Kids these days, with their violence and gunplay and perverse sex. We’d all be so much better if only they didn’t have access to those video games and that nasty music and those awful movies and blah blah blah. Thus goes the scapegoating just as it always has.
Back in the early 1950s, comic books were the Grand Theft Auto of the day, a “fall guy” along with rock ‘n’ roll for a nation looking for simplistic explanations for complex societal problems. And so, our nation’s youth was just a dime’s purchase away from juvenile delinquency, mental illness and much, much worse.
The various efforts to ban comics over the decades was a hot topic at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Charles Brownstein conducted a full series over all four days, which culminated with a “Banned Comics Jam” to raise money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, for which he is Executive Director. And Craig Yoe zoomed into the 1950s with a presentation titled “Pre-Code Comics’ Worst Horror: Dr. Fredric Wertham!” The “Code” was the Comics Code Authority, an industry self-regulatory agency. And the scary doctor was the author of the most notorious anti-comic book book ever written, 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent.
Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist, was pivotal in the crippling and killing of comics titles and companies in the 1950s. He was also a cause of controversy earlier this year, as evidence emerged that he “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence.”
And so, as we enter Banned Books Week, it’s time to take a fresh look at the text of this nearly 60 year old document—and naturally, at those evil, decadent comics he referenced —for a contemporary perspective on just how graphic these images actually were.
Some stories were literate, clever, well illustrated and worthy of respect; the EC line, for example. But many others were vulgar and poorly drawn, with gratuitous violence and crude depictions of women and minorities. Obviously, parents should—and must—decide what their children are exposed to, and at what ages. But instituting formal censorship is another matter entirely.
This is the first of two parts. Read the conclusion, with pages of eye injuries, Nazi vampires and teenage dope fiends, here.
This article is also a sampling of a full-length feature story on banned comics from the 1950s to today, which will appear in Print’s February 2014 issue.
Seduction of the Innocent page spread; caption to the Phantom Lady cover: Sexual stimulation by combining “headlights” with a sadist’s dream of tying up a woman.
[Another] confession comic book is the reincarnation of a previous teen-age book with an innocuous title. That one was, despite its title, one of the most sexy, specializing in highly accentuated and protruding breasts in practically every illustration. Adolescent boys call these headlight comics. This is a very successful way to stimulate a boy sexually. In other comic books, other secondary sexual characteristics of women, for example the hips, are played up in the drawing.
Jon Juan #1
Just as some crime comics are especially marked on the cover “For Adults Only” (which of course entices children even more), so some of the love-confession comics are marked “Not Intended For Children.” And just as there were supermen, superwomen, superboys and super-ducks, so the industry now supplied a “super-lover.” Studying these love-confession books is even more tedious than studying the usual crime comic books. You have to wade through all the mushiness, the false sentiments, the social hypocrisy, the titillation, the cheapness.
Crimes by Women #3
In no other literature for children has the image of womanhood been so degraded. … The activities which women share with men are mostly related to force and violence. I admit they often use language—”advanced,” I suppose—which is not usually associated with women. Dr. Richmond Barbour mentions an example: “‘Try this in ya belly, ya louse’ the young lady says as she shoots the uniformed policeman in his midsection. Scantily dressed, thighs and breasts exposed, she is leading three similar gun-girls. One has been shot and she is falling. Another girl shoots at the police with a revolver and mutters, “Here’s one fer luck!”
Reform School Girl
Seduction caption: Comic books are supposed to be like fairy tales.
Out of This World Adventures #2
While we were carrying out our investigations on the effects of comic books, gathering more and more cases, following up old ones and analyzing the new comic books themselves, there were changes going on. Not that crime comics got any better—that was believed only by those who did not study them.
One interesting new development was that whole comic books and comic-book stories appeared in other publications that did not look like comic books from the outside. Sometimes a comic book would be sold as a comic as usual, but would also appear, without its cover, in an ordinary magazine. Thus the reader is relieved of the trouble of tackling connected text and can peruse at least some of the stories in the magazine by the simple picture-gazing method appropriate to the comic book format. Or maybe the idea is that the young adult readers of such a magazine have barely graduated from comic books and find regular reading too hard. A regular twenty-five-cent pulp magazine, for example, has in the middle of it a whole sexy science-fiction comic book, which alone and under a different title sells for ten cents. When the enticing blonde heroine says: Keep those paws to yourself, space-rat! the magazine reader can save himself the effort of reading. It is clear from the picture what is meant. The magazine prints some enthusiastic responses from readers to the comic-book section innovation.
“Your comic section is wonderful,” writes one. “Being only 16 years old,” writes another, “I just love your illustrated section. Please make it longer.”
Weird Mysteries #7
Seduction caption to the “With plenty to offer…” panel: Indeed!
Seduction caption to the bite panel: Sex and blood.
Authentic Police Cases #6
Seduction caption: An invitation to learning.
Some of the ordinary comic books have illustrations revealing crude sexual details if you look at them in a certain way. The shoulder of a man with a red scarf around his neck shows a girl’s nude body. This is so clear that it can induce the immature reader to look for such things and stir him up sexually.
Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: “Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.” It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.
As to the “advanced femininity,” what are the activities in comic books which women “indulge in on an equal footing with men”? They do not work. They are not homemakers. They do not bring up a family. Mother-love is entirely absent. Even when Wonder Woman adopts a girl there are Lesbian overtones.
Women Outlaws #1
Seduction caption to the “Lousy! Filthy!” panel: Giving children an image of American womanhood.
Black Cat #27
In the Black Cat stories, the superwoman in ordinary life is a young girl like any other. But when she goes into action, she is “Black Cat” and has donned a sort of Superman uniform. In a story called “Mr. Zero and the Juvenile Delinquent” a little boy is mercilessly beaten and is about to be kicked, as he lies helplessly on the floor, when Black Cat intervenes. On an educational page in the same book she gives good advice for violence as instruction for self-defense: “Swing the upper part of your body forward while slamming the edge of your left hand against his larynx. The impact will knock him down.” At least!
Crime Smashers #1
The great attraction of crime comic books for children is alleged to be continuous fast action. There may be some. But when the stories come to details of a delinquency or depiction of brutality, the action slows noticeably. A typical example, vintage autumn, 1950: In one story there are thirty-seven pictures, of which twelve (that is, one in three) show brutal near rape scenes.
The educational page, skipped by many children, pointed with pride by the publishers and approved (but not sufficiently scrutinized) by parents and teachers, could conceivably contain a counterstimulant to the violence of the stories, but often it just gives some historical rationalization of it.
In a jungle comic book what does the educational page show? This one is entitled “The First Americans.” A young girl in modern evening dre
ss, her wrists chained to a tall upholstered structure so that she leans backward in a recumbent position revealing the full length of her legs, with a definite erotic suggestion, is being menaced with a big knife held by a gruesome masked figure: “At harvest and planting time they would cut out the heart of a living victim.” In other words, the education to sadism permeating this whole book is here fortified in the guise of history.
In the jungle books the jungle is not really a place but a state of mind. It is easily transposed into outer space in the interplanetary and science-fiction books. The girls are similarly dressed and similarly treated. Torture is more refined. If someone is to be blinded it is done with some extra-scientific instrument: “Now, ye Maid of Auro, reveal where the thorium has been hidden or my electric prong will burn the eyes from your pretty head.”
If a medical student had to write a paper for his psychopathology class on the varieties of sadistic fantasies and sadistic acts, he could cover the whole field by studying just what is in our children’s comics. In a comic book, typically full of blood, violence and nudity, the erotic hanging theme is exploited. The average reader, of a generation not brought up on comics, may not realize the connection between sex and hanging, with one of the typical perverse fantasies for wishing to hang an undressed girl and watch her struggles. But this is made abundantly clear to children in their daily reading matter. In one story a man “kills for sport.” There is a sequence with illustrations of half-nude girls where he makes this comment:
“Ho-Ho! What a hangman I make! The police are blundering fools! But I am an artist!”
“My noose will fit around that pretty’s neck!”
In the next picture the blonde girl, clad in a noose, a bra and Bikini trunks is hanging from a tree. And you see her again, hanging “in a death struggle.”
Brenda Starr v.2, #4
First of all there is the cover. It is always printed on much better paper than the rest of the book, and of course has much larger print and the colors stand out more glaringly and forcefully. The title also counts for a lot. The scene depicted on the cover is usually violent. It is intended to catch the child’s attention and whet his appetite.
For example, in a comic-book reprint of a newspaper comic strip—the cover shows a scene which does not occur at all in the strip. In transforming this comic strip, intended chiefly for adults, to a comic book for children, this scene is added: A young woman with prominent breasts and nude legs is lying on a cot. Her lips are rouged, her hair falls loosely in masses over her bare shoulders and her face has a coquettish expression.
This is supposed to be the scene of a surgical operation! There are two white-gowned and white-capped men beside her, one about to put a chloroform mask over her face, the other holding scissors in his right hand and in his left a knife whose sharp blade is surrounded with a yellow zigzag halo (used in comic books as a rule to designate the effects of cutting or shooting). The whole scene has nothing to do with medicine and is unmistakably sadistic.
The Superman group of comic books is superendorsed. A random sample shows on the inside cover the endorsement of two psychiatrists, one educator, one English professor and a child-study consultant. On the page facing this array is depicted a man dressed as a boy shooting a policeman in the mouth (with a toy pistol). This is a prank—”Prankster’s second childhood.”
Actually, Superman (with the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and “foreign-looking” people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasy themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them—by force.
Superman not only defies the laws of gravity, which his great strength makes conceivable; in addition he gives children a completely wrong idea of other basic physical laws. Not even Superman, for example, should be able to lift up a building while not standing on the ground, or to stop an airplane in mid air while flying himself.
Superboy rewrites American history… In one story he helps George Washington’s campaign and saves his life by hitting a Hessian with a snowball. George Washington reports to the Continental Congress: “And sirs, this remarkable boy, a Superboy, helped our boys win a great victory.”
One third of a page of this book is a picture of Washington crossing the Delaware—with Superboy guiding the boat through the ice floes. It is really Superboy who is crossing the Delaware, with George Washington in the boat. All this travesty is endorsed by the impressive board of experts in psychiatry, education and English literature.
Comic books adapted from classical literature are reportedly used in 25,000 schools in the United States. If this is true, then I have never heard a more serious indictment of American education, for they emasculate the classics, condense them (leaving out everything that makes the book great), are just as badly printed and inartistically drawn as other comic books and, as I have often found, do not reveal to children the world of good literature which has at all times been the mainstay of liberal and humanistic education. They conceal it. The folklorist, G. Legman, writes of comic books based on classics, “After being processed in this way, no classic, no matter who wrote it, is in any way distinguishable from the floppity-rabbit and crime comics it is supposed to replace.”
Famous Authors #6: Macbeth
Another important feature of a crime comic book is the first page of the first story, which often gives the child the clue to the thrill of violence that is to be its chief attraction. This is a psychological fact that all sorts of children have pointed out to me.
Macbeth in comic book form is an example. On the first page the statement is made: “Amazing as the tale may seem, the author gathered it from true accounts”—the typical crime comic book formula, of course. The first balloon has the words spoken by a young woman (Lady Macbeth): “Smear the sleeping servants with BLOOD!”
To the child who looks at the first page “to see what’s in it,” this gives the strongest suggestion. And it gives the whole comic book the appeal of a crime comic book. As for the content of this Macbeth, John Mason Brown, the well-known critic, expressed it in the Saturday Review of Literature: “To rob a supreme dramatist of the form at which he excelled is mayhem plus murder in the first degree… although the tale is murderous and gory, it never rises beyond cheap horror… What is left is not a tragedy. It is trashcan stuff.” It is interesting that what adult critics deduce from the whole book, children sense from the first balloon. They know a crime comic when they see one, whatever the disguise.
Classics Illustrated #43: Great Expectations
There is a comic book which has on its cover two struggling men, one manacled with chains locked around hands and feet, the other with upraised fist and a reddened, bloody bandage around his head; onlookers: a man with a heavy iron mallet on one side and a man with a rifle and a bayonet on the other. The first eight pictures of this comic book show an evil-looking man with a big knife held like a dagger threatening a child who says: “Oh, don’t cut my throat, sir!” Am I correct in classifying this as a crime comic? Or should I accept it as what it pretends to be—Dickens’ Great Expectations?
Classics Illustrated #13: Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
A fourteen-year-old boy in the eighth year at school, with a second-grade reading level, says that he has read the “classics” version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “It is called The Mad Doctor. He makes medicine. He drinks it and turns into a beast. He kills a little girl. The cops chase him. Then he changes into a man. He comes to a famous home and falls in love with a girl. He keeps changing. Finally he gets shot. While dying he changes back to a human being. I like when he comes to the little girl and hits her with a cane.”
Classics Illustrated #10: Robinson Crusoe
Typical is the case of the eleven-year-old boy of superior intelligence, from a good social and economic background, who exhibited the “classics” comic-book version of Robinson Crusoe with these words: “Why should I read the real book if I have this? If I had to make a report I could use this. It would leave out all the boring details that would be in a book.”
photo of Dr. Wertham by Gordon Parks.
The Story of a Cover Girl
by John Bertram & Yuri Leving
About Michael Dooley
Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.