Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Seduction of the Innocent”: The Comic Book Wars

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I discuss the controversy over comic books in the 1950s and the rise of Mad Magazine."


Many World War II soldiers had not left their teens, and they brought youthful reading habits with them to the front. Comic book publishers provided free copies of "Superman," "Batman," the detective series "Dick Tracy," and science fiction fare to appreciative servicemen during World War II. Many of these young men continued to feed their new comic book habit when they returned to the United States. The expanding youth market of the Baby Boom era supplemented veterans as the readership for comic books grew exponentially in the late 1940s and early 1950s. After the war, many comic books took a more sexual and violent turn. Perhaps frightened and deeply marked by the horrors of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war that had just broken out in Korea, young readers enjoyed escaping into the fantasy bloodshed regularly featured in the popular new “horror comics” like "Tales from the Crypt", "The Crypt of Terror," "The Vault of Horror" and "Weird," many published by EC, a company run by William M. Gaines.

The content of the horror comics reflected the youthful distrust of the phony pieties surrounding institutions such as marriage, the family, and even the “American Pastime.” In these stories, weaklings turn the tables on the strong, thus appealing to youths coping with schoolyard bullies or the random dictates of their parents. In one story, a housewife can no longer stand the tyranny of her obsessively neat, orderly husband. She murders him and when police arrive they see jars containing body parts labeled kneecaps (2), toes (10), heart (1), etc. The wife, Eleanor, tells a detective, “I remember wanting to show him I could be neat! I wanted it to be a neat job! I cleaned up everything when I finished!” In another horror tale, “Foul Play,” a ruthless baseball player murders an opponent by sliding into him with poisoned spikes. The victim’s teammates take revenge by dismembering the murderer and, during a ghoulish midnight game, using his limbs as bats and his organs as bases.

Gaines’ horror comics also published illustrated versions of budding science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury. His artists intentionally defied convention, drawing villains to resemble the pope and heroes to bear a striking resemblance to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Gaines also published "Mad Magazine," founded in 1952, which in its early years parodied other comic books like "Superman," the teenage comedy "Archie," and even Walt Disney’s "Mickey Mouse."

With the horror comics adding to the violent content common on television police dramas and Westerns, many figures like Dr. Frederic Werthem, a famous Freudian psychiatrist, began to warn of the alleged effects of popular culture on young people. Wertham’s 1954 book "The Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth" attacked comic books like "Batman" for the supposed subliminal homosexual relationship between the title hero and his youthful sidekick Robin. Werthem claimed that comic books glorified violence as a solution to all problems, and that the industry generally promoted juvenile delinquency and anti-social behavior with its illustrations of gore and scantily clad women. “All comic books with their words and expletives in balloons are bad for reading, but not every comic book is bad for children’s minds and emotions,” Werthem wrote. “The trouble is that the ‘good’ comic books are snowed under by those which glorify violence and crime.”

Pressure built up for policing the industry and a bill that passed the state legislature in New York, where most of the comic books were published. Had it become law, the bill would have regulated what themes and images could appear in such publications. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey vetoed the bill, but the controversy only increased after an issue of "Panic," another humor magazine like Mad published by William Gaines, released an issue with a cover illustration called “The Night Before Christmas.” The drawing featured Santa Claus in a sled decorated with a “Just Divorced” sign and a meat cleaver, two daggers and an ash can tied to the rear. New York City police arrested an EC comics staffer on charges of selling “disgusting” literature when they objected to the content of another Gaines publication.

A Senate investigating committee held a special hearing in New York City, and Gaines agreed to testify. On a diet that involved taking dexedrine, a stimulant that kept the publisher from sleeping, Gaines arrived at the hearings feeling groggy. Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee held up a cover of one EC comic and, pointing to its typically gory cover said, “This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?” Gaines replied, “Yes, sir, I do – for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so the blood could be seen dripping from it . . .” Gaines went on in more graphic detail oblivious to the shocked murmur building up in the hearing room. The next day journalists mocked Gaines’ claim that the cover was in good taste, with one, Max Lerner, concluding that, “This means that society is a jungle – a proposition we cannot accept.”

Fearing public backlash and the possibility of boycotts, comic book publishers responded to the New York hearings by forming the Comics Magazine Association of America, which in turn created the Comics Code Authority. The CCA would give or withhold from each issue of each comic book a seal of approval. To earn the seal, comic book stories could not in any way create sympathy for criminals; cause disrespect for police, judges, or other government officials; should always present good as triumphing over evil; and should never use lurid or gory images to accompany the content. The code forbade the words “terror” or “horror” in comic book titles, as well as scenes of bloodshed, cannibalism, or sadism. Urging his wholesalers not to submit to censorship, Gaines protested, “This is what our forefathers came to America to escape.” Gaines decided to stop publishing the horror comics, he claimed, because that’s what parents wanted, but he also knew that distributors and stores that sold comic books would no longer carry publications like "Tales from the Crypt."

With bland content now mandated voluntarily by the industry, comic book sales plummeted. For instance, in 1955, DC Comics (which published "Superman" and "Batman") sold 10.5 million copies of all its publications. Two years later, sales had dropped by more than fifty percent. Meanwhile, Gaines switched his focus to "Mad Magazine," which expanded its focus to satirize politics, television programs, popular music, social movements and advertising. Publishing "Mad" as a “magazine,” Gaines would not have to worry about compliance with the comic books code. Mad became far more rebellious and anti-establishment than any of the horror comics had ever been. Using famous comedy writers like Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Ernie Kovacs and Bob and Ray in addition to its usual staff writers, "Mad" became a major inspiration for later comedy television programs like "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" and the online newspaper parody "The Onion."


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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