doing cool things, but don’t it yourself.” At least, I think that’s how others perceived it, and in the end that perception was enough to radically change comics.
In his introduction, Matt Fraction writes that this comic represents the “lowest of low culture” and he means that as a compliment. These stories are violent and titillating and hypocritically moralistic and great fun to read. Modern comic readers may have difficulty getting into the issues because the style is so different from today’s comics, but if they can get past that then they’re in for a treat. This is a real piece of comic’s history here and well worth the time to read just to see where the medium came from and how it once was before the comic’s code was instituted.