“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” hits theaters this week. The “Sin City” comics by Frank Miller, on which the film is based, draw inspiration from decades of crime tales told in the comics. For the next two weeks, this column will examine the origins and successes of crime in comics.
Possibly the first writer to bring crime fiction to comics was Chester Gould, whose detective Dick Tracy still appears in newspaper comic strip adventures today.
The early comic strips and comic books that dealt with crime were dealing with the aftermath of the Prohibition era and the gangsters that era spawned, as seen in Dick Tracy, and searching for heroes and escapism as the Great Depression began.
Early crime comics
Dick Tracy, first called “Plainclothes Tracy,” was a police detective on the Chicago police force. Gould wrote and drew the strip from its debut in 1931 until his retirement in 1977. Gould, a native of Pawnee, worked as a sports cartoonist for what was then The Daily Oklahoman (now The Oklahoman) from 1919-1921 while a student at Oklahoma A&M college in Stillwater.
Dick Tracy wasn’t the only notable crime strip. Dashiell Hammett, writer of the “The Maltese Falcon,” teamed up with artist Alex Raymond (“Flash Gordon”) on the comic strip “Secret Agent X-9” in 1934, and Mickey Spillane, who later created Mike Hammer, started as a comic-book writer.
Some comics had elements of crime and superhero genres.
Batman, one of the first and most successful superheroes, has one foot clearly in the crime genre. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman’s origin is bathed in crime and drama, as young Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed in a holdup, driving young Wayne into a life of fighting crime.
Another comic with elements of superheroes and crime was Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Eisner used The Spirit to examine human nature through the concept of a detective comic, with The Spirit’s domino mask putting him technically in the realm of “masked adventurers.” Miller directed a 2008 film adaptation of the comic.
‘Crime Does Not Pay’
Starting in 1942, “Crime Does Not Pay” was one of the most popular comics of the 1940s, with its brutal and realistic tales.
While other comics focused on detectives and the heroes who solved the crimes, “Crime Does Not Pay” was that first comic that focused almost solely on the outlaws, according to David Hajdu in his book “The Ten-Cent Plague.”
Hajdu writes that while there was plenty of blood and disturbing images, crime was not glamorized. The stories delved into the psychological mind of the criminal and explored the drama of his journey and his eventual capture. Dark Horse Comics currently is reprinting the “Crime Does Not Pay” comic series.
As World War II ended, the growing tension of the atomic age led to crime comics that became ever more graphic. Still, many comics in this era — now called “pre-Code” because of what followed — are among the most respected and reprinted, particularly those from EC Comics.
Crime comics push the envelope
The year 1948 saw a proliferation of crime comics, according to writer Nicky Wright at www.crimeboss.com, a site about crime comics of the 1940s and 1950s. Multiple publishers jumped on the trend started by “Crime Does Not Pay.”
Although EC Comics were frequently among the best written and drawn comics on the stands, they also sometimes pushed the boundaries of good taste.
Comic books came under attack as crime and horror comics pushed the envelope to a growing readership. Some critics attacked comics for corrupting impressionable youths and promoting juvenile delinquency.
Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham excoriated comics as the cause of juvenile delinquency in his 1954 book “Seduction of the Innocent.” While later examinations have debunked many of Wertham’s conclusions, at the time it led to significant uproar in and around the comics industry. Reaction to the book led to several comic-book burnings across the country and a U.S. Senate investigation. The cover to EC’s “Crime SuspenStories” No. 22, featuring a woman’s severed head, was entered as evidence in the Senate subcommittee hearings on crime comics. The comic industry’s resulting self-censorship led to the Comics Code, which put almost all crime and horror comics away for decades.
Between the “Seduction of the Innocent” pallor and the competition from television, it would be the 1970s before crime comics made a significant comeback in the U.S., which I’ll cover in next week’s column.
Check out this week’s review of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” on page xx