Blood, Bullets, and Gun Molls

After the Axis crashed and burned and World War II came to its overdue end, so did the Golden Age of the super hero. Captain America, Daredevil, Miss America, all had done their part in the panels to bring down the Axis. The payoff was a not so graceful retirement for the men and women in tights and capes and a long hard look at another kind of war. A significant section of the comics field turned to the mayhem of crime, which Americans were all too familiar with from reading the headlines of their daily newspapers. The era of Prohibition and the Great Depression had been fertile times for the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd, Bugsy Siegel, "Scarface" Al Capone, "Legs" Diamond, and the hundreds of other gangsters, big and small, who contributed to the bloody history of organized crime in America.

Although profits were dropping for other comics publishers, there was one publisher who was not only hanging on but also prospering. The publisher of Crime Does Not Pay and Crime and Punishment was Lev Gleason, the employer of two artists, Charles Biro and Bob Wood, who would take his circulation soaring to the one million mark and beyond. In its heyday in the late forties Crime Does Not Pay sold more than 4 million copies a month.

Gleason, Biro, and Wood had been involved in crime comics since June 1942, when Silver Streak Comics, Gleason's first title, changed to Crime Does Not Pay with issue #22, the first crime comic and a hot collector's item valued from $194 to $1650 - certainly contradicting its title!
There are two stories about how Crime Does Not Pay came about. One has it that the comic was inspired by a moralizing B-movie. The other has it that one night Biro (who had a reputation as a heavy drinker) was sitting in a bar when he was approached by a pimp with a proposition. Biro turned him down and the next day was startled to see the man's picture in the paper for kidnapping a woman! He told Wood about it, which inspired a gabfest about crime, and Silver Streak Comics was soon a thing of the past.

Whatever the case, Crime Does Not Pay was launched. Biro had scripted and drawn crime stories for other Gleason titles like Daredevil and Boy Comicsand knew what kids wanted --lots of gore! Artist Bob Fujitani recalled that Biro had said "Forget about art. Go for the detail, the nuances. Bullets going through the head. Brains blowing out the back." With additional scripts and art by Bob Wood, Gleason's comics produced countless pseudo documentaries about supposedly "true" crime exploits in anthology formats that portrayed a wide variety of violence frequently directed at women. Disguised as morality plays and illustrated by artists like George (Iron Man) Tuska, Dan Barry, and Bob Fujitani, Gleason's comics began outselling Superman.

Other publishers were not slow to notice and quickly jumped on the industry's latest bandwagon. By 1948 thirty-eight crime comics, representing fifteen percent of all comics titles, were on the stands. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby produced Headline Comics, which featured stories about real criminals like Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker (a comic Kirby would try to reinvent in 1971 with the b&w DC title, In The Days of the Mob). There was also E.C.'s Crime Patrol and War Against Crime, Hillman's Crime Detective Stories, St. John's Authentic Police Cases, Atlas' Crime Must Lose, Victor Fox's Crime Incorporated, Charlton's Crime and Justice, and on and on -- a whole lot of crime for a dime!

This explosion in crime comics attracted the attention of the media. Time Magazine published a story about copycat crimes by kids who read comic books. The history of Dr. Frederic Wertham's crusade against crime and horror comics is well known and started with a symposium called "The Psychopathology of Comic Books," that concluded, among other things, that comics glorified sadism.  (E.C. comics were a prime target --check out the Johnny Craig cover over on the left!) Citizen groups organized against horror and crime comics and newspapers and radio stations editorialized against them.

Did comics actually contribute to youth crime rates in those days? If so, we in the 21st century are in for major trouble: pop culture in comics, television, and film these days is miles more violent than anything we've seen in previous decades. I doubt the premise and have my own theories, but I'm not about to turn this feature into my own personal soapbox. It's a debate that will no doubt go on and on well into our new century.

When the heat began to come down on crime comics some publishers made attempts to avoid the bullet (so to speak). Fox slapped "For Adults Only" in his titles and Gleason pasted "Not Intended for Children" on his. Going further, Gleason, together with Bill Gaines (E.C.), Harold Moore (Famous Funnies) and Rae Hermen (Orbit), together with two distributors, formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (AMCP) with the idea that all publishers would regulate the contents of their comics, meeting some level of decency. To no avail; the big publishers refused to join, and the smaller ones were too reliant on gore and sex. As we know, the years 1954-1955 were the comic book industry's equivalent of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. When the smoke cleared, the Comics Code Authority ruled supreme over a decimated and pallid field. Juvenile deliquency, as we all know, instantly wilted.

Charles Biro left the comics field in 1962 to work as a graphics artist for NBC and died of natural causes in 1972. Bob Wood, who suffered from alcoholism, bludgeoned a woman to death in 1958. A year after serving a three year sentence at Sing-Sing, the writer/artist stepped out from behind a parked car and was killed instantly by a truck.

Steve Stiles