If you have ever heard of the Golden Age series Crime Does Not Pay, I’d wager it’s in relation to the Wertham-era outcry in the 1950s over the content of comic books and how that content was ruining a generation of youngsters. Crime Does Not Pay was possibly the most popular comic of its kind, which put it in the line of fire despite (as you might guess from its title) the preachiness of its anti-crime message.
The third volume of Dark Horse’s Crime Does Not Pay Archives collects four issues of the comic (30 through 33) which were published from late 1943 through 1944. That may not sound like a lot to a modern comic reader, but remember, in the ‘40s, these books were big – fify-six pages or so, and with far fewer advertisements (these ads are, incidentally, reproduced). Each issue contains half a dozen stories or more, usually running around 8 pages apiece, and most purportedly based on true events. At its best, Crime Does Not Pay reads a little like a prototype for Dragnet, which would hit the radio five years after these books were published – just without a Joe Friday to string all the stories together. The only common element amongst these issues is “Mr. Crime,” a ghostly mascot who is almost certainly related to Snidely Whiplash, or at least uses the same milliner. Mr. Crime narrates the first story of each issue, telling the reader of how he nudged the story’s main character to a life of crime, and delighting in both their successes and ultimate failure (because, after all, crime does not pay).
Though this volume comes with quantity, it tends to lack quality, as the book’s introduction readily admits. These were comics done for a young readership with a didactic purpose and well before anyone really wanted to be in the comics business so much as just ended up there along the way to greener pastures. Criminals are characterized as a fairly homogeneous group, full of gusto and hubris, boasting of their crimes to just about anyone who will listen. The retelling of these “true crime” stories feels very rote, often without much real plotting to speak of, and without any real character arcs; the prose is dense and not terribly inspired, and reading much at a time is a slog, and that’s coming from someone who loves him some Stan Lee-era Amazing Spider-Man. But then, clearly, this is a book intended to draw young readers in with the grisly crimes and leave them with the ubiquitous reminder that, even for the most brilliant criminals, crime does not pay.
Occasionally, there’s a story here or there that might grab your interest – the curious little “Whodunnits?” which challenge the reader to solve the mystery (and which, in one case, star illustrated counterparts of the book’s editors), or the rare tale which just seems, for some reason, better plotted than most, though the inevitable bad end for the criminal in question usually means the conclusions aren’t all they could be. The same can basically be said for the art; a lot of it is rough, slapdash, or strangely cartoony, though here and there you have something more visually compelling, like “The Patent Leather Killer!,” an early step in the comics career of future DC Comics luminary Carmine Infantino. Usually, the best stories in the books are the mandatory two-page text pieces near the middle (required by distributors to keep the comic shipping under magazine rates), rendered by writer Dick Wood in a sort of matter-of-fact, poor man’s Dashiell Hammett style, in which Wood gives his characters a bit more of an inner life than any of his illustrated subjects.
Of course, I doubt Dark Horse publishes archives of Golden Age comics with the belief that they’ll find a following amongst crime comic readers likely more used to Ed Brubaker or Brian Azzarello, and it isn’t fair to evaluate the archive on that basis. For all that it isn’t, the Crime Does Not Pay Archive is a brightly-colored, well-reproduced window into the formative years of the comic book form, from a time when Superman still jumped everywhere, a twelve-page story was an “epic,” and paper shortages were forcing publishers to cut down on their publications (as a note from publisher Lev Gleason explains in Crime Does Not Pay #33, reproduced here). This is a volume for the comic historians, the Golden Age enthusiasts, and the readers who are more interested in the place this series occupies in the development of the medium than in the inherent quality of the storytelling. I definitely count myself as part of that latter category, sometimes, and if you do, too, Dark Horse has put together a fine piece to add to your collection.