Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Crime Does Not Pay!

           

I can't say that I've not been affected by a week of reading old Crime Does Not Pay stories from the Forties and early Fifties. It's not that I've found myself being swayed by any of the arguments used during the period by Frederic Wertham and his fellow crusaders for decency in their war against a supposedly child-corrupting plague of comic books. But put aside the specter of the children of the West being transformed by the likes of Crime Does Not Pay into criminals, sexual perverts, and imbeciles, and there's still a great deal in the comic's pages which can leave the modern-day reader feeling just a touch unsettled.

And that's what I'll be talking about in the fifth installment of The Year In Comics over at Sequart. I hope you might consider popping over and allowing yourself to be exposed to covers, panels and concepts which the moral majority of 60 years ago believed would rot the hearts and minds of their children.

This week's The Year In Comics can be found here.

   
.

6 comments:

  1. Wonderful discussion of this book - I haven't read any Crime Does Not Pay, but I'm quite interested to do so now. Especially since, on my own, I'm not sure I would have read in all the subtext that you mention as present in the environment in which the stories were presented. It also helps me better understand the motivations of people like Wertham, who've been (rightly) demonized themselves in subsequent years. (If you haven't read it, I'd recommend The Ten Cent Plague as a useful narrative of this topic.)
    Always enjoyable Colin. If the next 10,000 hours are as good as the previous have been, I'll be well entertained and educated in the coming months and years...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello Brian:- Thank you for your generous words. The "Year In Comics" are supposed by design to take me out of my comfort zone, and writing about Crime Does Not Pay certainly did that. As a career social scientist, I feel guilty speculating upon what the effects of reading the comic in the period might have been. There a great echo chamber in my head demanding to know where the evidence is. Yet I do think there's a good possibility that the comic would've been disturbing simply because of how it contradicted the myths of the period quite independently of the corrupting-childhood issue.

    That melancholia and nihilism that can be inspired even today by stories which are also wonderfully out-there and fun too does make me suspect that the Americans of Roosevelt, Turman and Eisenhower would've responded more despairingly to such a hopeless world. When the narrator Mr Crime constantly declares that there are hordes of young criminals he can discuss once his current topic has done himself to death, it seems like a challenge to the malestream mainstream's self-image of itself.

    I wish I'd had the sense to order the 10 cent Plague earlier than I did. My copy didn't arrive in time, but it's on its way and I'm glad to be assured that it's well worth the reading.

    I'm so glad I did land myself with the business of writing about Crime Does Not Pay. I've been careful to say that that I'm new to the material, but perhaps that pays off. Being immersed in reprints and out-of-copyright scans produces a remarkable effect which a more gradual acquaintance wouldn't. I've no time for Wertham and his many censorious allies at all, but I'm really not surprised that the comic shocked and offended folks. Not because of what it might have been doing to the kids - pah - but for what it was saying, intended or not, about the adults and their nation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Colin,
    Interesting article- as usual, it makes me want to check out your subject matter.
    Also as usual, it leads me to make connections to other stuff I've seen recently, in this case the anime Death Note, based on a manga of the same title. I would not say it's directly based on or inspired by the CDNP stories, but there are a few interesting and disturbing similarities, which also make it all the more compelling.

    The premise of Death Note is that a high school student discovers a notebook whose function is to kill people- all that is required is to write the name and picture the face of someone in one's mind, and they'll die of a heart attack in 40 seconds- or they'll die of some other death, from accident to suicide, if that's written down too.
    It's a bit like Azzarello's One Hundred Bullets, actually, in that it inserts this one fantastical element of untraceable death into an otherwise-realistic story and traces the consequences.

    Like in the CDNP stories, it's told from the perspective of the killer, as he evades detection of the police. Also like CDNP, the police are generally incompetent, besides the one brilliant detective (who is also a teenager, in a very anime plot development), who plays a cat-and-mouse game to find the identity of the killer.
    "In the light of such an absurdly cruel world, death always appears as the only solution to the problem of crime, and it would obviously have to be death on something of an industrial scale too."
    That is pretty much the killer's response to crime- once he finds the book, he uses it to kill every criminal who's been broadcast on the television, with the aim of changing civilization for the better, by making people afraid of committing crime at all.

    Also, like in the stories, the killer is not a depraved foreigner, but rather a conventional, popular high school student, in fact the one with the best grades in the class.

    One difference, however, is that the deaths in the show aren't generally portrayed in a particularly grisly fashion- many die of heart attacks or accidents, and I can't recall anything which would rival the image of the woman's face being held to the fire, offhand.
    Also, without spoiling or giving too much away, the killer ultimately is stopped not through accident or coincidence, as in the CDNP stories, but deliberate and intricate planning.

    (Also, I just wanted to let you know that your new format makes it more difficult for me to respond from my phone. The "mobile" format still makes it impossible to paste, and now with the non-mobile format, as soon as you hit "publish", it moves the capcha far enough down that you have to scroll to it, which is impossible on an iPhone. It's not a big deal, since I still have access to a computer, but just thought you'd want to know.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hello Historyman:- Death Note and 100 Bullets both sound as if they occupy a similarly bleak terrain to Crime Does Not Pay. Interestingly, Mr Azarello has an introduction in the recent CDNP Dark Horse collection, and he discusses how inspirational those old books were for him. There’s also a genuinely fine Denis Kitchen essay in that book too, meaning that the collection is a fine one, although for some reason they’ve not reprinted the covers there. A real shame, as some of them as masterpieces of exploitation.

    "In the light of such an absurdly cruel world, death always appears as the only solution to the problem of crime, and it would obviously have to be death on something of an industrial scale too."

    I can see where the parallels come from! It sounds like a book to read. I’m currently re-finding my manga sea-legs with 20th Century Boys, so perhaps DN comes next.

    ”Also, like in the stories, the killer is not a depraved foreigner, but rather a conventional, popular high school student, in fact the one with the best grades in the class.”

    In retrospect, I wish I emphasized that most of the criminals I saw in various CDNP issues and stories were working class, which would have been a far more despised social strata. In fact, even those criminals who start off middle class that I came across tended to become working class when they set out on a criminal career.

    ”Also, without spoiling or giving too much away, the killer ultimately is stopped not through accident or coincidence, as in the CDNP stories, but deliberate and intricate planning.”

    There are great and good policemen in CDNP, but even some of them rely on chance and come to the rescue after a host of victims have fallen. But the cumulative effect of one tale of crime after another does tend to create the impression of a police force which just can’t hack it.

    ”Also, I just wanted to let you know that your new format makes it more difficult for me to respond from my phone.”

    That’s bad news. I am sorry. I’ve heard nothing but feedback from folks who can actually post now, though I suspect not by phone. I’d welcome any advice you have, as I’d like to see if I can solve the problem. Thanks for letting me know, and for making Death Note sounding like a very interesting prospect.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The weird thing about that column is, most of what you've said about CDNP can be said about all sorts of fiction just two decades later when the 70s comes along: Action!, Dredd, Dirty Harry, cop show after cop show, and then on and on throughout the years that follow (Inspector Rebus, The Wire...). That's a major, lasting cultural change.

    - Charles RB

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Charles:- It is, isn't it? And all that divides those shows from the heart of CDNP is that they have recurring characters who, if not on the side of the angels, at least deal out some reassuring violence or at least wrist-slaps to the bad guys at times. (Rebus being more of an egg than Callaghan, for example.) CDNP lacks those characters, so it becomes all the more dismaying.

      I think it's hard to come to terms with with the fact that the West understands more about crime now and is yet more frightened by it. Of course, the folks who are most frightened are, surveys tell us, often those who know the least about the subject, but it's still odd that we know so much more and yet end up so despairing about the subject.

      Delete