Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

July 16, 2020

JUSTICE TRAPS THE GUILTY #76 (Prize Comics, July, 1955)

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JUSTICE TRAPS THE GUILTY #76 (Prize Comics, July, 1955)

The 1940’s and 1950’s were a Golden Age of crime comics, and with the many crime-oriented B-movies and later TV shows of the era, it’s clear that crime was in the air…and also in the blood of the comic book audience. I just grabbed this comic book off one of my comics shelves at random—I could have grabbed any one of 50 others—and on the surface, it seems to have all the best qualities of the typical crime comic of the day, and it would have had to, with all the competition out there. The front cover promises action, thrills, and excitement!

According to Comic Book Plus, JUSTICE TRAPS THE GUILTY ran for 92 issues, from 1947 through 1958, which certainly qualifies as a good run. It was issued by PRIZE COMICS, which had a diverse set of offerings, from romance to western to science fiction (TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET) to horror (FRANKENSTEIN) to faux-Archie (DUDLEY) to various anthology publications. Prize was run by comics legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Interestingly, one of the last-gasp publications of Prize’s owner Crestwood Publications was SICK magazine (which was to CRACKED what CRACKED was to MAD), until 1968 when it was sold off.

There do not seem to be any ongoing characters in the few copies I own of this magazine, just four 5-8 page stories…and the requisite two pages of prose filler, which in the issues I’ve seen are quirky enough to be interesting.

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“River Rats” deals with a violent protection racket preying on small businesses on the waterfront—it delivers the goods. “Two Old Friends” is something of a surprise….a sentimental story of an old-school cop whose old service horse, Lacey, is getting older and weaker and the department is thinking of re-assigning Lacey to the glue factory, so of course the horse saves the day and is rewarded and valued and kept on the force—I wasn’t really expecting a tear-jerker in a crime comic, but it’s a nice change of pace. “Savvy” repeats the same theme, but with a cop instead of a horse. Detective Brennan may be not as fast as he once was, but he’s got the one thing younger cops have failed to get yet: And he uses that sixth sense to break the Dutch Ankers gang, where no one else on the force can. “Tour of Duty” is one of those day-in-the-life-of-a-cop stories—like a Dragnet episode which would be half devoted to Gannon’s (Harry Morgan) home life and half to the case he’s working with Friday (Jack Webb) on—and Officer Charlie Mitchell, family man and all-around good citizen, even works the night shift! This story has a bit too much speechifying (if that’s a word) in its last page or two, as if it were a public service short subject made by the police union to be broadcast as filler on Sunday morning: “I’m a cop. I work under all conditions. I have a wife and a couple of kids. I value my life, but I value yours too. That’s why you’ll find me making this tour of duty every night….I want to help keep things safe for you and me.” After that, I’m expecting a pitch for a contribution to the Police Officers Benevolent Association or whatever!

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Now that I think about it, after analyzing the different pieces here, this particular issue is not really typical of the crime comics of the day. It is a bit too sentimental and, in the last story, self-serious for what’s usually a grim, violent, sensationalistic approach devoted to fast living, cheap thrills, and violent gun battles and nerve-wracking chases….stories where some brutal punk, who thinks nothing of taking hostages or killing civilians and terrorizes the public for the first 4/5 of the story, gets blown away on the final page and left to die in a pile of rubbish in an alley. That’s what fans of the genre (like me) want. It’s interesting that this comic has the “approved by the Comics Code Authority” seal of approval on its cover (see pic). Many of my favorite crime comics do not. Part of the Code read, “Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.” It’s no wonder the crime comic genre tended to fade away in the years after the Code (which came around in 1954, as a kind of self-policing response by the mainstream comics industry to the attacks of Frederic Wertham and the US Senate hearings on comic book content). Comic books should be full of sensationalism and cheap thrills. If I want a moral lecture, I’ll attend Sunday School….if I want to learn about being a good and productive citizen, I’ll attend a Rotary Club meeting…if I want full and rich characters, I’ll find a copy of BEST SHORT STORIES OF 1954. There’s a reason why when you see some over-the-top made-for-video action film, mainstream critics will attack it as having a ‘comic book” approach. That’s what the strength and the uniqueness of comic books SHOULD BE…and the reason why people like me can still read some 60+ year old hard-boiled crime comic, considered trashy and disposable in its day, and get the same sense of joy from it that a pimple-faced teenager or a comic-reading night watchman got from it when it was hot off the press, purchased with a precious dime at the local neighborhood newsstand or drug-store comics rack. I’ve never viewed comic books as a reflection of life or daily reality or social issues….for me, they are a REPLACEMENT for the tediousness of life and daily reality. I’ve got enough daily reality already, thank you, in the other 22 hours of each day when I’m not reading a comic book or watching an exploitation film or blasting a record by the Trashmen or The Troggs—the comic book adventures of Jungle Jim or Mike Hammer or Lash La Rue or The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves are there to take me out of it, if only for twenty minutes. Reality will still be there, alas, when I put the comic book down and finish my 99 cent tallboy of malt liquor.

I’ll have to check some of the pre-Code issues of JUSTICE TRAPS THE GUILTY to see if they are different from this one, with more cheap thrills and less sentimentality and models of good citizenry. Until then, you can make up your own mind and read this issue and all the earlier ones yourself, for free, at Comic Book Plus. The tallboy of malt liquor, YOU will have to pay for.

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