In a continuing series of features from our authors, Gary Phillips writes on Crime in Stories and Pictures.
There’s an infamous misogynistic cover drawn by Johnny Craig for the April/May 1954 cover of Crime SuspenseStories No. 22 for the equally infamous EC Comics. It’s a close on shot of a man holding a bloody axe, his other hand holding the severed head of a woman, her eyes rolled back in her head, drool and blood cascading from her gaping mouth. Off to one side past him we can see her corpse, though not so far up as to expose the bloody stump of her neck. This image became a key indictment against comics in the hearings conducted by Estes Kefauver’s Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Subsequently, the comic book industry, seeking to prevent censorship from without, established the Comics Code Authority to police themselves from within.
Among its tenets were, “Good shall triumph over evil,” and “Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.”
The Code is long gone and crime comics and variations thereof have returned, well, like gang busters. There’s Sex Criminals, wherein Suzie and Jon have an ability — when they have sex, time stops. What the heck, these two crazy kids do the bang-bang and start robbing banks. The late Darwyn Cooke did four of Donald Westlake writing at Richard Stark’s professional thief Parker novels — The Hunter, The Outfit, The Score and Slayground, as much acclaimed graphic novels (and an oversized 24-page comic of The Man With the Getaway Face) in a style that’s beatnik noir cool. And the Catwoman comic book series through various incarnations was a kind of hybrid book, a costumed anti-heroine who lives in Batman’s world where heists and scores figure into her stories. In a recent run by writer Genevieve Valentine, Selina “Catwoman” Kyle as head of the Calabrese crime family, sought to unite by nefarious means all of Gotham’s crime families.