Inspired by the true detective and mystery pulp fiction magazines from the early 20th century, such as Black Mask, Detective Story, and G-Men, crime comics were one of the most popular genres of the Golden Age during the 1940s and 1950s. But public fascination with crime dates back even earlier with publications such as The Illustrated Police News.
By the 1930’s newspaper comic strips featured detective stories such as Dick Tracy and Secret Agent X-9 and early comic books such as Detective Comics and Famous Funnies included stories about gangsters and G-men, spies and sleuths. It wasn’t until much later though – 1942 – that a comic book entirely about crime was published: Crime Does Not Pay.
Rather than the crime-busting heroics of detective characters, later crime comics focused on real-life crimes, murder, and mayhem, where criminals became the protagonists. Post-war popularity of these comic books soared, and in the 1950s there were dozens, if not hundreds, of titles being published.
Though many of these comics were billed as “true” crime stories – many contained disclaimers such as this one from Justice:
So while some of the stories were based on fact, some of them may have been a little bit closer to fiction.
With so many stories that featured sex, guns, violence, and death, comic books attracted the attention of concerned individuals such as Dr. Frederick Wertham and Senator Estes Kefauver. Senator Kefauver was the chair of the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, which looked at comic books in its investigation of organized crime and juvenile delinquency. Dr. Wertham’s research on comic books and their negative influence on children led to his publication Seduction of the Innocent. (Dr. Wertham’s papers, including his research files for Seduction of the Innocent, are now open at the Library of Congress.) Senator Kefauver would eventually chair the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, established in 1953, which specifically looked at comics as a cause of juvenile delinquency. Dr. Wertham testified at a 1954 hearing as an expert witness on this subject matter. The Comics Code Authority was established in the aftermath of these hearings, which resulted in the decline of many of the popular comic book genres of the period, including crime comics.
I’m hoping to take a look at other comic book genres in future blog posts – Westerns, Romances, Funny Animals – the Library’s collection has a little of all of these in its collections. What’s your favorite comic genre?