True Crime: From Comics to Cable


I’ve been reading collections of an old comic called Crime Does Not Pay. Started during WWII (as evidenced by the many ads for war bonds) with issue 22 — renaming existing series was a common trick to avoid postal registration fees — the series presaged the post-war rise of noir and horror. Nominally reinforcing morality by demonstrating the folly of crime, the stories rely on the morbid attractions of blood and violence.

Being a big fan of noir and horror, this appeals to me on a visceral level.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve used much of this year’s sick day coverage already. This adds up to several days spent sleeping, eating soup, and watching TV. Daytime TV is a close approximation of living death, but I didn’t always have the energy to get up and find another movie to pop in.

Fortunately we have Netflix streaming, so all manner of entertainments are available to me from the remote comfort of my couch. Alas, illness makes me astonishingly forgetful. I wound up leaving the TV on ID, Discovery’s crime channel.

Watching, and napping through, umpteen hours of shows about real murders and rapes made it inevitable that a few dots would connect in my dulled brain. This has undoubtedly been mentioned long ago by those far more clever than I, but true crime shows are the modern incarnation of crime and suspense anthology comics.

Now, crime has always been a staple of TV, and it’s hard to remember a time when you couldn’t find an episode of “Law & Order: What-Have-You” on one of a handful of channels at any time of the day. I’m not talking about cop shows, or lawyer shows, or even outlaw shows. Reality shows that follow investigations aren’t it either. I’m specifically talking about the shows that present real cases in as sleazy and lurid a manner as possible. Shows with names that scream panic and prurience: “Nightmare Next Door”, “Deadly Sins”, and “Pretty Bad Girls” to name but three.

All of these go beyond their stated objectives of imparting facts. They insinuate, they tantalize, and they exult in tragedy. “Nightmare Next Door”, which happens to be on while I write this, has a narrator that puns and mocks his way through each story. He might as well be Mr. Crime, the evil spirit that began serving as a narrator in Crime Does Not Pay with issue 24. Sultry music cues are not uncommon in these shows, and many re-enactment shots play up the sexual attributes of “bad girls”. “Scorned: Love Kills” plays up the prurient interest with lots of re-enacted sex, complete with overdubbed moans and sighs.

They aren’t concerned with telling a good story or presenting a detailed account. They want to grab your attention, tie it to a chair, and hold it as ransom to get ad revenue. They’re cynical crap, serving up a world of constant crime and inevitable punishment to keep us excited.

I could only love them more if they were comics.

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