It is probably safe to say that just about every comic book fan has some idea of the strange hysteria that surrounded comic books in the United States in the 1950s. The name “Wertham” is, to this very day, invoked like a bogeyman in comics circles (you’ll notice that I myself did so here). What most of us probably don’t know is much of the real history of it all. The tale of the panic inspired by Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the congressional hearings that followed are a kind of comics culture mythology, with the testimony of Bill Gaines before the subcommittee in particular acquiring its own strange legendary status. David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague is particularly informative and enlightening, dispelling the mythology and relating what really happened in those days. Dr. Frederic Wertham earns his bogeyman status, no doubt, but there was a great deal more to the story. The astounding thing is that the truth, in this case, is much more frightening than the myth.
Hajdu starts with a brief but fairly comprehensive history of the comics, beginning with the circa-1900 debut of comic strips as a circulation grab in the New York newspapers and their status as the lowest of “low” arts, continuing on through the creation of the periodical comic book as a compilation of newspaper strips and then on to the key turning point, Lev Gleason and Charles Biro’s creation of Crime Does Not Pay in 1942. It is here that the story truly begins.
Comics publishers have always been followers of trends and fads, never moreso than in the early days of the medium. Superman made a splashy debut in 1938, Batman followed in 1939, and soon every comics publisher was flooding the stands with men in tights, only a handful of whom are remembered today. As that first superhero fad died out in the post-War years, publishers soon picked up on the popularity of Crime Does Not Pay, and the stands were every bit as flooded with “crime” books as they had been with superheroes before. Crime gave way to romance, and romance quickly gave way to horror. Whatever was selling for one publisher, every other publisher quickly imitated.
I was surprised to learn that it was that first wave of crime comics that really started the anti-comics movement. The more famous furor surrounding Gaines’ EC horror line and its imitators was actually a second wave of the hysteria. It was during this period that Wertham first noticed comics, which may explain the odd fact that, as Hajdu notes, to Wertham, just about every comic – from Superman to the Crypt-keeper – was a “crime comic.” During a time of relative peace and undeniable prosperity, people searching for problems to rail on hit on “juvenile delinquency,” and in searching for the cause of the specious problem, they discovered the specious cause of comic book reading, in which children were supposedly exposed to such crime and depravity that they themselves were driven to become depraved criminals. The title of this post comes from a typically hyperbolic headline of the era, from the Hartford Courant story on those evil comic books.
Hajdu describes something truly horrifying, something that most people probably don’t really know or remember these days. During that first wave of anti-comics hysteria, children, ostensibly civic-minded teenagers, helped lead the drive to gather up comics in their towns and neighborhoods…and burn them. In public. The phrase “book burning” immediately brings to mind images of Nazi Germany, of course, but only a few short years after the War, community leaders right here in the United States from coast to coast were enthusiastic supporters of public book burnings, too. One could certainly say and even believe that the First Ammendment is meant to protect meaningful and important things, that comic books were trash not worthy of the protection afforded by that august document, the Bill of Rights, and many people, then as now, would undoubtedly make that argument. But Hajdu’s evocative description of crowds gathered to watch as ideas – trashy ideas though they may be – are piled in an incinerator and doused with gasoline, and to applaud as an impressionable child puts a match to it all and a pile of books goes up in flames gave me chills.
One of the best aspects of the book is Hajdu’s relating of the story of Bill Gaines. He spent the War years in the Army but stateside, after which he was well on his way to becoming a chemistry teacher, a respectable profession if ever there was one, when circumstances forced him into taking over his father’s publishing company, at the time known as Educational Comics and the publisher of Picture Stories from the Bible. Gaines quickly transformed EC into Entertaining Comics, publisher of Mad and Tales from the Crypt and one of the most popular and influential publishers of the era. Gaines’ transformation from chem teacher to the man who appointed himself the Defender of Comics during the congressional hearings of 1954 is very intriguing, as he discovers the power and fascination of the comics medium.
Though the book is history, its applicability to contemporary society should be obvious. Though periodical comics don’t have nearly the circulation they once did, nor the popularity with children they once did, the spectre of censorship remains ever-present. Comics could certainly fall prey to it once again, as the idea that comics are primarily a children’s medium is losing steam but remains slow to dissipate. I was strongly reminded, though, of the things we still hear from society’s self-appointed moral guardians today. I was reminded of Tipper Gore and the PMRC and of people blaming video games and Marilyn Manson in the wake of the Columbine shootings. Today, Jack Thompson has become every bit the bogeyman to video game culture that Wertham was and is to comic books, employing if not word-for-word then certainly idea-for-idea the same fallacious logic and tenuous grasp of the difference between correlation and causation:
“Our researches have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime-comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency.” – Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent
“In every school shooting, we find that kids who pull the trigger are video gamers.” – Thompson, on ABC News 20/20
American society is full of these sorts of guardians and has been at least since the late 19th century with the advent of popular entertainments such as “dime novels.” The specific type of entertainment or medium against which they rail changes, but their words and actions never do. What Hajdu relates in The Ten-Cent Plague is the rare case in which the supposed moralists succeeded – not in eliminating or even reducing juvenile delinquency or any other sort of crime, but in forcing an entire industry, an entire medium of expression, to self-censor and conform to their own smug and self-important standards of what was proper and appropriate.
It’s a story every bit as terrifying as anything that Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Jack Davis could possibly have imagined to print in Tales from the Crypt.