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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Review: Illustrators: Crime Comics Special

The latest Illustrators special begins with a whistle-stop overview of crime comics which leaps from tales of Jack the Ripper in the pages of The Illustrated Police News to the American comic book Detective Comics, the arrival of Superman in Action Comics, the development of colourful villains to fight superheroes and the rise of violent crime comics in the wake of Crime Does Not Pay.

The huge success of increasingly gory crime comics, the gateway to similarly gruesome horror comics, would result in the Comics Code Authority and the suppression of crime comics in America for thirty years.

While readers in Europe could enjoy ‘Torpedo’ (Bernet) or ‘Nestor Burma’ (Tardi), crime noir would only re-emerge in titles like Ms. Tree (1981-93), V For Vendetta (1988-89), Sandman Mystery Theatre (1993-99) and the works of Frank Miller, David Lapham, Brian Azzarello, Brian Michael Bendis and, especially, Ed Brubaker.

Brubaker’s regular collaborator, Sean Phillips, is the first subject of this special. Phillips was a rare comics’ prodigy, his first comic strip appearing in a local newspaper at the age of 12, working professionally for D C Thomson from his early teens and exploding into the pages of Crisis at the age of 23, just out of college but already a veteran of British comics. By the time ‘Devlin Waugh’ debuted in Judge Dredd Megazine, Phillips had already made his US debut on Hellblazer and would go on to draw Kid Eternity, Shade the Changing Man, and the graphic novel The Heart of the Beast before first teaming with Ed Brubaker on Scene of the Crime in 1999.

Their subsequent collaborations have included Sleeper, Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade Out and Pulp, mostly creator-owned and produced without any interference from publishers—resulting in a series of award-winning stories that exemplify the crime noir genre.

Included here are many illustrations that many may have missed, including Blu-ray and album sleeve art and examples of Phillips’ ‘Femme Fatale’ prints.


The story of Crime Does Not Pay has its roots in Lev Gleason’s talent-spotting abilities. In 1941 he offered Charles Biro and Bob Wood, alumni of Harry Chesler’s ‘shop’, staff positions and offered them a share in profits, unheard of in those times. Looking for something to make the Gleason line stand out on newsstands awash with superhero titles, Biro and Wood created a comic featuring “All true crime stories!” that would eventually sell a million copies a month.

Success led to exhaustion for the ever-busy Biro and a drink-and-gambling addiction for Wood. The first inkling of problems came in 1947 when the comic was banned in Chicago and the final bell tolled at the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. Gleason’s publishing ventures were shuttered in 1956. The tragedy did not end there. While Biro found work in television, Wood went to prison for bludgeoning his girlfriend to death and later died under the wheels of a car. All true, as his comic once boasted.

‘Torpedo 1936’ also had its problems. Originally, it was offered to Alex Toth, who fundamentally disagreed with the notion of a merciless killer as hero. Instead, he rewrote Enrique Sanchez Abuli’s script to make him show remorse. Javier Mesón reveals how the classic hardboiled series was then taken over by Jordi Bernet, and the character went on to star in 15 albums and his own comic.

Always filled with an incredible choice of images, this crime special is another fine addition to the Illustrators range.

Illustrators Crime Comics Special by various
Book Palace Books ISBN 978-191354801-8, October 2020, 144pp, £25.00.

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