Simon and Kirby tried to vary the type of crime that was portrayed in their stories. But of course they could write very different stories that deal with the same type of crime. So there are multiple gangster, western outlaw and other stories. But there was one crime category that Joe and Jack only dealt with once in their crime comics, treason. It probably should not be surprising that treason was so rarely featured in the stories. After all it is not what one normally comes to mind when you think of crime. What is truly odd is that it was not treason against the United States that Simon and Kirby wrote about but against England. For “Burned at the Stake” is about the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and others to blow up the English King and his parliament. Perhaps the reason Simon and Kirby selected this story is that Guy Fawkes seems to have generated the greatest public reaction to a traitor. Sure everyone in America knows of Benedict Arnold but when was the last time he was hung in effigy? In England Guy Fawkes’ effigy has been hung and burned on November 5th for the last 400 years!
While Simon and Kirby’s version of the gunpowder plot is relatively accurate, it completely leaves out the religious background. There is no mention of the Protestant faith of England’s rulers or the difficulties faced by the Catholic minority. One might accept Simon and Kirby’s assertion that Fawkes went to Flanders to seek glory, but only religion would explain why he joined the Catholic Spanish side against the Protestant Dutch Republic. As Simon and Kirby present it, the leaders of the plot objections to King James I seems based on little more than personality. Also there appears to be no explanation for Guy Fawkes’ joining the plotters other than something akin to a lark. Some understanding of the religious issues is needed to make the whole story comprehensible but nowhere is that subject mentioned by Simon and Kirby.
Joe and Jack’s handling of Guy Fawkes is very out of place with the treatment typically reserved for traitors. Fawkes is by no means a sneaky or cowardly villain but an individual to be admired, even if reluctantly. When discovered by the King’s guards, Fawkes puts up a valiant but unsuccessful fight to avoid capture. Afterwards Guy refuses to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators even under extensive torture. The only glaring inconsistency is Fawkes’ gallows confession of guilt. Guy was said to have repented but since history is written by the winners one wonders how accurate testimony of that confession was. But this story is in a crime comic and American morality of that day required that “crime never pays” (which phrase Simon and Kirby conclude the story).
I have previously discussed the double page splash for this story (The Wide Angle Scream, It’s a Crime). Until recently Guy Fawkes has not occupied much of a place in the American conscious. That is not true for the English, I once worked with a lady originally from England who despite being Catholic took part in November 5 celebrations. However Americans were re-introduced to Fawkes through Alan Moore’s graphic novel “V for Vendetta” and the movie based on it.