Friday, July 9, 2010

Tales From the Vault: Mr. District Attorney #40

Welcome back to another Tales From the Vault, where we dig into our stash of back issues and read comics to you via the internet. Up today is an extra special treat (?), Mr. District Attorney #40, from 1954. Yes, this crime comic comes to you from the last dying moments of the Golden Age, when the comics industry was brought low by Senate hearings, Red Scare tactics and class warfare, all because of some overwrought crime and horror comics. So with that in mind, is Mr. District Attorney part of the problem? Or is it part of the solution?

One hint is that this crime book was published by DC, not EC, which for long time readers pretty much answers the question right there. I don't want to give any spoilers away before we get into the comic, but considering how blandly inoffensive and whitebread pretty much everything DC put out in the 1950's was -- a policy that allowed them to escape the Comic Code pyres unscathed -- chances are pretty slim that we'll find anything salacious in this issue. But we can hope, right?

Let's take a look!

Details: As previously noted, this issue hails from July/August of 1954, with art from Howard Purcell and scripts provided by an anonymous donor. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. District Attorney -- which I'm guessing is almost everyone -- this curious comic was licensed from a radio program. That sounds kind of strange, but it's true; back in the late 40's, DC actually licensed a whole line of radio crime dramas that they turned into comic books, including fellow titles Gang Busters and Big Town. Not only did Mr. District Attorney outlast the radio program, it also outlasted the eventual TV version as well, and by a long shot; the comic continued bi-monthly until 1959, more than a half decade after the other versions of the series had vanished.

Story One Synopsis:
Ah, this is nice. Each story starts off with a little narrator's box in the voice of Mr. District Attorney (that's "D.A." to his close friends, of course. Of which he has...none). That's a nice touch, though it's not quite as cool as if the note were from the writer, a la Charles Biro's often hysterical rants in Boy Comics. But anyway.

This first story looks as though it's ripped from today's headlines: a guy is at a diner and isn't paying attention to what he's doing and the next thing you know, he's spilled hot coffee all over himself. It sucks, but what are you going to do, right? Well, how about sue the owners? I had to double check that this was 1954, and not 2004, but there's one key difference -- in this story, the people doing the stupid things all pretty much agree it's their own fault. Instead, it's ambulance chasing lawyers who convince them to sue against their better thoughts. Now, of course, we just cut out the middle man.

Coffee burn man isn't the only Clumsy Clem in town, though, and we get a nice montage of people doing dumb things like falling down escalators, grabbing electrical generators and getting sick on roller coasters. Before you can say "Starbucks," a skeevy lawyer has swooped in and convinced them to sue. But that's not all; as Mr. District Attorney learns, the lawyers then pocket the settlement money, giving the victim's only a mere pittance, which they are happy to get because they figured they would have no chance of making anything since it was all their own stupid fault.

I guess it is 1954 after all. You can tell by the naivete.

Anyhoo, Mr. District Attorney comes up with a cunning plan: he has his assistant go undercover and purposely get in stupid accidents all over town in the hopes of drawing out a bad lawyer. Well, that sounds like a really bad, random plan, but okay. And funny enough, it actually totally fails. After a long day of clutzery, the assistant finally gives up and hails a cab -- only to accidentally get dragged down the street by the cabbie, who didn't see him getting in. Whoops! And, of course, ironically, it's the real accident that the lawyers spot.

After all this setup, we suddenly get an abrupt ending, which seemed to be the style back in the day: Mr. District Attorney follows the lawyers to the cabbie's garage, where he catches the lawyer tampering with the car in an attempt to jury rig some fake proof of wrongdoing to help his case. D.A. throws him in the clink and Nameless City U.S.A. is once again safe from ambulance chasers! Justice is served!!!


Story Two Synopsis: Things get off to a bang thanks to a suspicious fire. Luckily, Mr. District Attorney is on the scene and immediately sports the presumed perp just hanging out right there. That's always a handy way to solve crimes. Unfortunately, they have to airmail the fingerprints to Washington, D.C. in order to have his record checked and by the time they come back, the guy has already been sprung by a lawyer. Darn those inefficient 50's police techniques!

Of course, this won't do for a big cheese like D. A., so he comes up with the solution: they need to buy a new Fastphoto System to instantaneously check criminal records. The amazing device? Well, it's basically a giant fax machine! The astonishing futuristic machine is immediately put into play when a guy who looks a lot like a wanted fugitive comes into the station. The coppers only have an hour before the lawyers are allowed to free him on bail, so they need to get answers fast, see? Luckily, D. A.'s assistant is on hand to rush to a nearby town that actually owns a fax machine. After his car breaks down, he commandeers a horse and rides the rest of the way, faxes in the fingerprints and gets back the results just nine minutes and 34 seconds later: the bad guy is a crook, all right.

Meanwhile, time has expired, so the crook is being let out. Just then, though, Mr. District Attorney gets a call from his assistant with the good news and he throws the criminal back in the clink. Even better, there was a $5,000 reward for his capture, so the assistant can afford to buy a new car. being a paragon of justice, though, he decides to buy a fax machine for the town instead. Good work, son!


Story Three Synopsis: In this four page tale, which doesn't even have D. A. in it, a steward on a cruise ship realizes that a guy on board is smuggling diamonds inside a fake hairbrush. Naturally, the steward kills him and tosses him overboard, then absconds with the hairbrush. However, he's detained by custom's officials who realize he must be a smuggler because the hairbrush doesn't have any hair in it, so it's not actually being used as a hairbrush. Duh. They pop the false top, diamonds come out and that's all for the would be thief. I mean, that's really all, because the last panel says they executed him for murder. Can you get the death penalty for a crime that took place in international waters?


Story Four Synopsis: It's The Secret of Sound Stage Seven! Okay, this one starts out with some promise: a group of suspects in an unsolved murder are brought onto a movie set, where the scene of the crime has been perfectly replicated. Mr. District Attorney explains that they are filming a short called "Famous Unsolved Murders" and for the sake of authenticity, they are having the actual participants in the movie.

Just as he is explaining this -- and as we get some exposition showing what happened during the murder, where, during the typical convenient power outage, a weighted sap apparently flew through a window and clocked the victim -- the power goes out on the stage as well! Everyone kind of panics, but the lights come back on and D. A. reveals that the experiment is over because he now knows who the killer is!

At this announcement, the killer panics even more and makes a break for it, rushing out onto the set of another movie to try and escape. D.A., thinking quickly, shouts "Cut!" and everyone except the killer freezes in place, allowing the cops to easily locate the killer in the bustle.

So how did D.A. know who the killer was? The answer: he didn't, he just set the whole thing up sop he could pretend he knew in order to scare the killer into revealing himself. And by god, if it didn't work! The fact that this is probably the shoddiest crimesolving methodology in the history of law enforcement doesn't factor into things, thanks to the happy ending, but I can't be the only one wishing he had made his grand pronouncement only to have everyone just stare at him waiting for the answer as to who the killer was. It's fortunate that crooks in comics, TV shows and movies all seem to be total dumbasses.


Extras: Compared with issues of Boy Comics form the same time period, the ads seem more contemporary for some reason. The best of the bunch is a Hostess-style mini-comic featuring Abbott and Costello approaching two kids playing marbles to prevent one of them from gambling away his valuable popsicle sticks. There's also, as usual, two text pages, this time called "The Crime File," which is an almost Reader Digest-esque rundown of wacky crime stories, true or otherwise. Best of all, there's a section touting DC's "Editorial Advisory Board," which lists prominent educators and children's experts who are no doubt listed here in an attempt to convince worried parents that this comic isn't some kind of communist evil. And we all know how that turned out.

My Grades: As a historical artifact, the comic gets a B. The ripped from the headlines topicality of the ambulance chasers is maybe more interesting now than it was at the time, while the futuristic use of the fax machine in 1954 is awesome. Though why some podunk neighbor town already has one and a big city like Los Angeles still doesn't have one is beyond me (the city is not explicitly named here, but it was clearly identified in the TV show and made plain in the comic by the presence of the movie studio in the fourth story). The actual stories, though, get a D+ because they are some of the most boring and least entertaining I have read in recent memory. Hell, the main character doesn't even have a name for Pete's sake! I do like the cover design, which I would give a B as well, but my copy is coverless so I don't even get that out of the bargain. Overall, then, my final grade for this is a C- at best.

Bookmark and Share