The height of popularity for crime comics was the mid-twentieth century, from around 1948 till circa 1954. These dates correspond to the Golden Age period of comic book collecting and it’s no surprise that the peak of the Golden Age saw a rise in popularity of this genre.
In this post, I’ll take a look at one of the most actively sought out genres in Golden Age comics: the crime comic. What are its origins, why was it popular, when and why did it decline and which titles are most actively bought and traded today?
To begin, we should say something about the crime genre, placing it in context and framing the conditions surrounding its origins. What was happening in America around 1950 that stirred such a passion for reading (often in graphic detail) about crime and violence?
After all, most people associate the 1950s with conformism- including moral conformity as seen on the old television shows from this time: ‘Father Knows Best’, ‘Leave it to Beaver’, etc. That was the surface. Deep down, the 1950s saw a transition from the pre-war economy to an economic boom that was displacing traditional communities.
The suburban development and explosion of new houses, for example, in tandem with easy access to cars, saw many leave the countryside and the city. With this displacement and new developments, an anxiety about the future was creeping up under the shiny conformist surface.
Sure, the economy was good, but the Russians had the bomb, civil rights were a pressing concern in many states and the old moral norms and certainties no longer seemed to hold the same assurance they used to.
Enter, the crime comic. At once highly moralistic in tone and sensationalist in content, the basic plot of crime comics focused around opportunistic criminals who violate all social norms and are then dealt with strictly by society.
The content of crime comics, moreover, was largely influenced by earlier pulp stories about detectives and crime sprees with a notable predecessor of the genre located in the original Chester Gould Dick Tracy newspaper script. However, the implicit message of crime comics was always the same: we must protect law and order because otherwise society is doomed. As the cover of Famous Crimes #1 (June 1948) puts it: ‘Crime Never Pays’! (see the cover shown at top of article). Make no mistake about it: the crime comic was aimed at socializing young readers and teaching them to respect the law.
Golden Age comics are never as actively sold as their modern counterparts. There’s a simple reason for that: volume. There are less of these treasures left and of those that are, few are in decent condition for the more active sales we see on, e.g. Silver and Bronze Age comics. Some might say that’s a crime. Golden age aficionados, on the other hand, would rather seek out crimes. More precisely, pre-code crime comics with gory covers. EC comics was an early publisher who produced crime comics with these features. An example is Charles Biro’s cover for Crime Does Not Pay issue #33, one of the most actively sought out crime comics. As a general rule, the pre-code crime comic is made more valuable the more gore its cover conveys. This comic has enough to make it worth over $6, 000.00 in 9.0. On February 21, 2019 a 6.0 sold on eBay for $1, 7000.00.
By the early fifties the publishers knew that they had to shock to sell and no one did it better than artist Johnny Craig. His Hanging Man cover for the EC title Crime SuspenStories #20 is a classic and values reflect this. With 129 copies on the census, CSS #20 has a theoretical FMV of almost $10, 000.00 in 9.8. The highest known graded copy is, however, 9.6. The FMV of a 9.6 copy: $7,250.00. The most recent sale, on 03/12/2019 was a 9.0 auctioned on ComicConnect which sold for $4, 050.00.
Ironically, the excessive gore of Golden Age crime comics led to them eliminating themselves by, first, showing in graphic detail the horrific violence of crime and then holding themselves to the same rigid moral code of 1950s society and applying it to their own content. After the Senate investigation in 1954 a self-censorship, in the form of the ‘Comics Code Authority,’ was developed which would effectively wipe out all the ingredients that had made crime comics so popular in the first place. Crime SuspenStories #22 is the perfect example of how crime comics imploded. Its gory cover led psychologist Frederic Wertham to conclude that these books were seducing and perverting innocent young minds. The bad publicity effectively ended the crime comic heyday. You can own a piece of history if you have $500.00. That’s the price of a 0.5 copy of CSS #22. If you want the single 9.8 recorded copy of the 245 total CGC on the census, that will cost you over $50, 000.00. On May 16, 2019 an 8.0 sold on Heritage Auction for a total of $10, 800.00. Before that, on March 9, 2019, an 8.5 sold for $15, 199.00.