“You’re Under Arrest for Impersonating a Basketball Player!” (JUSTICE TRAPS THE GUILTY #15, 1950) For a relatively brief period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, certain comic book publishers utilised photographs in lieu of artwork on some of their covers. This was a far from universal practice, but companies participating in this experiment included Marvel (probably the most egregious example), DC, Fawcett, Ziff-Davis, Prize, and Standard.
In some cases, the decision might have been a commercial one, i.e., cover photos were assumed to sell the comic more effectively. It’s also possible photos—even specially-posed ones, as opposed to stock shots—were cheaper to purchase than commissioned artwork, although this seems as if it would be a subsidiary reason, if at all.
The photo-cover aesthetic seems inappropriate for comic books, with the exception of titles featuring the fictional adventures of “real” people (mostly Western film stars, like Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash Larue, etc.), and licensed TV/film adaptations (most prevalent in the 1960s from Dell). The photographs on these comic book covers (often promotional stills which required very little effort to “convert” to a comic cover) were a justifiable marketing tool.
Otherwise, however, a posed photograph on the cover of a comic book feels like a betrayal of the comic medium. The clash between the staged “realism” of a photograph and the virtually unlimited imaginary worlds of comic book art could produce cognitive dissonance: the photograph is real and yet in many cases it’s so obviously posed, static, and limited that the realism is somehow negated. On the other hand, drawn artwork might be objectively less realistic, but artists could include more background detail, characters, and outré action than would be possible in any photo.
[As an aside, comic books with painted covers were also not extremely prevalent—although certain publishers, such as Classics Illustrated, Ziff-Davis and Gold Key, used them fairly often—and these also imparted a different feel to the title, just as photo-covers did. And we won’t delve into the photo-comic (also known as fumetti or fotonovela) technique, which utilises retouched photos to tell a story in comic-book format, except to say this has a different, possibly subliminal effect on readers as well.]
Perhaps publishers felt the same way, since a relatively small number of titles (aside from the specialised categories mentioned above) experimented with cover photos. Most of these other comics were in the romance genre. This makes sense, since romance comics were a contemporary, realistic genre and generally did not feature continuing characters, which allowed for the use of generic, anonymous models in posed cover photos. No special props or elaborate costumes were needed for a contemporary romance comic book cover, just a man and a woman in their normal clothing. In fact, a glance at a variety of romance comics with drawn covers makes it plain that many of these could have been rendered photographically with little or no effort, although certain details (specific settings and backgrounds, additional figures) would have required a greater outlay of time and money. Still, generally, romance comics had the most…sedate covers of the medium (at least in graphic terms).
Most other comic books, however, had action-focused covers which would have been extremely difficult to replicate via photograph. The crime comic genre, which blossomed in the late 1940s and largely vanished in the mid-Fifties, utilised photo covers only briefly, probably for this very reason. In other words, the verisimilitude provided by photographs of actual human beings in a genre prized for its realism—note that the cover shown here has the word “TRUE” in giant red letters in a text box—was offset by the static compositions and limited content of photo covers, particularly compared to drawn artwork for similar titles.
The covers of “Justice Traps the Guilty,” published by Prize from 1947 to 1958, illustrate this dichotomy, although they aren’t necessarily even the best examples of the genre. The covers of issues #1-11 were drawn by the team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, and are relatively small-scale, although still action-packed: there’s not much on these covers that couldn’t have been recreated in a photo, given a decent budget (which brings us back to one of the points I made earlier—it was certainly cheaper to draw more elaborate scenes than to photograph them, and existing stock photos would definitely have been much tamer than artwork).
With issue #12, “Justice Traps the Guilty” converted to photo-covers, an experiment that lasted only 6 issues. One of these covers is the object of today’s analysis: number 15 (April-May 1950). Yes, it’s a thrilling (?) image of a uniformed cop and a plainclothes detective arresting a professional basketball player, to illustrate the first story in the comic, “Basketball Bribe.” The awkwardness of the characters, pose and setting are highly amusing.
Where to start?
1. so where is this supposed to be taking place? In an arena, during a game? In a gym, during practice? The blank backdrop and the blue floor don’t exactly scream “gymnasium.” “Excuse me, time out! You, in the yella shirt, come with us!” “Aw, geez, officer, I was just gonna pass the ball.” “Forget it, you’re under arrest!”
2. the basketball player in the scene…more than 60 years have passed since this photo was taken, and the default image of a “professional basketball player” has changed considerably in the public mind. First, the uniform. It’s drab but serviceable; the shorts are short but recognisable, but the knee pads (as opposed to knee braces) and shoes/socks look very odd to us now. Apparently, knee pads were frequently worn by many players in this era (what, did they fall down a lot more in the old days?), although the knee pads visible in 1950 basketball team photos I’ve seen on Google don’t really resemble the ribbed monstrosities this guy’s wearing (the closest thing I’ve found to them is from a 1923-24 season photo!). And his shoes and socks definitely don’t seem like standard issue sneakers (again, using 1950 team photos as a benchmark): a few teams appear to be wearing leather “court shoes,” but most are outfitted in Chuck Taylors. The shoes aren’t the worst part of the outfit (the knee pads are), although the rolled socks don’t help (however, they seem authentic—tall socks don’t appear to have predominated until the 1970s).
3. basketball uniform aside, what about the player? Professional basketball was largely a white man’s game for many years (the first black player debuted in the NBA in 1950, but most teams were majority-white for a long time after that, compared to the majority African American composition of the league today). Of course, even if the pro league had been more fully integrated when this comic was published, the player shown would probably still have been white, since black characters rarely appeared on comic book covers of the era. But was this guy the best they could find to impersonate a basketball player? Although he’s crouching and it’s difficult to ascertain his true height, he still appears to be shorter than either the detective or the uniformed cop. Not to mention that he looks like he’s easily 40 years old. Heck, even the policeman at left is taller, younger, and seems to be more athletic than the alleged “pro” basketball player.
4. the other two guys… The beat cop is fine, no complaints. The detective, on the other hand, seems to be wearing a suit that’s several sizes too big for him. Seriously, that’s a drape shape with a reet pleat (but no stuff cuffs). He resembles actor Reed Hadley, who—perhaps coincidentally—had just debuted in the TV series “Racket Squad,” playing a stalwart police detective. Regular readers of “Justice Traps the Guilty” might have experienced a bit of confusion the following month, when the model who plays the detective on the cover of issue #15 was cast as a criminal in a line-up on #16’s cover. To make matters worse, the uniformed cop from #15 reappears on #16 as a policeman, suggesting perhaps that #15’s detective was corrupt and has now been exposed and arrested for his crimes by his former partner.
5. a common typographical “trick” used by many publishers was to give their crime comics a positive, law-abiding title—“Crime Does Not Pay,” “Justice Traps the Guilty,” “Crime and Justice,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Crime Smashers,” “Crime Must Pay the Penalty,” “Criminals on the Run,” “Down with Crime,” “Fight Against Crime,” “Gangsters Can’t Win,” etc.—and then construct the logo so a buzz-word like “CRIME” was much larger than all of the other, mitigating words. On this particular cover, “GUILTY” is literally five times bigger than “Justice Traps the…” This technique has to be admired for both its plausible deniability (“Hey, our comic’s title is CRIME Does Not Pay, so we are definitely against crime, right?”) and its brazen acknowledgement of What Sells.
6. the cover text also makes a special mention that this comic contains “52 Big Pages! Don’t Take Less!” Comic books had dropped from 60+ pages to 52 pages during the Second World War. Publishers began to reduce the page count even further in the 1950-51 era, although when “Justice Traps the Guilty” was issued (April 1950), many were still at the 52-page length. So it wasn’t as if Prize, the company that published this title, was holding the line alone (in fact, “Justice Traps the Guilty” reduced its page count late in 1951). Still, every little bit of an edge that one can get over the competition is worth a try, no?
7. those with extremely good eyesight will notice the little white “bar and star” in the upper right section of the masthead. This reads “Authorized A.C.M.P.” and “Conforms to the Comics Code.” The A.C.M.P.—not be be confused with the Comics Code Authority, which came about in the mid-Fifties—was the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers, an industry group which attempted to fend off outside criticism (and potential censorship) of comic books by creating their own, brief “Publishers Code.” This included a section specifically about crime comics: “Crime should not be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy against the law and justice or to inspire others with the desire for imitation. No comics shall show the details and methods of a crime committed by a youth. Policemen, judges, Government officials, and respected institutions should not be portrayed as stupid, ineffective, or represented in such a way to weaken respect for established authority.” Unlike the later CCA, the A.C.M.P. didn’t have a staff or budget to review comic books prior to publication, nor could they really enforce their “Code,” so it was a basically a meaningless public relations ploy.
The cover photograph of this issue (as well as at least the cover of #16) of “Justice Traps the Guilty” was taken by Theda and Emerson Hall, a husband-and-wife team of photographers who spent five decades in Hollywood producing glamour photography for publicity and advertising purposes. Best known for their commercial colour shots, the Halls also did “art” photography in black-and-white and colour, notably some impressive nudes. The Halls worked for a number of comic book publishers in the 1940s and 1950s. At least some of the “Justice Traps the Guilty” photo covers were either shot specially for the comic, or were selected from a collection of stock shots to match an interior story; it’s not known if the Halls posed photos for their other comic book work, or merely sold previously-shot glamour images to comic book publishers for use. [In the 1970s, the Halls retired and moved to Montana, as related here.]
When I first saw this particular cover, I assumed it (and the “Basketball Bribe” story inside) had been inspired by the real-life point-shaving scandal of the era, when numerous athletes at seven different colleges were accused of collaborating with gangsters to fix games (the 1951 film The Basketball Fix also alludes to this). However, this famous case didn’t come to light until early 1951, well after “Justice Traps the Guilty” #15 had been printed and distributed. There had been earlier cases involving college basketball players shaving points or throwing games (professional basketball wasn’t really popular enough to attract many gamblers), so the idea of criminal intervention in basketball wasn’t unknown.
Still, this photo is not what one would necessarily expect to see on the cover of a crime comic book. A cop and a detective arresting a basketball player on the court in the middle of a game? Gee, the league must have been serious when they vowed to cut down on blatant fouls!
[It’s also possible—if one looks strictly at the cover and ignores the story inside, which deals with players throwing games at the behest of gamblers—this photo could be interpreted differently. Maybe the basketball player is being arrested for something totally non-basketball-related? Murder, arson, counterfeiting, wife beating (he’s got the shirt for it), unpaid traffic tickets? The detective decides to take him down in the middle of the game because obviously the perp isn’t carrying a concealed weapon, he’s distracted by the competition, and his hands are occupied by the ball (they’re in the perfect position to slap on the handcuffs). Just a thought.]