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From Dick Tracy to 'Crime Does Not Pay' — early crime comics packed a wallop

“Sin City” film is based on comics inspired by classic crime tales.
by Matthew Price Published: August 22, 2014
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“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.”

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by Matthew Price
Features Editor
Features Editor Matthew Price has worked for The Oklahoman since 2000. He’s a University of Oklahoma graduate who has also worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund intern for the Dallas Morning News. He’s...
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Check out this week’s review of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” on page xx

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