Howard Chaykin hit the nail on the head in his introduction for Crime Does Not Pay volume 3. He calls this book a "guilty pleasure" (pun intended), and he is absolutely right. The art is amateurish (often drawn by ninth and tenth graders, as Chaykin reminds us). The stories are formulaic and simple. The appeal is low-brow and pandering and all together it is a hell of a lot of fun.
Crime Does Not Pay is an infamous title. One of the books used by Fredric Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent, it lead directly to the Comics Code Authority and the banning of the word "Crime" in any comic book title. In its time, it was a dangerous comic book.
And it is brutal. Supposedly reporting "true crime" stories, the thugs and wiseguys in Crime Does Not Pay are quick with a knife and quicker with a gun, always happy to add a few extra holes to anyone who gets in their way. A man breaks jail and hijacks a car, then throws the woman driver off a cliff with a callous laugh. Another gets addicted to murder. The stories are full of the most audacious, most bizarre crimes the writers could report (or just plain invent).
The story "Who Dunnit?" has a little person hiding in a tympani drum, firing a fatal shot when the orchestra hits its crescendo. "The Female Bluebeard" has a beautiful dame bone-collector seducing and killing men for pleasure. "The Million Dollar Robbery" (most likely the first American comic book drawn by an African-American artist) has a rich Texan turn to crime for the thrill, confident that no one would ever suspect him. "The Killer the Law Couldn't Kill." "Senorita of Sin." "The Man Who Loved Murder." "The Praying Corpse." There's a little something for everyone.
Some of the tales have the ghostly embodiment of "Crime" luring people down the crooked path. Some the killers only motivation is their own evil. But whatever the motivation, and the end the villain always comes to a bad end, either rotting in jail, gunned down by the police, or as a victim of their own greed. (The supposed "moral lesson" included in each story.)
I hate to admit it, but Wertham had a point about this book. Publisher Lev Gleason was adamant that Crime Does Not Pay was showing kids first-hand the dangers of crime, but it is obvious who the cool cats are. The stodgy coppers may win in the end, but the slick cowboys and street toughs get to live it up while alive, taking what they want and answering to nobody. I wouldn't say it makes the criminal's lives appealing, but it does make them sexy.
The art in here is incredible for just how bad it is. Chaykin compares it to a well-done fanzine, and that is about the level. Aside from Charles Biro's brilliant covers (the one with the machine gun firing baby carriage is a classic), the art is inconstant and brutal. Supposedly Gleason recruited from local high schools to get the pages done, and didn't have too high of a standard. (In that sense, It's pretty cool when you think that is is one of the few comics ever made for kids, by kids.) Still, the artists didn't know enough to know when they were doing something wrong—so they went wild with mid-story splash pages for dramatic effect, and dynamic panel structures that keep the pages turning.
After all, you forgive all that when the bullets are flying, and guys named Monk Eastman and Brains Waters and playing a game of lead ball with the flatfoots. You know they're all going to come to a bad end, but you hope they have a nice run of sex and violence until they have to pay the proverbial piper— because Crime Does Not Pay.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack's reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.