Downfall of the Delinquent: The Short Unhappy Life of Bob Wood

Aug 1, 2013 - by Benjamin Welton - 0 Comments

After an 11-day bender, Bob Wood, the co-creator of the infamous comic book Crime Does Not Pay, admits to beating his girlfriend to death in a whisky and blood-drenched hotel room. This rampage was only one step in the artist’s downfall, and the story of Wood is one of the more lurid true tales in American pulp history.

by Benjamin Welton

I. Origin Story

Around the groves of academe, the trajectory of American literature seems fairly static and contingent upon the socio-political history of our nation. Thus, the transition from detective to criminal begins with the creation of Prohibition and its flexible muscle known as the Volstead Act. Since the ban on intoxicating drinks turned a majority of Americans into either criminals or at the very least citizens in contempt of the law, the writers of the day responded to the cultural mood by replacing the Sherlock Holmes-like figure – a scientific, detached, and somewhat wealthy amateur sleuth with genteel hobbies – with that of the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett’s short, stocky, and violent private eye who breaks as many bones as he does rules.

Also, according to the same historicist schema of American letters, the Continental Op and Raymond Chandler’s slightly more refined Philip Marlowe (he plays chess and is named after an Elizabethan era playwright, after all) act as transition figures who, while still wielding badges, or rather Photostats proving their right to poke their noses into rotten cases, point towards a darker era in American popular fiction. This particular era comes after the conclusion of the World War II, the great conflagration that engulfed entire civilizations into teeming pools of vengeance mania and genocidal unthinking. From 1945 until the late 1950s, American fiction and film became dominated by noir, a tough-talking sentimentality about history-haunted men and the femme fatales who were after their throats. Rarely does noir embrace the traditional detective figure, and when detectives do appear, they are less like Holmes and more like Inspector Donnelly, the lead investigator in Rudolph Maté’s Union Station, who tells his men to “Make it look accidental.”

There are three major problems with this linear understanding of American literature: 1) It cancels out the police procedural sub-genre which was concurrent with and arguably more popular than noir; 2) it neglects the detective novels of Mickey Spillane, one of the most widely read writers of the day who penned virulently anti-Communist and anti-criminal detective novels that argued for a reactionary and vigilante understanding of justice, and; 3) it completely overlooks the contribution made by comic books during this time period. Besides forgetting the fact that both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway had used criminals as protagonists in the 1920s (The Great Gatsby for the former, and “The Killers” in the case of the latter), the undervaluing of comic books is a truly egregious crime.

In particular, one comic book title not only stood out on the 10-cent shelves of 1940s and 1950s drug stores, but it’s proto-splatter punk ethos would help to pave the way for America’s further descent into exploitative culture. Crime Does Not Pay, a true crime comic book that began in 1942, gleefully filled its pages with the lurid tales of gangland thugs, psychotic juvenile delinquents, and a whole host of other anti-socialites. As America’s first comic book dedicated to presenting real cases of criminality, Crime Does Not Pay updated the older police gazette model, which had shocked readers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for a postwar audience that had experienced firsthand the horrors of combat in such places as Bastogne and Iwo Jima. As such, by the time that Dr. Frederic Wertham began publicizing his book The Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a sociological and psychiatric study that reported to find a link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, Crime Does Not Pay was on the top of the list of main offenders for its graphic depictions of violence and its often frank references to adult sexuality.

Much like the violent video games of today, Crime Does Not Pay and its comic book brethren came under intense political scrutiny, especially by presidential hopeful Estes Kefauver, a Democrat representing the socially conservative state of Tennessee. In 1953, Kefauver led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and had Dr. Wertham as a witness and as an apostle in the holy crusade against juvenile delinquency, one of the great fears of the immediate postwar years. Against these supposed pillars of law and order stood the comic book industry with its motley assortment of former conmen, perennial losers, Leftists, and Jews. These artists, writers, and publishers were the men responsible for such titles as The Vault of Horror, Tales From the Crypt, and, of course, Crime Does Not Pay.

In the case of Crime Does Not Pay, the three men responsible were Lev Gleason, a New York native and a publisher with a reputation as a dedicated Leftist, Charles Biro, the main writer and a relatively experienced scribbler known mostly for his superhero comics, and Bob Wood, an artist with a gift for creating action-packed scenes and a harmful addiction to liquor and gambling. These three men formed the triumvirate at the heart of Crime Does Not Pay, and despite their outcast status in polite society, only one of them could speak of transgressive behavior with any semblance of confidence.

II. Crime Pays

In the beginning, Biro and Wood were two struggling creators trying desperately to come up with something new in the nascent world of American comic books. By the early 1940s, the superhero craze was beginning to wane, thus opening the way for other types and genres to filter into the colorful pulp pages of the many comic book publications of the day. According to Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History of Comics (2012), the idea of creating a true crime series came to Biro after a stranger offered him the chance to spend a night with a woman in his hotel room. The one stipulation of this offer was that the strange man would be allowed to watch. Biro ultimately said no, and later found out that the man, who was the heir to a margarine fortune, had been keeping the woman as a sex prisoner.

This brief encounter with debauchery deeply affected Biro, and he and Wood decided to create a comic book title that would deal with the depravity of such men. They combined this with a title taken from a 1930s documentary film series that profiled criminals, their deeds, and the abilities of G-men in finding and capturing them. While the documentary shorts strove for a glorification of law and order against the backdrop of Grand Guignol-esque crime, Crime Does Not Pay tacitly offered morality lessons, all the while relentlessly devoting pages of red ink to their amoral protagonists.

Readers apparently appreciated Biro and Wood’s rejection of didacticism, for Crime Does Not Pay flew off the shelves at previously unheard of rates. This popularity inspired imitators, and before long true crime was widely recognized as an economically viable comic book genre.

With visibility comes opportunity hunters with their eyes set on shooting down what they perceive as a social menace. Crime Does Not Pay was targeted by Kefauver, Wertham, and others, and beginning in the late 1940s, Crimes Does Not Pay began the process of forced sanitization. First, the mayor of Chicago, Martin Kennelly, a reformist-minded Democrat who represented the Irish working-class communities of the South Side, banned the circulation of Crime Does Not Pay within the city in 1947. As was feared by many in the press and in public offices, reports of salacious copycat crimes began filling newspapers across the country, thus helping to bolster the rising tide of anti-comic book attitudes throughout most American cities. This wasn’t just confined to the United States. either; Canada banned Crime Does Not Pay outright in 1949 (technically and legally speaking, crime comics are still banned in Canada).

More censorship restraints were put on Crime Does Not Pay throughout the 1950s, and despite Lev Gleason’s backtracking and increased focus on the disclaimers, Crime Does Not Pay, as well as many of other comic book titles, were forced to submit to an internal censorship organ known as the Comics Code Authority. Because Kefauver, Wertham, and other crusaders for American children had placed comic books in the harsh light of the public forum, the Comics Code Authority immediately tried to save the comic book industry by cleaning comics of true crime titles and horror titles. This bleaching helped to denude comics of their previous gritty glamor, and the reemergence of family-friendly superheroes helped to imprison comics in the ghetto of “kid’s stuff” until the British-led experiments in postmodern storytelling in the 1980s. When people speak of pre-code comics, it tends to have the same tantalizing mystique of the pre-code films of Hollywood.

Like a lot comic titles during this time, Crime Does Not Pay could not survive or thrive under this new atmosphere. When the series finally folded in 1955, Gleason, Biro, and Wood were suddenly put adrift in a society that no longer viewed them as economically viable or personally reputable. Gleason and his publishing house folded in 1956, leaving the man behind crime comics out-of-work. Biro would leave the comic book industry, too, but his career ended up on the more successful side. The tall, handsome New Yorker found work in the burgeoning medium of television as a graphic artist, eventually working for NBC. Biro was formally inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2002, his legacy firmly etched into the medium’s so-called “Golden Age.”

Biro’s partner Wood was noticeably less successful after the collapse of Crime Does Not Pay. Wood descended further into alcoholism after assignments started drying up.  From 1956 until his arrest 1958, Wood’s main source of income was drawing for sleazy, soft-core pornographic comics that often blended sex and violence with depictions of recreational drug use and junkie addicts. This was a world that Wood came to know well in the late ‘50s, and on August 27, 1958, the true scale of Wood’s descent became public knowledge.

III. The Final Page

In his masterful The Comic Book Makers (2007), comic book royalty Joe and Jim Simon describe the events surrounding Bob Wood as closely as did the New York Daily News almost 50 years before. According to testimony, a cab driver named Paul Feingold picked up a disheveled and obviously agitated Wood in New York’s swank Gramercy Park neighborhood. Wood helped himself into the back seat and told the driver: “I’m in terrible trouble; I’m going to get a couple of hours of sleep and jump in the river.” In an offhand way Feingold asked Wood if he’d killed anybody, and the former purveyor of uniquely American pulp replied: “Yes, I killed a woman who was giving me a bad time in Room 91 of the Irving Hotel. Why don’t you call someone at a newspaper and make yourself a few dollars.”

New York cab drivers are a hardened lot, and they usually treat such declarations with a modicum of disbelief. But there was something in Wood’s manner that convinced Feingold of his honesty. After dropping Wood off in Greenwich Village at the Regina Hotel, Feingold located a police officer operating out of the East 22nd Street Station. Then, Feingold and the officer questioned the manager of the Regina only to find out that Wood had signed under the false name of Roger Turner. The manager recalled how violently Wood’s hands had shook, and when the police found bloodied clothing in Wood/Turner’s room in the Regina, they no longer doubted the former comic book artist’s tale.

When they entered Room 91 of the Irving Hotel, they found not only a small army of empty whiskey bottles, but they also the battered body of a woman in a blood-drenched negligee. As Wood revealed more of his story, it was discovered that he and the woman, a divorcee who seemed to share Wood’s passion for amber-encased spirits, had spent an 11-day bender together at the Irving. The couple spent most of their time drinking, making love, and, fatefully, arguing. It was one such argument that led Wood to beat the woman to death with an electronic iron, a gruesome murder that would have fitted in nicely with any one of Wood’s illustrations for Crime Does Not Pay. This crime not only added a chilling new wrinkle to the often misogynist images of Biro and Wood’s defunct publication, but it also highlighted how sordid Bob Wood’s world actually was. Wood, a man known amongst comic book industry types for being a little reserved, now exposed his vices for tabloid fodder.

Incredibly, after pleading guilty, Wood was only charged with first-degree manslaughter. The presiding judge blamed alcohol for Wood’s crime, and thus spared the fallen artist from a life sentence. Unfortunately, this good luck would run out. After serving three years in prison, Wood’s murdered body was found on the New Jersey Turnpike the year after his release.

The cause of Wood’s death was due to Wood’s inability to pay back his former acquaintances in Sing-Sing, acquaintances who wanted Wood to pay up on his outstanding loans. Wood couldn’t deliver the dough, and wound up as road kill for all his trouble.

Thus ends the sad tale of Bob Wood. Now, especially since Dark Horse Comics has begun collecting and publishing old issues of Crime Does Not Pay as hardcover volumes, the title established all those many years ago by Biro and Wood has grown to become one of the most respected titles of the “Golden Age.” Modern day maestros of crime comics such as Brian Azzarello and Ed Brubaker openly acknowledge their debt to Crime Does Not Pay, but rarely do they mention the name Bob Wood. Partially because he wasn’t a great artist (a good one and a serviceable one, yes) and partially because he lived the same deviant lifestyle as his creations, both fictional and real, Wood is today only foggily recalled by comic book enthusiasts, and even when he is, it is usually only as a shocking set piece of geek trivia.

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