Gang Busters

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Gang Busters

The above is not a complete list of Gang Busters 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. They were edited by Whitney Ellsworth.

Gang Busters

Gang Busters was a long running comic book (1947 - 1959), filled with tough detective and crime stories. It was based on the popular radio program (1935 - 1957) of the same name. The comic book had few series characters. Mainly, each story is about a completely different set of police and crooks.

Crime Agency (1948). Art: Dan Barry. When maids from a crooked employment agency are used to case out wealthy homes for robberies, a policewoman goes undercover as one of the maids. This story recalls the semi-documentary film tradition of its era, with members of the police going undercover in very dangerous assignments. As in such films, the undercover role becomes more and more perilous as the tale progresses. There is a battle of wits between the police and the crooks, who often change their plans and make things more difficult for the undercover cop.

The best part of this otherwise routine tale is the treatment of the policewomen. The story, and the police commissioner, treat them with the full respect granted to the male cops in the story. Semi-documentary films tended to treat the police as a militarized institution, and this story follows that tradition. Here the police women are in full uniform, stand rigidly at attention military style, salute and follow a chain of command.

Barry has done an interesting job with portraits of two of the policewomen. The commander of the squad Lieutenant Moran is one of the toughest looking women in the history of the comics. She is a formidable looking figure, a vision of what a really strong woman might be like. She is not very feminine by conventional standards, but she is treated with full respect. The policewoman Mary Antonelli that is assigned the undercover job is a young, former actress. She is more conventionally pretty, but Barry conveys that she too is made of pure steel.

Later, the story briefly shows a male police officer undercover as a milkman (pages 5, 6). The policeman hero of the semi-documentary film He Walked By Night (1948), directed by Anthony Mann, similarly went undercover as a milkman. In both film and comic, the milkman is in the fancy, snow white uniform of a milkman of the era. Both look really snazzy.

The finale (page 8) shows Dan Barry's skill with groups of uniformed cops. Both the cops and the tall urban buildings anticipate a key sequence in Barry's "Jail Break" (page 3).

The story opens in that archetypal film noir setting night and rain.

Hot Money (1948). Art: Howard Sherman. Secret Service Agent John S. Tobin tracks down counterfeiters, who are involved with a crooked gambling ship.

This tale resembles a whole semi-documentary crime film in miniature. (Please see my chart Semi-documentary crime films for a list of Semi-documentary films and their key characteristics.) Such "semi-doc" films were hugely popular in the late 1940's.

This tale has many features in common with the semi-doc films:

Is they a gay subtext to the male bonding of good guys John Tobin and Joe Connors? It's possible, but far from certain.

Jail Break (1948). Writer: Donald Wandrei. Art: Dan Barry. Based on a cover by: Win Mortimer. A tough convict plans a jailbreak, with the aid of his friends.

The only good parts of this minor, and very violent story, are some of Dan Barry's illustrations. The splash shows the laughing crook, depicted as a giant towering over the other characters. Even better: the scenes of the crook being captured by the police (page 3). These have good architecture, showing the roofs and sides of tall urban buildings. The art also makes effective use, of geometric patterns of light.

UNIFORMS. Both the elevator operator (pages 2, 3) and the many cops who capture the crook (page 3) are in sharp, dressy uniforms. They add extra pizzazz to the capture-the-crook scene. The cop uniforms are constructed along traditional but highly effective lines: four precisely positioned patch pockets, epaulettes, a tightly belted waist, high-peaked caps with shiny black visors and hexagonal tops. These men really look uniformed.

The police uniforms and actions (left panel on page 3) express a Chain of Command:

The cops at the end (top panels of page 10) have both chevrons on their sleeves and stripes near their cuffs. They have a wide variety of rank. These men have both leather Sam Browne belts, and tall boots.

The crooked elevator operator is named J. F. La Bar. This name has both phallic male (Bar) and female (La) components. La Bar comes in for plenty of abuse, both from the crook and the police (pages 2, 3). It's seen as deserved punishment for his criminal behavior. The operator is uniformed throughout. We never get a good look at the operator's face in repose: also a sign that he is being dominated by the crook and the cops.

GUARDS. By contrast, the prison guards (pages 4, 6, 7, 8, 10) have different, and very odd, uniforms. These can seem downright perverse. The bow ties look subservient and submissive. Many wear their peaked caps pulled down over their eyes. These caps can look somewhat floppy and less than erect. This is accomplished by excess material on the sides and front of the caps, that looks as if it has collapsed. And a lack of push in the caps' fronts. The guards have patch pockets on the rear of their trousers (top of page 7). The guards are mainly less well-built than the massively muscular cops. Exception: the tower guard Quigley (page 7).

Underscoring the guards' sense of submission:

The warden has phallic symbols in his office (page 4): a lamp and switches on his desk, a tall filing cabinet that seems to be erupting with information at its top.

LINEMEN. The panel of crooks disguised as uniformed telephone linemen is macho (page 7). Their telephone poles are huge phallic symbols.

MOTORCYCLISTS. The flaming red-orange motorcycle ridden by the cop on the cover is also striking. It is mixed with the yellow background and policeman's blue uniform. This recalls the bright primary colors on the covers of pulp magazines, intended to catch browsers' eyes at newsstands. We also see two police motorcyclists in the story "Jail Break" (mid left panel on page 2). And a member of the State Highway Patrol on a cycle (page 8).

The Lady and the Cop (1948). Writer: Donald Wandrei. Art: Dan Barry. When a woman is suspected of murdering her husband, the police send a handsome cop undercover to romance her and get the truth. This story is a well done mixture of romance and suspense. It recalls the romantic suspense films of its era, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945).

The splash panel shows the uniformed police all lined up, military style, in front of the police chief's desk. The seated police chief picks out the hero of the tale, selecting him as the handsomest man on the force. The police chief is pointing straight at the selected hero. The chief is a slightly older man, handsome and distinguished in his uniform. It is a striking and unusual scene. It perhaps has a gay subtext.

The gambit of sending in a handsome cop to romance a witness or suspect and get her to talk, recalls the play I Want a Policeman! (1936) by Rufus King and Milton Lazarus. This gambit is certainly of doubtful morality!

The thin mustache the hero originally wears was associated in that era with Society playboys and upper-class rotters. I'm not sure why the hero wants to wear it in the first place, although such mustaches were certainly considered fashionable. He looks much better without it. Getting rid of the mustache is perhaps part of the "hero preparing for his undercover role", a story element that sometimes occurs in undercover tales. Such a physical transformation can suggest that the hero is undergoing an inner psychological transformation as well.

Donald Wandrei was a well-known author of pulp fiction. He co-founded the publishing firm Arkham House in 1939 with August Derleth.

SPOILERS. Both the victim in "The Lady and the Cop" and the elevator operator in "Jail Break" suffer falls from heights.

Fourth Offender (1949). Art: Dan Barry. An ex-con tries to go straight, operating an ice cream parlor in his home town.

This is a by-the-numbers story of an ex-con trying to reform. Its basic plot is essentially the same as Tom Taylor's play The Ticket-of-Leave Man (1863). Countless variations of Taylor's play have been created since in all media: print, radio, film, TV, comics. It has become such a standard plot that one suspects that many writers who've reused it do not even know its origin in Taylor's work. Some of the variations are better than others: Felix E. Feist's movie Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) awakens sympathy for its hero. So does the film Crime Wave (André de Toth, 1954). Erle Stanley Gardner's XXX adds plot ingenuity to the mix.

This story had me rooting for the hero. Tales of underdogs who succeed against great odds have always appealed to me. The story is also a sympathetic treatment of a social outsider, someone who tries to make a place in society, despite all the prejudice against him.

The Gay Masquerader (1949). Writer and Art: Stookie Allen. One-page nonfiction account of a crook who masqueraded as a French Marquis and officer in 1917 New York.

Cover (#10, June-July 1949). The cover shows a cop about to capture a crook coming through a window. The cover is a photograph. According to the GCD, comics writer "France Herron plays the cop in the picture". and writer-editor "Jack Schiff plays the crook".

The Vigil of Patrolman Crowell (1949). Art: Curt Swan. A young New York City patrolman's long search.

The splash has a good portrait of the New York City Public Library. The art emphasizes the three-dimensional quality of the Library and its steps.

The Riddle of Niagara (1950). Art: Nick Cardy. The Treasury Department learns that counterfeit money is being smuggled into the US, at Niagara Falls. But they don't know how. The puzzle of how the currency is smuggled, is a mystery with a decent solution.