Tuesday, February 06, 2018

BOOK REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! WAR ON CRIME by Rex Collier (Comic Ventures)

Say what you will about longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover....the man certainly knew the importance of popular culture (movies, magazines, radio shows, comics, etc.) in people’s daily lives, and he put a good amount of effort into attempting to influence (or as they would say in today’s jargon, “to control the narrative of”) popular culture’s depiction of the FBI and to create the mythology of the G-Man. He also wanted to steer the focus of crime comics/stories/radio shows/films away from the glorifying of the criminal....which happened either through depicting him as some misunderstood and brooding loner, or as some larger-than-life figure who drove expensive and flashy cars, dined in the best restaurants, tipped waiters with hundred-dollar bills, and was surrounded by beautiful women. During the depression, this lifestyle could have seemed an appealing alternative to unemployment and low-wage basic survival. Hoover wanted to depict criminals in the manner he saw them: crude, violent thugs who cared nothing for the lives of others and who would kill you, the reader, without a second thought. Yes, they may have had a certain ingenuity to pull off some heist, but as actor Gerald Mohr barked out authoritatively at the beginning of each episode of the Adventures of Phillip Marlowe crime radio show, “Get this and get it straight: crime is a sucker's road, and those who travel it end up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave..." Or, to use the title of the long-running MGM series of hard-boiled true-crime short subjects, CRIME DOES NOT PAY.

The WAR ON CRIME comic strip ran from May 1936 through January 1938. It was syndicated by the Philadelphia Public Ledger (not exactly a major comics syndicate) and, according to Comic Book Plus, ran in 45 newspapers. Some of the strips reproduced in the book collection under review came from the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune. It seemed to be a six-day-a-week (Mon-Sat) comic without a Sunday version--some of the stories were later reprinted in FAMOUS FUNNIES comic books, where they appeared in color. I’m assuming these were colorized by the re-printers and not the original artists (who worked in black and white), though that is an assumption and I welcome correction on that point.

J. Edgar Hoover’s choice for writing the strip was Rex Collier, successful newspaper crime reporter, who’d earned Hoover’s respect from his previous work on cases with which the FBI was involved. Collier’s background was both his strong point and his weak point--strong because he brought a knowledge of how crime really works and what criminals are really like to the strip, making it a breath of fresh air in the clichéd cops and robbers field; weak because he did not really know the ins and outs of comic strip writing, the conventions of comic strip characterization and storytelling. Collier is the sole credited name on the strip, but the artwork was handled by at least two people (according to some sources, three) during the strip’s run: Kemp Sterrett and Jimmy Thompson.

During the strip’s run, ten story arcs were featured, the first being the story of the founding of the FBI and the origin of the G-Man. After that, a number of high-profile cases were featured: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Weyerhauser kidnapping, etc. People would have already been familiar with these cases through news coverage, so the strip would have had the added value of being the “inside story” from the private files of the FBI and the testimony of those who were there. The later stories in the run were not as famous, and some have speculated that the strip eventually died because the novelty had worn off and readers no longer cared about the just-the-facts retelling of stories they weren’t familiar with. Also, the strip had no heroic and dynamic character with which the readers could bond--there was no Dick Tracy or Buck Rogers here.

That being said, to me WAR ON CRIME is a bold and exciting comic strip. It’s very much like a comic strip version of the hard-boiled CRIME DOES NOT PAY film shorts, but here, the names are NOT changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty), and it also echoes the crime coverage in the newsreels of the day. So it’s got the best of both of those worlds combined in the daily comic strip format. The artwork has a matter-of-fact kind of realism to it, mixed with the grim, sober imagery from B-crime films. In a sense the strips DO have a protagonist/hero, and that’s J. Edgar Hoover himself, who is depicted every once in a
while--in the early strips, in the field, hard at work chasing criminals, and in the later strips, in his office, coordinating the strategy of the investigation. These occasional but not regular appearances by Hoover make him a kind of Wizard of Oz of crime-fighting, the man behind the curtain in charge of it all. I’d even say that the strip is animated by his implied presence throughout....which I’m sure is exactly the way that Hoover wanted it.

And Hoover was VERY MUCH involved with the strip, directly or indirectly vetting the content. Various books I stumbled across online while researching the strip told of how Collier would change the focus or the details of various stories to make Hoover happy. Some of the actual internal newspaper records depicting the nature of the changes--what was originally planned as opposed to what Hoover lobbied to have changed--do survive and make for interesting reading.

The over-sized 2007 hardcover book from Comic Preserves reprinting the strip’s entire run, with each panel presented in a size larger than the originals, and contained in an old-fashioned library quality thick hardcover format that looks like it would survive a nuclear attack (the old-style library hardcover with the title and author STAMPED INTO the cover and spine!) is, unfortunately, long out of print. It was a private collectors printing back in the day, so good luck in finding a copy today. However, the good news is that as these strips are in the public domain, they are available online, and you can read the entire run for free at the following link (which conveniently divides the content up into the ten story arcs).

WAR ON CRIME is well worth tracking down if you are a fan of 30’s crime B-movies, crime comics, hard-boiled Depression-era crime pulp fiction, etc. Collier’s fast-paced, matter-of-fact crime reporter writing style along with the sharp, hard-edged realism of the artwork, and with the addition of the unique angle of the “behind the scenes true story from FBI files” make this an exciting, one-of-a-kind comic strip, and it’s a shame it ran for less than two years. Had I been around then, I would have been a regular reader, waiting for my parents to finish the newspaper each day so I could get the latest installment of both Dick Tracy’s fictional crime fighting and then War On Crime’s account of whatever G-Man was hunting down the most-wanted real-life criminals of the day.

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