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, 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, Private Eye 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. (Please see my separate article on Big Town, for an analysis of the Big Town tales.)

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:

  1. 1930's comic books like the first series of Johnnie Law tales,
  2. 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.

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.

SPOILERS. While this is not a mystery story, it does have some clever plot twists. Mystery fans will like these.

For all his roughness and earthy personality, Johnny Law respects science. He eagerly gets help from a police scientist. Satisfyingly, the scientist comes through with good evidence for Johnny.

The "symbolic splash panel" has a clever idea. It is not realistic, but it is fun.

ART. Artist Win Mortimer's version of Johnny Law is a giant, bull-like roughneck. He seems to be exploding out of his good suits, he's so big and well-built. He's too tough to be handsome, but he does have plenty of swagger.

Crime on the Record (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?

BUSINESS. "Crime on the Record" contrasts two kinds of enterprise:

"The Network of Crime" will have a similar contrast between the respectable "office party" in the photo, and the crook who wants the photo.

ROMANCE. The story marks an attempt to 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.

This is artist Irwin Hasen's first Johnny Law tale. Johnny is drawn as clean cut and neatly dressed. But he has absolutely none of the features later used to glamorize romance comic book heroes.

Here and in "The Big House Express", "Johnny Law vs Johnny Lawless", Johnny uses handcuffs on crooks.

ART. The executive's "lush office" has nice Art Deco features (page 2). They look good in color. However, the office looks less Deco later on (page 6).

The windows in the crook's office are well-drawn, full of repeating modules (page 5). The same episode has some good cityscapes (page 5).

The Network of Crime (1951). Writer: ? Art: Irwin Hasen. Johnny tries to solve the mystery, of why a crook wants to get an innocuous photo. The mystery has a solution with a decent idea. But the tale around it is a bit thin.

Like "Crime on the Record", "The Network of Crime" is a story where Johnny meets an attractive woman, and gets mildly involved. In both stories, she helps him with his case. These tales remind one of the romance subplots in Hollywood films. In "The Network of Crime", Nancy Wren and Johnny "meet cute", as they say in movies (page 4).

Johnny is in suit and tie. But he's shown regularly working with other cops in uniform.

Johnny Law vs Johnny Lawless (1951). Writer: ? Art: Irwin Hasen. Policeman Johnny Law gets targeted by a mysterious, brainy criminal, who signs himself Johnny Lawless. Intricately plotted tale, with both adventure and mystery.

CLOTHES. Johnny Law gets dressed in two unusual outfits (pages 3, 8). This adds much style to the tale, both visually and to the storytelling. The clothes explore various facets of masculinity. The clothes are worn in all-male environments.

CHAIN OF COMMAND. The tale opens (page 2) with Johnny Law obeying an order from his superior officer, a uniformed police Captain. This shows Johnny Law as part of a hierarchical Chain of Command. The Captain underscores the order by using a Thumb Gesture.

The story concludes with Johnny Law concealing his scheme from the Captain. He thus takes himself out of the Chain of Command, at least temporarily. It makes for a distinctive progression. Johnny Law starts the tale as part of the Chain, and ends outside it.

The Big House Express (1952). Writer: ? Art: Irwin Hasen. Johnny takes a convicted criminal on the train, to the penitentiary. Brief but nice train story. It includes some good train lore.

MYSTERY. There is a simple but well-constructed mystery plot. SPOILERS. The author manages to include no less than two clues, in this brief tale. The mystery also has an enjoyable element that adds pizzaz: who is a mobster undercover in disguise? The possible disguises look at different types of masculinity, including Authority Figures.

ART. I like the simple but atmospheric art that shows a local stop (end of page 1).

The "bookworm" is nicely drawn (page 1).