'Crime Does Not Pay' was a notorious American comic book, full of gory true life crime. It was also a warning against submitting to the darker side of life - a warning Bob Wood, one of the comic's writers and editors, really should have listened to.
In 1940s wartime America, comic book superheroes like Batman and Superman were new and selling like hotcakes. Kids loved the colourfully dressed heroes. Many publishers jumped on the bandwagon and soon there were hundreds of colourful comic book heroes competing for sales
When their novelty started to fade and sales started to drop, publisher Lev Gleason was concerned his comic book business was going to lose money.
Gleason’s top two talents were Bob Wood and Charles Biro. They wrote, drew and edited various comic books, including Lev Gleason Publications top seller Silver Streak Comics. Unusually for the time, they were rewarded with a profit sharing arrangement, so the more the comics sold, the better paid they were.
It was in everybody’s interest to come up with something new and popular to replace the superheroes.
Biro and Wood pitched the idea of a real life crime comic, and in July 1942 Silver Streak Comics was renamed ‘Crime Does Not Pay’.
The initial inspiration for the comic book came about as the result of a chance meeting. between Charles Biro and a stranger in a bar. The latter came up with the outlandish suggestion that he had a woman waiting in a hotel room. She would have sex with Biro if the stranger could watch them. Biro declined.
Biro told Bob Wood about this strange offer and the two of them thought about the seedier side of life
‘Crime Does Not Pay’ told the stories of real life criminals and gangsters such as Dutch Shultz and Lucky Luciano as well as fictional criminals. Every issue would carry a variety of stories, each lingering over the details of the crimes and usually ending with the violent death or jailing of the criminals involved.
The only person that would survive each issue was the comic book’s narrator, a sinister looking white skinned and suited character called Mr Crime who even wore a top hat with the word ‘Crime’ written on it.
During the course of each story, Mr Crime would comment on the progress of the characters and when they eventually got their just desserts, HE would inevitably gloat at their downfall telling the readers that ‘Crime Does Not pay’!
The comic book was an instant success. Its pages were full of lovingly depicted stories of gangsters, violence, sex, and drug use.
Kids loved it, and so too did large numbers of adults, many of them soldiers stationed in wartime barracks and desperate for cheap entertainment. These lurid tales fitted the bill.
200,000 copies were sold at first which was a really strong sale, but by the end of WWII Crime Does Not Pay was selling 800,000 per issue.
In 1948, it was selling over a million!
Because of the profit sharing arrangement, Biro and Wood were making a very comfortable living!
Wood and Biro had different personalities. Biro had been genuinely shocked at the offer which had given him the idea for Crime Does Not Pay.
Wood was different. He liked to gamble and he liked to drink. Wood frequented the sorts of dive bars that would give him an endless source of inspiration for their stories.
As the years went by, Crime Does Not Pay got progressively more lurid and gory. Each story had to be more sensational than the one that came before.
Just as the success of Superman and Batman had led many publishers to create a variety of superheroes, soon there were many crime comic books to compete with Crime Does Not Pay. Horror also became a popular genre too.
Seduction of the Innocent
The gory and sexy nature of these comic books began to attract attention from Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who wrote a book, the Seduction of the Innocent which accused comic books of being harmful to children!
Wertham attacked all comic books, but the violence in crime and horror comic books were the ones that received the most attention.
Wertham’s book proved very popular. Magazines like Readers Digest began to run articles on Wertham and his theories and concerned parents started looking at what their children were buying.
The government got involved and Wertham was asked to appear in a senate committee on the causes of juvenile delinquency.
Comic books were now public enemy number one!
The Comics Code
In an attempt to limit the damage, competing publishers grouped together to fund a new organisation, The Comics Code Authority to self censor their publications.
A wholesome comic book displayed a stamp that certified it met with the code’s approval. This meant it was deemed fit for children.
Overnight, the contents of Crime Does Not Pay was sanitised. No more sex and violence! The code even specified that the word ‘Crime’ could not be too prominent on the covers!
Within a few months the combination of a bad press and censored content made the sales figures of Crime Does Not Pay shrink drastically.
In July 1955 the final issue went on sale.
The lives of the two creators of Crime Does Not Pay took two very different paths.
Charles Biro left comic books for a career in advertising and eventually became a graphic designer for the NBC television channel.
Bob Wood, on the other hand, already an alcoholic and gambling addict, slid further down the road to ruin.
Unable to find work in more prestigious outlets like his former partner, Wood stayed in comics working as an artist, but the glory days of lots of money were behind him.
Wood’s gambling and drinking took hold and he became more and more like a character in one of his stories.
In 1958 New York cabbie Paul Finegold picked a fare up from outside the fancy Gramercy Park area.
The fare was unusual in that he looked out of place for such a refined neighbourhood. It was a scruffy Bob Wood.
Inside the cab, Wood told the driver that he wanted to go to Greenwich Village. He said that he had been staying in the posh Irving Hotel and had killed a woman that had ‘given him trouble’, and now wanted to go to sleep before he intended to commit suicide by jumping in the river.
After dropping his fare off, Finegold went to the police, so convinced was he that Wood was telling the truth.
Investigating the claim, the police went to the Regina Hotel where Wood had been dropped off.
The Hotel Manager said that a ‘Roger Turner’ had signed in. It was Wood under a false name.
The manager had said that Wood’s hands had been shaking so violently that he could barely hold a pen to sign in with.
Entering the room where Wood was holed up the police found Wood on the bed in his underwear, his bloody clothing lying on the floor.
Wood was arrested and so blood-stained were his clothes that police requested that Wood borrow a pair of trousers from the hotel manager.
Meanwhile a separate police team were despatched to the other hotel where in room 91 they discovered the bloody corpse of a woman, Violette Phillips, surrounded by numerous empty whiskey bottles.
When questioned, Wood told the police found that he had gone on a drinking bender with the dead woman. They had spent 11 days in that hotel room drinking, having sex and arguing fiercely.
Their final argument had escalated into violence and unable to endure what Wood called Violette Phillip’s nagging anymore, he beat her to death with an electric iron.
You would imagine that such a violent murder would ensure a harsh penalty for the perpetrator, but Wood pleaded guilty to first degree manslaughter, and the Judge presiding over the case blamed the drink and so Wood only received a 3-year sentence.
During prison, Wood continued to gamble and apparently owed some of his fellow inmates a lot of money. Money that he couldn’t now afford to pay back.
One year after leaving prison, Wood was ‘taken for a ride’ by some associates who had got tired of waiting for their money, and his murdered body was found dumped on the New Jersey turnpike.
It is easy to imagine the scene in one of Bob Wood’s own comic strips with a cackling top hatted Mr Crime narrating, ending the story with those four words: Crime Does Not Pay!