Regina writer Chad Boudreau was kind enough to write a blog post for us about crime comics:
At the height of their popularity in the late 1940s and early 50s, crime comics were read by millions each month. With their graphic depiction of violence and criminal activity, the comics were eventually deemed too immoral for the public and were crushed by censorship.
Crime Does Not Pay is recognized as the comic that started the genre. First published in 1942 by Lev Gleason Publications, Crime Does Not Pay featured comics that visualized the lurid details of “true” criminal activity as carried out by all manner of hoodlum, including murderers. The publication had an immediate impact.
As the popularity of superhero comics declined in the years after World War II, more and more publishers sought to achieve the success of Crime Does Not Pay. New titles like Crime Reporter, Crimes by Women, Famous Crimes, and Murder Incorporated fed the public demand for stories with adult themes.
At this same moment in time, the comic book industry became the target of increasing public criticism. Crime comics and their horror genre contemporaries took the bulk of the assault, though even superheroes were under scrutiny. In 1948, an article published in the Saturday Review of Literature described comics as the "marijuana of the nursery; the bane of the bassinet; the horror of the house; the curse of kids, and a threat to the future".
In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, the now infamous alarmist book that warned comics were a cause of juvenile delinquency. It was a minor bestseller when released but scared enough parents that a campaign for censorship started. Around the same time, a U.S. Congressional inquiry was launched to look into the comic book industry.
Several examples were given to demonstrate the obscene imagery, loose morals and negative influences of comic books. Arguably the most notorious was True Crime Comics #2. In Jack Cole’s “Murder, Morphine, and Me”, a female character’s eye is held open and threatened with a hypodermic needle.
The end result of the inquiry and mounting public concern in the United States was the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. The Code placed limits on the content within comics. It was particularly hard on horror and crime comics, many of which folded. The Comics Code Authority did not result in a decline in juvenile delinquency. All it managed to do was sound the death knell for crime comics and, arguably, adult themes in general. The Golden Age of comics was over.
Superheroes rose in popularity in the late 50s and early 60s to fill the gap, a safer and presumably more kid-friendly era of comic books. This Silver Age lasted until the mid-80s.
I and other comic readers in their late-20s and 30s, grew up during the Modern Age of comics. In the mid-80s to early 90s, mature themes and darker tones became increasingly prevalent and popular. Batman: The Dark Knight and Watchmen had a profound impact on the industry, but so too did anti-heroes like Punisher and Wolverine, and small publishers like First Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics, all of which leaned toward stories laced with darkness and nihilism, but also mature themes in general.
Robin was murdered by The Joker in the comics I read as a kid. Within the pages of X-Men, storylines involved the genocide of super-powered mutants. This was serious stuff. By the time I was in high school and college in the 90s, changes in the industry and in comic readers’ tastes had made it possible for resurgence in horror and crime comics. A new generation of comic creators reignited the crime genre. Among those were Brian Azzarello, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Frank Miller and David Lapham. Titles that signified the return of crime comics and their current staying power include 100 Bullets, Scalped, Criminal, Goldfish, Jinx, Stray Bullets and Sin City.
Even with the renewed interest, crime comics, and comics in general, no longer enjoy the large readerships of the Pre-Code Golden Age. (The publication that started the crime comics genre, Crime Does Not Pay, shipped a million copies a month and boasted a readership of six million at the height of its popularity in 1947. By comparison, the number one monthly comic for March 2010 was Blackest Night #8, which shipped 135,061 copies to comic shops in North America.) Superheroes are the dominant force in the market; but there is a collection of readers that seek out mature stories within many genres. Those readers know that to truly experience the storytelling potential of comics you need to look beyond superhero comics.
[Sources used for "A Brief History of Crime Comics" include CrimeBoss.com; The Mammoth Book of Crime Comics; Wikipedia; ComicsAlliance.com; ComicBookWebsites.com; and The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare And How It Changed America by David Hajdu]
Regina writer Chad Boudreau is the writer of Black Salt, a six-part series published by Blackline Comics, and the editor of Colonel, a science-fiction graphic novel forthcoming from Blackline Comics. He is also the co-creator of The Thunderchickens and Acts of Violence: An Anthology of Crime Comics. Chad will be at ComicReaders in Regina on May 1, 2010, selling and signing copies of Acts of Violence as part of ComicReaders' Free Comic Book Day celebrations. You can follow Chad's upcoming projects at http://caperaway.wordpress.com.