Dr. Wertham’s biggest complaint was crime comics, and while what he listed under that banner is up for debate they existed. One of the names he brought up a lot in early chapters was Crime Does Not Pay, a “true crimes” anthology. According to Comic Book Plus, where I was able to read this, it was the first “true crimes” comic, building off of true crime stories on the radio. See kids, before television radio didn’t just play music or the occasional news report. They had all kinds of radio dramas and comedies. It was before my time too, except for special broadcasts like comedy compilation shows and one religious station that still plays Adventures In Odyssey.
And true crime shows are nothing new on television. There’s at least one cable station devoted to it and even the Law & Order franchise is doing a miniseries around the time of this writing adapting the Menendez Brothers case. Why are people fascinated by these kinds of shows? Beats me. I’ve never been into most fictional crime dramas, never mind the real stuff. A random episode may grab my attention but it’s not something I watch regularly.
Well tonight it’s time to look at this infamous comic to see if it’s really as bad as Wertham says it is. Both Comic Book Plus and Wikipedia agree that the true crime comics got more and more graphic and sensational journalism is nothing new (neither is outright lying in docudramas if it makes the story more interesting, unlike documentaries–intended bias aside of course). Plus we saw that the publishers wanted to push the violence and gore so I’m not sure what to expect. The comic features short stories rather than a long piece. CB+ says issues #63 and 64 were probably used for Seduction Of The Innocent so let’s virtually grab #63 and see what this comic is really like.
Crime Does Not Pay #63
Lev Gleason/Comic House (May, 1948)
CONTRIBUTING WRITERS: Charles Biro, C.H. Moore, and possibly Bob Wood (in question),
CONTRIBUTING ARTISTS: Charles Biro, C.H. Moore, Fred Guardineer, George Tuska, Mike Roy, John Belfi, and Tony DiPetra
The lettering is only credited to “typeset”. I’m going to go rapid fire through these since the stories are about six or pages each at most, with a few one-page and our first story, the only long-focus part of this review, at 13 pages. It starts off with a notation of their personal censorship rules.
This book came out well before Wertham’s book so maybe this won’t be the gory perversion Wertham makes it out to be? Remember, he thinks Superman is working for the Nazis and Wonder Woman is a poor example to women because she’s doing “man stuff” and is possibly a lesbian. (He should see what they’ve done to her lately.) And now our stories begin:
The Girl-Crazy Gunman: The typical opening splash has the disembodied embodiment of crime (it’s a floating Satan head wearing a top hat with the word “crime” on it that the captions calls “Mr. Crime”…comics, everybody!) talking about how criminals don’t need women because dames is nuttin but trouble or whatever. Meanwhile our protagonist is yelling at some woman who is telling the cops he has a gun. One page and this started weird. The story follows Felix Sloper, a thief since he was a kid that “Mr. Crime” took immediate notice of. He gets caught trying to rob an old woman in her apartment and goes to reform school, but he didn’t reform. As soon as he’s out he’s back to stealing and killing. He’s kind of a jerk. The cops find him trying to get his dance on with a woman, her friend helping because she chose a brunette over her red hair. Seriously, what were you thinking, Felix? That’s not what they mean by “always bet on black”! Plus his dance partner snitches on him anyway once she finds out he’s a kid and a thief.
A judge isn’t willing to toss Felix into an actual prison, worrying it will make the boy worse. And Felix goes on to prove the judge is an idiot by causing fires and starting riots. All while Mr. Crime eggs him on and I think I understand why this story might upset Wertham. Mr. Crime is trying to tell the kids (as best a cartoon narrator can) what he should be doing. And apparently Felix takes his advice…somehow…and pretends to reform, even putting together an Easter pageant, but it’s a ruse for an escape attempt. However, the woman who was supposed to meet him and his pals, a sister of one of them, doesn’t show up and they get caught again. NOW the judge says to lock him up and he adds the girl, Grace, to his hit list, all while Mr. Crime goes on about not trusting women. I’m guessing Mr. C is there to lighten things up but it’s just weird to see.
When Felix gets out of San Quentin he goes to see Grace to yell at her for leaving them behind, against Mr. Crime’s advice. See, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to actually be communicating with Felix or not. This is an adaptation of an actual crime with the names changed to…I don’t know, protect the innocent or something. Grace claims her car broke down, but Mr. C says she got cold feet. Then Grace starts saying how attractive Felix is and starts making out with them. A year later and Grace has been singing while Felix has been stealing, but Grace has been secretly seeing Felix’s fence. They set Felix up for a fall by using another woman to make it look like she’s ratting him out because of jealousy. It’s a dirty trick but it’s hard to feel sorry for him.
Of course when he gets out he’s still committing crimes but now he pretty much wants nothing to do with women, which makes Mr. Crime happy…and I can’t believe I’m bringing up a cartoon character in a supposedly biographical story. During one robbery however he comes across a “couple” but the woman is playing the man for a sap to steal his dough. They pull a bank heist, but Felix is a rank amateur. He gets caught the second time after being on the run and as you saw on the cover the girl leaves him behind, and Felix is hung for murdering the manager. The story ends with Mr. Crime wondering when he’ll get a normal criminal, and the regular narrator saying “never, because normal know crime does not pay”.
This was a weird story. It’s not violent or gory, but it does have a talking embodiment of crime, and much as I don’t want to admit it, I do see Wertham’s point with this tale. All the women are double-crossers because they’re evil, not because they honestly want to get a criminal off the streets, and Felix is never shown with any positive light so most people would want to see him hang. Sloper is hung in 1926 at Folsom Prison but bad kids would have gotten some bad ideas. I however would have stopped reading because there were no superheroes and I prefer to follow a protagonist I can cheer for.
The rest of the tales are 1-7 pages long so let’s rapid fire through this:
- On The Level: Some one panel “dumb criminal” tales. A trio of gas station robbers doesn’t realize the phone is off the hook, and this is the time where the operator dialed the call, so she was listening in and contacted the cops. A woman beats up a would-be purse snatcher. Some guy in France manages to escape prison by shaping a piece of cake into a gun. (Maybe not give the kids that idea.) A man tries to change his hair after deserting the Navy and ends up turning his hair green. A few other stories and another page later on. So much for not being light in tone. So far we have Mr. Crime and dumb criminals. My favorite is the escaped convict who sat down in a movie theater and ended up right next to the detective chasing him.
- Wilbur Underhill: Our title villain gets hired to join a group of bank robbers. There’s a job offer you won’t see on Indeed. The problem is Wilbur is a little too willing to kill so they fire him before he brings the cops on him. And every time he pulls a robbery on his own he seems drawn to kill someone, which gets him in more trouble until eventually the cops shoot him dead. I think every story is going to end with someone dropping the comic’s title, whether it’s a narrator or one of the characters, since the last line is a cop saying “crime doesn’t pay”.
- Then we have a letters page where you got $2 (decent money back then) if your letter is printed. Naturally they’re all about how they decided to leave crime because of this comic, while they also tried to promote a sister title, Crime And Punishment. And that was before Dr. Wertham.
- Paul Chretien, Father Of Murderers: Well I’ll give Wertham credit here: this art is ugggggLY. It’s probably the first story where the characters aren’t at least mildly attractive, but I blame the artwork. We don’t see much of Paul since his head hits the guillotine pretty fast. No, I guess it’s the other way around. The story follows his descendants in Ye Old Clermont, France, all murders and thieves who are finally killed off four generations out as forensics improves. It’s almost laughable how these psychos act in regards to their crimes. Oddly this one doesn’t end with someone saying “crime does not pay” but maybe the gravestones spoke for them? And there are times when they do discuss how they pulled off their murders. Wertham wasn’t accusing the writers of intentionally giving bad kids lessons on being a murder. He was accusing them of teaching all kids accidentally how to be evil. Minor line changes would have solved that problem.
- A Lesson In Murder: The obligatory text story. In Canada two men are making friends with young men and giving them jobs, but it’s a scam to kill them for the insurance, until they’re caught and hanged. It’s a decent story. No complaints and nothing for Wertham to harp on, if he wasn’t Wertham. Plus it’s a text story, but I do question the formatting of three columns of text rather than simply printing it out normally in paragraphs.
- Benny Mickson: After getting out of prison, this criminal marries a sixteen-year-old girl and brings her into his life of crime. He talks about killing his hostages and even cops but I didn’t see him kill anyone. Plus oddly he apologizes for inconveniencing the hostages and people they swipe cars from. But the police set up a trap and with his wife not there (no he doesn’t appear to be about to cheat on her) he ends up gunned down by the FBI. A rather interesting criminal.
- The Sofia Express Gets a Deadly Highball!: In our final tale the reader gets to play detective. Someone has murdered a widow on a train and Inspector Alenoff must determine who. I won’t spoil the mystery, but it might be the best story because it focuses more on the cop cracking the case than the murder.
So what did I think overall? The comic is frankly hit or miss. The art could use some improvement but it was the 1950s and if Wertham was right about the slavery to a style it didn’t help. Teen-Age Dope Slaves had better art, while this ranged from passable to ugly. The stories themselves were not great but hardly the garbage writing Wertham would have you believe. Only one of them had a chance to really flesh out the story and it strangely had a narrator named Mr. Crime going on about how terrible his protege was.
But what about Wertham’s belief that this would turn kids to crime? I highly doubt that. Where women written badly in the first story? Yes. Did the story set in France focus a bit more than comfortable (given Wertham’s patients) allows? You can make the case. However, you would already have to be heartless and stupid to see this as a textbook on how to be a better criminal…or just a well meaning psychologist who already has a bias against comics. Lucky for me reading this it wasn’t gory or bloody and women were only sexy because they were relatively attractive, not overly sexualized. That doesn’t mean there were crime comics like that, but Crime Does Not Pay was tamer than Wertham made it out to be. Still not necessarily for kids but neither are most crime dramas today. Or maybe that’s just by modern standards? Who knows? Read this issue for yourself and find out.
So in two weeks we’ll get back to the thesis in question. I have another pilot to review and some other interesting articles I hope you’ll like before returning to the ramblings of Dr. Wertham.