They say that crime doesn't pay, but "Crime Does Not Pay" sure did. Now, thanks to publisher Dark Horse, we can see what made the comic book so successful -- and notorious.
"Crime Does Not Pay" began in 1942 at small Lev Gleason publications. It was co-edited by Bob Wood and Charles Biro, who contributed stories and art, as well. It was the first "true crime" comic book, purporting to relate actual crimes committed by actual criminals, occasionally famous ones such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano and "Baby Face" Nelson. Of course, reality often took a back seat to fiction when the story called for it, or out of sheer sloppiness. It was a comic book, not a history book.
But fiction or not, "Crime Does Not Pay" sold like gangbusters, with reports of 1 million to 4 million copies a month at its peak, even with dozens of imitators on the stands. The secret was its sheer luridness: Covers showed bullets flying, brains exploding, faces pushed into burning stoves. Given the title, there was always a coda at the end explaining how the criminal was killed or imprisoned, but nobody was fooled that this was a Sunday school lesson, given how the preceding pages would glorify the criminal's short, fast life full of sex, violence and money.
The gusto with which Biro and Wood delivered the goods made "Crime" a target for censors, and it was a favorite example of such notables as Fredric Wertham, author of the anti-comics screed "Seduction of the Innocent." The outrage against comic books like "Crime" culminated in 1954 with the infamous Comics Code, which nearly killed the industry and definitely put a bullet through the "true crime" genre. Within a year, "Crime Does Not Pay" and others like it were out of business.
In a strange coda, co-editor Wood murdered his girlfriend in a style reminiscent of a "Crime Does Not Pay" story. (He bludgeoned her to death with a clothes iron in a hotel room during a long drinking binge.) After serving time, Wood was murdered, probably over gambling debts.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to "Blackjacked and Pistol-Whipped: A Crime Does Not Pay Primer" (Dark Horse, $20). The cover depicts Wood's horrific act of violence. The interior contains an introduction by "100 Bullets" writer Brian Azzarello; a lengthy foreword by comics publisher, historian and editor Denis Kitchen, and 24 representative stories from "Crime Does Not Pay" at its most lurid.
The stories are utterly absent any redeeming value, which is probably why they're so incredibly entertaining. They are the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.