The latest entry in Titan Books’ “Simon & Kirby Library,” Crime is a hefty 320-page collection of work predominately produced in the forties for the era’s “true crime comics.” Having already amassed an impressive body of comic book work in the super-hero genre (creating, among others, Captain America), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby turned to other genres when it looked as if costumed crime fighters were losing their young audience. Initially inspired by the success of Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay, these pre-Code comic books — saddled with evocative names like Real Clue Crime Stories and Justice Traps the Guilty — attempted to straddle the line between exploitation and moralizing much as earlier Depression Era gangster flicks reveled in the exploits of their anti-heroes. If S&K’s work for these titles lacks the over-the-top irony and bloody mindedness of later comics like EC’s Crime and Shock Suspenstories, they remain crackling entertainments.
Kirby’s pugilistic art is one of the big draws, of course: the guy had a knack for serving up believably ape-like thugs and cheeky dangerous dames, in particular -– in addition to his dynamic action images. There are plenty of wonderful panels in this opulently packaged color collection: one of my faves accompanies the flight and final gun fight of Babyface Nelson, who thinks nothing of running over one of his own men in his flight to escape the feds. One panel, showing a hunted John Dillinger surrounded by floating eyes, looks downright Steve Ditko-esque.
The stories in this collection shift between obvious fictions (e.g., an incomplete series featuring a dapper hero named the Gun Master, as well as another series of tales narrated by “Headline Comics’ super-duper snoop ‘Red Hot’ Blaze”) and quasi-historical retellings of famous criminal exploits. A few of the latter (as with the story of Chicago serial murderer H.H. Holmes and his infamous murder mansion) are predominately accurate, while others (“The Last Bloody Days of Babyface Nelson,” for instance) are as true as to the facts as Brian de Palma’s version of The Untouchables. Crime writer/comics fan Max Allan Collins touches on a few of scripter Joe Simon’s factual filigrees in his intro to this collection, but he doesn’t try to catch ‘em all -– nor should we expect him to. Best to treat the whole she-bang as an outsized display of two great comics creators working at their most boyishly exuberant.