This is the one-hundred and sixty-third in a series of examinations of comic book urban legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous one-hundred and sixty-two. Click here for a similar archive, only arranged by subject.
COMIC URBAN LEGEND: At one point, Crime Does Not Pay was selling five times as many copies as the highest sales Superman ever had
The other day, I received an interesting e-mail from a reader named Seth who asked:
For years I’ve seen talk about how Captain Marvel and Superman both sold a million copies per month during the 1940s and that was always treated as if not the tops close enough to being the tops for comics, but recently at a convention I saw an old copy of Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay and on the cover it said “more than 5,000,000 readers monthly”! That is way more than Superman and Captain Marvel was selling! Is that for real?
Like I said, it’s an interesting question, Seth, and as you’re right to be incredulous, because it is not, in fact, for real. At least not in the way you’re thinking (and I imagine many others would think).
First off, Crime Does Not Pay (the creation of Charlie Biro and Bob Wood – Wood, you might recall, tragically found himself the focus of a previous installment of Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed) WAS a very successful comic book. It was a modest hit right off the bat when it debuted in the early 1940s, but after the war it really took off, and by the late 1940s, it was selling, by most estimates, about a million copies a month, which is outstanding (and most likely, at the time, more than what Superman was selling and certainly, by the late 40s, more than what Captain Marvel was selling).
It was around this time that Crime Does Not Pay began boosting on its covers “More than 5,000,000 readers!”
Heck, later on that year, it went from 5,000,000 to 6,000,000!!
The trick is, as you might have already guessed, is that they don’t say 5,000,000 copies sold, only 5,000,000 readers. They came up with their numbers under the theory that for every copy of their comic that was purchased, it was passed around to at least six other people, so if they were selling one million copies, they actually had 6,000,000 readers.
It is highly doubtful that that was actually true (although, yes, the book surely did have more readers than just the purchasers of the comic themselves), and it is extremely doubtful that the good folks at Lev Gleason put much more thought into the market research than “I bet it’s about six times what we sell” and went with it.
So no, Seth, Crime Does Not Pay was never trouncing Superman in sales. In fact, while I don’t have the exact figures, I wouldn’t be surprised if Superman hung tough, comparatively, with Crime Does Not Pay in the sales charts of the late 1940s (not the Big Red Cheese, but the Big Blue Boyscout held strong well into the 1950s as the one superhero comic that kept selling big numbers).
By the by, it would be kinda interesting to see a modern comic use this approach, especially factoring in the theoretical “bootleg” downloads of new comics, the actual readership of each issue could easily be argued to be significantly higher than the actual issue’s sales!
I think someone should randomly come up with the multiplication for it, like, “Let’s say, ten times actual sales” and begin marketing!
“Uncanny X-Men – Read by 1,000,000 readers monthly!”
Go for it, Marvel and DC!
Wikipedia often gets a rough time from critics (by the by, they still haven’t changed the erroneous part on the entry for the Shield about him being preceded by Mr. America as a patriotic hero), but it really is a great place for interesting information, although often a lot of the most interesting stuff is unsourced, which can cause problems.
However, one such unsourced piece of information that I learned from Wikipedia that I later confirmed had to do with the main character from Valiant Comics’ Harbinger.
Pete Stanchek, code-named Sting, was the lead character of Harbinger (he was also the S of my Valiant Comic Book Alphabet of Cool), who was born with powerful mental abilities.
He used his abilities to rebel against Toyo Harada and his evil Harbinger Foundation (all the while not knowing that Harada, all the while, was toying with Pete).
Of course, Pete had some more tricks up his sleeve against Harada that Harada was NOT prepared for…
One of the interesting bits in the comic was how Pete’s girlfriend was only dating him because Pete was subconsciously forcing her through his mental powers. Once he realized this, he cut it out, but it as still a trespass that Pete felt terrible about.
However, an added wrinkle to the story comes when you look at what was Jim Shooter’s intent for the character originally, as I learned on Pete’s Wikipedia page, where it states that Jim Shooter intended for Pete to be gay.
I checked with Shooter, and he replied with a wealth of knowledge about Harbinger (as well as confirming the whole “Pete was intended to be gay” thing):
Harbinger began as a treatment written at the request of the head of development at Paramount who wanted a movie with young super heroes. She “loved” what I wrote, but since they had just signed a seven-picture deal with Eddie Murphy, she asked me to turn it into a comedy vehicle for him. I refused. I ended up using the Harbinger idea, somewhat different, somewhat differently developed, at VALIANT (
That definitely adds an interesting wrinkle to the story, no?
The whole idea of a guy subconsciously getting a girl to like him while he, himself, was really interested in guys? That the desire to fit the prototypical image of a “normal” teen was so powerful that a gay guy subconsciously forced a girl to like him? Good stuff by Shooter.
Anyhow, thanks to Jim Shooter for the information – it was highly informative, as always, and thanks to Wikipedia for the original info!
COMIC URBAN LEGEND: Grant Morrison ghost-wrote an issue of Mark Millar’s The Authority.
I’ve been asked this one a few times over the years, but while I was pretty positive that it was true, I never was able to find either Morrison or Millar on the record about the topic, but just the other day, I found an interview that Rich Johnston did with Morrison a few years back that completely confirmed the story.
Mark Mllar took over as the writer onThe Authority after Warren Ellis with The Authority #13, along with artist Frank Quitely.
While in the midst of their last storyline on the book, Quitely jumped ship to draw New X-Men for Marvel, and there was a break while the book gained a new artist (Tom Peyer and Dustin Nguyen did a fill-in storyline). During the same time, Millar was having health issues, so when he returned with the Authority #27, Grant Morrison stepped in and wrote The Authority #28 (with Millar adjusting Morrison’s script to make the issue fit in with Millar’s story).
In an interview with Rich Johnston at Dynamic Forces, Morrison recalled the experience:
Authority 28 caused some problems for me personally because I wrote the story as a favour and then, surprisingly, wasn’t paid or acknowledged for it until I called Wildstorm and the situation was quickly resolved. I wanted the issue to go out under some whimsical credit like ‘The Mock Millar Experience’ but otherwise I had no intention of putting my name on it. It was a gag. This is the story of watch gears turning and bureaucratic springs unwinding – hardly the fuel for so much rumour among so few. The best bit no-one saw was the first page – another victim of the censor’s scythe. My original had a splash page with Jesus Christ, Allah, and Buddha all standing in front of a bullet-pocked wall. Each wears a blindfold and sweats nervously, fag in the lips. A big balloon from off panel reads…’FIRE!’. Turn the page and it goes into the Surgeon’s speech before they meet Religimon.
Thanks to Rich Johnston and Grant Morrison for the confirmation!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database for this week’s covers!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you next week!