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Blackjacked and Pistolwhipped To A Fare-thee-well
on September 30, 2011
Although mostly a reprint of selected stories from the infamous landmark Golden Age comic book Crime Does Not Pay, the most intriguing aspect of this book is advertised on the Biro-style cover (ingeniously contrived by Pete Poplaski) which, apart from depicting a man attacking a woman by smashing her face with an electric iron, trumpets: The True Story of Bob Wood, The Killer Cartoonist. And we learn subsequently by reading Kitchen's profusely illustrated essay at the beginning that the lurid cover actually pictures the murder for which cartoonist Wood was convicted in 1958.
The stories in the book sample the content of Crime Does Not Pay from 1942 (beginning with a story from its second issue drawn by Bob Montana) through 1948; why we get no stories from the book's last years it died as a result of the Comics Code Authority with the June 1955 issue) is a mystery, but it doesn't matter. As a glimpse of the kind of comic book that inspired Fredric Wertham's crusade, what we have here is more than adequate. The early stories were clumsily drawn, but after a year or so, we started getting a few notables on the art--artists who would make names for themselves elsewhere: Carmine Infantino, Dan Barry, George Tuska, and Fred Guardineer, even Montana, as noted, and Dick Briefer. Lots of gruesome firearm violence, which grows gruesomer as the years flick by, but not much sex, surprisingly, given Wertham's preoccupation with how pneumatic portraits of the fairer sex in comic books corrupted American youth.
Reproduction is startlingly uneven: the simple clean linear work of Infantino and Briefer (drawing in a nearly bigfoot manner) reproduces okay, but the more realistic highly feathered and noodled-over efforts of other artists are marred by blotched clusters of fine lines or lines that drop out altogether.
Again, no matter. Informative as the reprinted stories are, the prefatory history of Lev Gleason Publications and of the roles played by Biro and Wood is a solid secondary reason to own this volume. Their stories are available elsewhere in various guises but here, it's all together.
Biro and Wood were co-workers and co-carousers, alcoholics and womanizing free-spenders. Gleason paid them a percentage of the comics' profits, so they were motivated to do good work--which they did in Crime and the other two Gleason titles, Boy and Daredevil. The collaboration was broken up when Gleason Publications collapsed: Biro went on to work as a graphic artist at NBC television until he died in 1972; Wood descended into the dregs of the publishing world, gambling and drinking, until he murdered his lover in 1958. (He was sentenced to only three years in prison because the judge took pity on Wood's alcoholism, which, the judge implied, was the real culprit.) Kitchen illustrates this aspect of the man's career with reproductions of the screaming newspaper headlines: "Gramercy Park Gets the Horrors - Editor of mag called `Crime Does Not Pay' murders ad woman in a hotel tryst."
Among the happier tidbits Kitchen discloses: Biro (like one of his characters, Crimebuster) had a pet monkey that sat on his shoulder as he worked, "and the way the monkey behaved was said to be a clue to Biro's mood that day." And Harvey Kurtzman's acclaimed war stories for EC were influenced by the unemotional realism of Biro's crime stories, which Biro may, or may not, have written all that many of. Kitchen alludes to David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague, in which Hajdu claims the principle writer of Crime was Virginia Hubbell.
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