Monday, March 02, 2009


Obscurity of the Day: War On Crime

The Public Ledger Syndicate of Philadelphia put their stable of great illustrators to good use in the hard-boiled gangster strip War On Crime. The strip told the true stories of notorious criminals, starting out with such modern anti-heroes as Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger.

The stories were "adapted from the case files of the FBI". The writer, Rex Collier, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, had a close relationship with the bureau and the notorious J. Edgar Hoover. Collier essentially worked as a publicity hack for the FBI, producing books, radio programs and screenplays in addition to this comic strip, all with the aim of mythologizing the crime-busting acumen of the bureau.

The art on the strip was usually uncredited. Although Frank Godwin fans hope to see his mark on the strip, art-spotters I trust tell me it isn't so. According to Jay Maeder in the third issue of his publication Paper Soldier, the artists on the series were:

(James?) Hammon (5/18 - 6/13/1936)
Kemp Starrett (6/15/36 - 7/17/37)
Jimmy Thompson (7/19/37 - 1/22/38)

Anyone disappointed by Godwin's lack of involvement should take heart -- the artists on these strips were superb. Just look at Thompson's brushwork on the samples above -- gorgeous stuff!

The strip was never a big seller from the start (one source says only 45 papers ran it at the height of its popularity), and it really stumbled after the stories of the big stars of the underworld had been told. By the time the ninth story arrived, featuring the relative unknowns of the Tri-State Gang, the writing was on the wall that the strip had nowhere left to go. Certainly there were more picturesque criminals out there, but their tales didn't shine the light on the FBI so Collier had no interest in writing their bios. The Tri-Staters and the strip met with similar ends -- execution. Our samples above are the final strips of this last story.

The strips were not dated. Like several other Ledger continuity strips, they used story code letters and numbers to designate the order in which strips were to appear. The stories were coded as follows, number of strips follows each:

Introduction of Series (12)
A-The Urschel Case (36)
B-Pretty Boy Floyd (30)
C-The Dillinger Case (78)
D-Alvin Karpis (108)
E-The Weyerhauser Kidnapping (60)
F-Eddie Bentz And The Million Dollar Gang (42)
G-Harry Brunette (42)
H-Glen Applegate And Robert Suhay (48)
(no I)
J-The Tri-State Gang (72)

There have been a few reprints of the series. Paper Soldier #3, mentioned above, is scarce but well worth finding. Ken Pierce Books sells a four volume set of the series claiming that it's a complete reprint with the 'best source material possible'. I haven't seen these books since I've been disappointed in this company's offerings before and I no longer roll the dice on buying their reprints. Can someone who did purchase them give us a review?


Hello, Allan----It's my understanding that the mysterious missing "I" series was to be the Lindbergh kidnapping case. It went into production, but for reasons of taste (and the less-than-spectacular participation of the FBI in the sad story,) it was scrapped. ----Cole Johnson.
Hi Cole -
I think Ledger just didn't use "I" since it might be interpreted as a January date. "Roy Powers" also skipped story I.

But your story makes for a much better legend.

Some companies who code date their products using letters to represent the months of the year begin the year with 'A' for January through 'M' for December. They don't use 'I' for fear that 'I' and 'J' will be mistaken one for the other.
Since you mentioned Roy Powers...
In a bit of serendipitous synchronicity Mr. Door Tree posted the first few weeks of that strip a few days ago.
Maybe Frank Godwin don't have drawn WAR ON CRIME (I think so too), but surely Jimmy Thompson have drawn CONNIE (episode "Q" in 1937).
Thomas Sawyer wrote me privately with some interesting info:

"Hi Allan,

Your discussion of War on Crime reminded me of a Godwin letter, which I mentioned to you some years ago. I have a photocopy of it. I kind of misplaced it, I think, but I did see it about two years ago.

It was a copy of a letter that Godwin sent to Gordon Campbell, and Gordon sent me a copy of it. It was typewritten and signed, and it was sent from Cuba. I can't remember the year, but I think it was 1938 or so.

In the letter, Godwin came right out and said that he did not draw War on Crime. (I'm not sure whether War on Crime was still running when Godwin sent the letter.)

Many years ago, Gordon wrote to me as follows: "Several artists on the Ledger staff were capable of imitating his style, Williams, Franke and Hamblen. Curtis Publishing Company used many artists and they also did work for the syndicate. A fellow named Henderson was the art director and as I remember he had a combined staff of around 75 people."

Franke would presumably be Joseph Franke, who was an excellent illustrator, but who is not well-known today. Williams would I assume be Roy Williams. Hamblen I do not know about.

Gordon also mentioned that Godwin did a baseball strip called Pipe the Fan. I would not be surprised if that was in some way connected with that baseball cartoon by Godwin that you found. Gordon mentioned that it appeared in a Washington, D.C., newspaper.

According to Sid Hydeman (of Redbook), in How to Illustrate for Money, Godwin was (I gather in his early days) an infielder for the Washington Senators. "

Allan's note: I checked the major league records; no Frank Godwin (or Goodwin, for good measure) ever played major league ball. No Godwin or Goodwin at all ever played for the Senators. He might have been in the minors, tho.
Las Strips delatan varias manos. Pero el estilo de Jimmy Thompson ("Robotman") es inconfundible. Al menos el entintado de las strips le pertenece.
Un saludo
Benavent desde Barcelona
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