Johnnie Law | The Johnny Law tales in Big Town

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The above is not a complete list of Johnnie Law stories. Rather, it consists of my picks of the best tales in the magazines, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.

These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.


Johnnie Law

Johnnie Law was a courageous young policeman who patrolled a slum district in the lower East Side of Manhattan. The tales began with #21 in June 1937, and ran in More Fun Comics till #44 (June 1939). The tales are set in a realistic non-science fictional world, and are usually fairly serious in tone.

Like Will Ely's other series sleuth of the 1930's, Larry Steele, Johnnie Law is a young man just starting out in his detective profession, here as a policeman. Both young men are humble, but determined and sincere in their efforts. Both also have a sense of joie de vivre, and enthusiasm for that work. They are also friendly and loyal to other people. Both series began at almost the same time, with Larry Steele starting one month later than Johnnie Law, in July 1937.

Johnnie Law is Ely's look at the working poor, while Larry Steele leads a glamorous life supported by his upper middle class family. One suspects that Larry Steele represents the glamorous fantasies of the readers of the comics, while Johnnie Law is close to the actual life led by both the readers and creators of comics at the time.

The Arsonist, Part 1 (1937). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Patrolman Johnnie Law rescues the homeless young slum kid Tim from a fire set by a mysterious arsonist. The origin of both Johnnie Law and Tim.

We tend to think of homelessness as a modern problem. But there were plenty of homeless poor people in the Depression. By 1937, the absolute nadir of the Depression was over, but things were still really rough. For that matter, homelessness was a major problem in Elizabethan England, around 1600. Shakespeare plays such as As You Like It and King Lear have much to say about homelessness, and should be read against such an economic background.

Johnnie Law shows heroism here, rescuing people from the fire. He displays the sort of derring-do and physical bravery shown by movie heroes. Ely's action scenes often show his heroes swinging around the outsides of large, architecturally complex buildings. There are often dangerous conditions, such as a fire, as in this tale, or a storm. See his Larry Steele tale, "The Maine Castle Mystery" (Detective Comics #17, July 1938).

The Arsonist, Part 2-4 (1937). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Police detective Johnnie Law tracks down the mysterious arsonist responsible for the series of tenement district fires.

The story shows the step by step detection Johnnie uses to solve the crime. Each step follows logically from the preceding. Johnnie uses effort, imaginative schemes, brain work and logic to solve the crime: nothing ever drops into his lap for free. This sort of step by step sleuthing anticipates John Broome's scripts for Big Town in the 1950's. A reporter hero of Big Town would himself track down an man destroying abandoned buildings in "The Man Who Bombed Big Town" (Big Town #46, July-August 1957). The plots of the two stories differ in detail, but both emphasize pure detection. Neither writer creates a "puzzle plot" in the strict sense - there is no solution that can be achieved to these mystery plots by pure thinking. The solutions at the end are straightforward - sure enough, there is a villain and he is tracked down at the end. While the solutions are not surprising, the detective work used to reach them is intelligent and logically constructed.

Tim is regularly brought into the cases, by Johnnie asking him for information about the neighborhood. This gets Tim involved in the stories. But it also plays a role in the tales' depiction of detection. Johnnie has to use all sources available to him to gather information, including Tim. It is never easy for him to get information, or reach the next step in his searches. He has to use every source of information at his disposal, and make every possible effort, just to get one more step towards his solution.

Behind Johnnie Law ultimately stand prose treatments of police procedure, such as the mystery novels of Freeman Wills Crofts and his followers. Johnnie Law also emphasizes the intelligent use of police lab work, as do prose mystery writers of this school. However, the Johnnie Law tales by no means look like direct imitations of the Crofts school.

Ely understands the dress code of police of this era. Normally, Johnnie is in dignified, three piece suits and hats. He looks forceful and well dressed in a serious, non-frivolous way. After working all night on a case, he sheds his coat and vest and loosens his tie (see #23, August 1937). This is at headquarters, where he is not seen by the public, only other police.

The Marijuana Racket, Part 1 (1937). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. Johnnie works to track down dope pushers. This is one of the few stories about the evils of drugs anywhere in the early comics. Will Ely's stories are among the closest in comics to the hard-boiled tales appearing in pulp mystery magazines. Pulps regularly published tales attacking the dope trade.

Another early comic book tale of heroic cops fighting the drug racket: the Siegel & Shuster Federal Men story "Mad Knife-Killer Spreads Terror" (New Adventure Comics #13, February 1937).

The Marijuana Racket, Part 3 (1938). Writer: Will Ely. Art: Will Ely. The hunt for the gangsters behind the racket concludes with a shoot-out on the waterfront. This tale has some nice art, showing buildings in the dock district.

Parts 2 and 3 of "The Marijuana Racket" have little to do with drugs. They are instead police versus gangster chases and fights that could be about any crime. Part 2 is not bad, but lacks the interesting art of Part 3.

By this time Johnnie Law looks really tough. He lacks the naive look he sported in his origin episode.


The Big Town Tales

In 1951 a new series of Johnny Law tales started. They were the second feature in Big Town magazine. These tales appeared in Big Town #2 (February 1951) through #20 (March-April 1953). Most of the first twenty issues of Big Town contained three Big Town tales, and one Johnny Law story. After that, the Johnny Law series was permanently dropped, and the magazine consisted nearly exclusively of Big Town stories for the rest of its run.

Win Mortimer was the artist for issues #2 - #6; Irwin Hasen took over with #7, and remained till the series ended in #20.

It is not clear that this second series of Johnny Law stories has much to do with the 1930's stories (whose hero's name was spelled Johnnie Law). In both, Johnny Law is a police detective, apparently in New York City. But the 1950's Johnny Law seems older and more established as a policeman. He is also a lot cockier. There is no sign in the 1950's stories of Tim. Nor is there any emphasis on the Lower East Side, or slum districts in general, in the 1950's stories. The 1950's tales might just be a series of detective stories that share little but their protagonist's name and profession with the earlier tales.

The Dubious Alibi (1951). Writer: ? Art: Win Mortimer. Johnny Law investigates a robbery suspect whose alibi seems poor. This story shows good, step by step detective work by Johnny Law. Such detective work is a comic book tradition, showing up in both 1930's comic books like the first series of Johnnie Law tales, and in John Broome's 1950's stories for Big Town, in the same magazine as the revived version of Johnny Law.

This story has a good central idea. It is both related to, and different from, the central mystery plot idea of a later Johnny Law tale, "Johnny Law Vs Johnny Lawless" (#9, September 1951). Both ideas seem original. However, "Johnny Law Vs Johnny Lawless" is fairly weak in its general execution, central concept aside, whereas "The Dubious Alibi" is well done throughout.

This story has a welcome vein of humor.

The Fearsome Film (1951). Writer: ? Art: Win Mortimer. A man dies after taking part in a film industry publicity contest in which he watches a horror movie alone in a deserted movie theater. Well done puzzle plot mystery.

Win Mortimer has done a good job here depicting an old time movie theater. It vividly recreates a whole style of real life movie theater that is rarely seen today. The theater is somewhat in the style of the great movie palaces, but in a smaller, less grandiose version appropriate to a medium sized theater. As a child, I went to movie theaters whose architectural style was extremely similar to the one in the story, and this tale brings back nostalgic memories. The artist has provided numerous views of many locations and areas within the theater. These include the small stage in front of the screen, wide enough for a theater official to stand on rare occasions when movies are introduced in person, and the mezzanine and staircases in the building.

The Zero Hour (1951). Writer: ? Art: Win Mortimer. Johnny Law goes after A. Zero, a smooth talking hit man who arranges "accidental" deaths. Mr. A. Zero is both comic and sinister. His manner is that of every glib, back-slapping small time salesman, and the story provides a good spoof. This story is more a thriller, and less of a mystery than many in the Johnny Law series.

Crime on the Record (#7, July 1951). Writer: ? Art: Irwin Hasen. Johnny solves the murder of a record company executive. This story is full of technology, both in its murder method, which involves shotgun pellets, and in record manufacture. These ideas are both interesting and original: I have never seen them in other mystery fiction in any medium, prose or comics. Much weaker is the choice of criminal: the story fails to provide any clues to the murderer's identity, and the detective seems to pick the criminal out of the air. This failure of craftsmanship mars what is otherwise an enjoyable story.

This story is somewhat typical of the later Johnny Law tales, those in Big Town #5 onwards, in that it has some good, original mystery ideas, but their over all embodiment in a story is weak and not perfectly crafted. One has to give such stories mixed reviews. It is also hard to tell whether or not to recommend them to readers. Will they enjoy the mystery plot concept? Or will they be bored by its flawed execution?

The story marks an attempt for find romance for Johnny Law, something that had heretofore been largely missing from his 1950's revival. When a beautiful night club singer mixed up in the mystery expresses interest in Johnny, he turns her down, however, telling her: "I never go out socially with murder suspects". This line seems deliriously funny to me, a reasonable attitude, but absurdly put, as if Johnny were expressing a corporate policy.