Mr. District Attorney | Non-Series Tales

Classic Comic Books Home Page (with many articles on comics)

Recommended Stories

Mr. District Attorney These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number. They were edited by Whitney Ellsworth.

Mr. District Attorney

Mr. District Attorney was based on a radio series, which ran from 1939 to 1953: covers of the comic book claim it is "Radio's No.1 Hit". The comic ran for 67 issues (1948-1959).

The Richest Man in Prison (#2, March-April 1948). Art: Sam Citron (p2 onwards), Dan Barry (splash). A clever crook embezzles a fortune, then plans to wait out his prison crime and dig up his loot when released.

Mr. District Attorney is one of the least likable series characters in comic book history. He is definitely not a nice guy. Instead, he seems to specialize in tormenting and hounding criminals, all in the name of the law. This is all supposed to be justified in the name of crime prevention, but the actual effect is distinctly nasty. There are precedents to this character. The movie series Crime Does Not Pay sometimes included such relentless law officers. Also, Henry Hathaway's film noir Kiss of Death (1948) featured a relentless district attorney, played by Brian Donlevy, who specialized in squeezing and putting pressure on sympathetic criminal Victor Mature, often in ways that were both nightmarish and barely ethical.

This story develops into a full picture of the DA manipulating the convict into revealing where his loot is buried. He seems to have endless resources and power to manipulate the prisoner. He sends an assistant, Harrington, into the prison undercover to be the prisoner's cell mate. At the end of the tale, Harrington and the DA are celebrating their success in the DA's lavish office. Both men are well dressed in similar, expensive looking suits. Both look like figures of wealth and power. Harrington is smoking a big cigar, and sitting on the DA's desk. Both of these handsome men look quite similar to each other.

The Bachelors of Crime (#17, September-October 1950). Art: Howard Purcell. Four clean cut but dishonest recent college grads use their skills to commit a series of thefts. The splash shows them in cap and gown, receiving their Bachelor's degrees on completion of college.

One of the young men is a psychology major; he uses his skills to psychologically manipulate the victims of the gang. This is perhaps the most interesting part of the story. The hoaxes he perpetrates remind one of the hoaxes that were common in Bill Finger tales, and one wonders if Finger is in fact the writer of this story. As in Finger, the hoaxes are sneaky, and very hard to for their victim to resist. The story goes into explicit detail about the mechanisms of such hoaxes, and they perhaps reveal Finger's thinking on the subject.

The Case of the Double Killing (#17, September-October 1950). Art: Howard Purcell. Based on a cover by: Howard Purcell. A whodunit murder mystery - not typical fare for this magazine. This story is not very good. Its best part: the cover, which shows the DA reconstructing the crime using a scale model of the rooms where the killing took place. This is a delightful image, one sure to warm the hearts of Golden Age detective fans. The Philo Vance movie, The Kennel Murder Case (Michael Curtiz, 1933), had also included a scale model of a house in its dénouement. In both movie and comic, the model is around the size of a doll house. It also reminds one of the Dell "mapback" paperback books of the era, which featured a map or floor plan of the crime scene on their back cover. Some of the Dell mapbacks had this sort of 3D images of rooms, without ceilings.

The house depicted on the cover is quite upscale and refined in its furnishings. The cover is more genteel than many of the Mr. District Attorney covers, which often depicted fairly tough crime scenes. The genteel furnishings also recall Dell mapbacks.

Non-Series Tales

The Detective With High Heels (1950). Writer: Phil Evans. Art: Curt Swan. A woman private eye takes on the case of a man whose life is being threatened. The splash claims that this is the true story of a real life woman private eye. Her name is Teresa Harling, and she was born in 1923. The splash even thanks her for collaborating with the editors of the magazine on her case. Whether this is factual, or just a ploy to add credibility to a fictional tale, I do not know. Other "real" sleuths were also sometimes featured in Mr. District Attorney, usually in non-series stories like this one, that do not feature the fictional DA as a character.

Teresa Harling was trained by her father, who ran a detective agency. On his death in 1943, she inherited the agency, and became its proprietor. The story gives Teresa Harling the full treatment that would be applied to a male private eye in the era. She has both brains and courage, and uses both to solve the dangerous, tricky case here. She gets no help from any men or male assistants, and is a full sleuth in the Raymond Chandler tradition. The story has some good dialogue, that celebrates her ability as a detective. It also makes some strong feminist points about her work as a private detective.

The actual plot that Harling is involved with here is very close to traditional private eye literature. She has a client who comes to her for help, a case that develops complications and snowballs, mobsters, the seedy fringes of show business, car chases on remote roads. It is straight out of the post-Chandler private eye tradition. In fact, it could easily be a Chandler tale, except for the sympathetic female sleuth at its center, something that was a rarity in its era in prose fiction. Consequently, one wonders if the case itself is a fictional one, made up by a writer for the comic book, rather than being a true story from Harling's files.