Cover Your Eyes: the Graphic Horrors of 1950s Comics

Posted inPrint Design Articles
Thumbnail for Cover Your Eyes: the Graphic Horrors of 1950s Comics

Since this is Banned Books Week, I’ve come to bury Dr. Fredric Wertham, not to praise him. Wertham was an anti-comic book crusader who did some serious damage back in the 1950s. As an entertainment medium, comics were the digital devices of their day: Sales could be counted in hundreds of millions, and more than 80% of kids and 90% of teens were reading them. But in 1954 the devious doctor published Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that these 10¢, 4-color periodicals were actually leading these youths to lives of depravity and debauchery. It was the era of McCarthyism, rampant paranoia, and misplaced fears and blame. So a Senate Subcommittee hearing was held, and subsequently their quantity and quality, already a mixed bag with respect to writing and illustration, quickly declined.

Although Seduction essentially accomplished its goals, its text has continued to be challenged ever since, with increasing effectiveness. Most recently, research by University of Illinois professor Carol Tilley uncovered definitive proof that Wertham falsified crucial facts, distorted quotes, omitted relevant circumstances, and otherwise “played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics.” Bottom line: he lied, lied, lied. And now he no longer matters: Tilley has driven the final nail into his coffin.


But before we finally discard him, let’s take a final look look at his “cooked” comics condemnations. And of course, we should also review those sinister, seductive, 60-year-old pulp pages he picked out, in all their gory graphic glory.

The first installment of this story, which posted Monday, covered Wertham’s hit list of comic books dealing with subjects such as subliminal nudity, women’s “headlights,” and the fascism and homosexuality of DC superheroes; today we conclude with depictions of death, drugs and eyeball damage.

Wertham’s gone, but comics continue to be suppressed. Print will run an expanded feature on this topic, “An Uncensored Look at Banned Comics” from the 1950s to today, in its February 2014 issue.


True Crime #2

A typical comic-book drawing shows a blonde young girl lying in bed. She says: “Then I was dreaming, of murder and morphine.” This is a crime-comic-book dream. Murder, crime and drug traffic are offered to children in a literature which the defenders of comic books call the modern version of the stories of the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Mother Goose. But are there heroin addicts in Grimm, marihuana smokers in Andersen or dope peddlers in Mother Goose? And are there advertisements for guns and knives?





True Crime #2

Seduction caption: Pity was the keynote when Homer described a dead body dragged behind a war chariot. Dragging living people to death is described without pity in children’s comics.


Strange Worlds #2

Children have done deliberate harm to the eyes of other children, an occurrence which before the advent of crime comics I had never encountered among the thousands of children I examined. On a number of occasions I have asked juveniles who used homemade zip guns what harm they could do with so little power. I received prompt reply: “You shoot in the eye. Then it works.”

The children of the early 40s pointed out the injury-to-the-eye to us as something horrible. The children of 1954 take it for granted. A generation is being desensitized by these literal horror images. One comic shows a man slashing another man across the eyeballs with a sword. The victim: “MY EYES! I cannot see!”



Justice Traps the Guilty #13

The act most characteristic of the brutal attitude portrayed by comic books is to smack a girl in the face with your hand. Whatever else may happen, afterwards, no man is ever blamed for this. On the contrary, such behavior is glamorized as big-shot stuff in the context, and enhances the strength and prestige of the boy or man who does it.

In a comic book Authorized by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers this lesson is driven home. A young girl is being initiated as a confederate into the slot-machine protection racket. She sees how her friend beats up an old man, knocks off his glasses, etc. At first she does not like it. But later, after she had seen such brutal treatment repeated as routine in the racket, she says: “One gets accustomed to brutality after a while!” That is one instance where I agree with a comic-book character.



Dynamic Comics #1

Seduction caption to the top panel: Children told me what the man was going to do with the red-hot poker.


Authentic Police Cases #3

Another morbid fantasy is the idea of drawing
blood from a girl’s veins in order to overpower her completely. Outside of the forbidden pages of Sade himself, you find this fully described and depicted only in children’s comic books.



Weird Science #19

Seduction caption: A young girl on her wedding night stabs her sleeping husband to death with a hatpin when she realizes that he comes from a distant planet and is a “mammal.”


Spook #24

The average adult may not know much about the fact that there are men who are masochists and indulge in fantasies of a strong woman to whom they must act as slaves and who whips them if they do not carry out all her whims. Books for adults with detailed descriptions of sexual masochism and without artistic merit are considered pornographic. Masochism derives its name from the novelist Sacher Masoch who wrote such stories. Typical masochist fantasies that could be straight out of Sacher Masoch are offered to little boys and girls by the comic-book industry. In one story a baroness has two male slaves. They “obeyed her every whim while she lorded it over them with a savage tyranny!” The accompanying picture shows the baroness, whip in hand. She talks about forcing a man “to come to me on his knees” and speaks of him as “my willing slave.” In one scene which might be from a case history by Krafft-Ebing you see her whipping a man who is crouched on the floor: “So! You dare to kiss me, do you, you dog? Take that! and that!”

Many years ago, as a postgraduate medical student, I listened to lectures on the psychopathology of sex. I did not think then that one day I would have so much difficulty in convincing people that what I learned there about sick adults was not the best reading matter for healthy children!



Mysterious Adventures #11

A counterpart to the girl who dreams about murder and morphine is the equally blonde girl in another comic book who muses over a cigarette: “I like to remember the past!… It was so wonderful!”

What was “so wonderful”? This girl was the young wife of a Nazi concentration-camp guard. You see him hit a half-nude prisoner with a truncheon while she says: “Hit him again, Franz! Make him bleed more! Hit him!”

Evidently the industry thinks that some children learn slowly, for the same scene is repeated in a close-up: “Hit him some more, Franz! Hit him!… Make him bleed more, Franz! Make him bleed!” And later she says: “I like to remember the prisoners suffering, the beatings and the blood!”

In one of the pictures of this story there are three balloons with the exclamation “HEIL HITLER!” This comic book appeared at about the time when a group of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys had a “Nazi stormtrooper club” in which every prospective member had to hit a Negro on the head with a brick.



Black Cat Mystery #36

The mothers are not complacent. They are put in a difficult position. They have been told not to worry about comic books, but to read them aloud with their children. Let’s go along with Mrs. Jones as she tries to follow this advice. Her son is seven years old, so she selects a comic book which is obviously for children: it has full-page advertisements showing forty-four smiling and happy children’s faces. This, she thinks, must be just the thing to read aloud to her child. So she starts with the cover, The Battle of the Monsters! She describes the cover to her son. It shows an enormous bestial colored human being who is brandishing a club and carrying off a scared blonde little boy in knee pants. Then she goes on to the first story:

“LOOK!! Their bodies are CRUMBLING AWAY!!”



Mamma has some difficulty in pronouncing these speeches. But her difficulties increase when in the course of the story a man encounters a big serpent: “WH-AWWGG-HH-H!!! YAAGH-H-H-H!”

She goes on, however, and comes to a picture where a yellow-haired man mugs the dark-hued monster from behind: “AARGH-H-H!!!”

Mrs. Jones thinks perhaps she had better switch to another story. So she turns a few pages and begins “Whip of Death!”



There is a picture of a boy tied to a mast with the captain lashing him so furiously that his bare body is criss-crossed with marks. The boy dies of this beating.

Mrs. Jones gives up. She realizes that she will never comprehend the new psychology which defends comic books and she decides that if the child-psychiatry and child-guidance experts say Bobby needs this to get rid of his “aggressions” he has to go through with it alone. She can’t take it.



Black Cat Mystery #39 andShock SuspenStories #4

When you first meet Dr. Payn, he is in his laboratory wearing a white coat. On a couch before him lies a blonde young woman with conspicuous breasts, bare legs and the lower part of her skirt frazzled and in tatters, as if she had been roughly handled in strenuous but unsuccessful attempts to defend her honor.

Next you see him lying in wait for another beautiful girl. He cuts off her shapely legs. You see her lying on the cobble-stoned street without her legs while he rushes off on the side walk carrying them in his arms. Then you see him gloating over these lovely legs in his laboratory…

When the decision of Governor Dewey and the lack of decision of Senator Kefauver had given the green light to the comic-book industry, they went ahead full steam. Now no holds are barred. Horror, crime, sadism, monsters, ghouls, corpses dead and alive – in short, real freedom of expression. All this in comic books addressed to and sold to children.

To whom is such a story as Dr. Payne addressed? This comic book has letters from readers. One says: “I enjoy your books very much and read them in bed at night before I go to sleep. I am eleven years old.” When I read this I could not help being reminded of a typical defensive article about comic books in Parents’ Magazine in which the author says: “Maybe I just don’t catch all these subtle symbols of erotism, sadism and worse which comics reputedly contain.”

In the lust-murder story of Dr. Payn the criminal was a doctor. In another comic book the criminal is a police lieutenant. He kills his wife by deliberately running over her with his car. At the end he is undetected and completely unsuspected, and presumably lives happily ever after. Six pictures on one page show this policeman-murderer lighting and smoking a cigar, walking triumphantly, with the full knowledge that crime does pay.

He goes free because at the police station an innocent man is tortured into making a confession. The child reader is spared no details. The man is punched in the stomach, hit in the face, his arm twisted behind his back.

“It went on like that for hours! His clothes were torn – his nose bleeding – his face battered and bruised! Other detectives took over! They worked in shifts – pummeling – threatening – cursing!”

“N-NO-MORE! I . . . I . . . DID IT! P-PLEASE! sob . . . sob! NO-MORE!”

The very last picture in this child’s story shows the real murderer, the police lieutenant, smoking his cigar and “cleaning his wife’s blood from his car.”

Stories like this are now so typical that I could go on and on.


Crime SuspenStories #20

Seduction caption: Cover of a children’s comic book.


Beware #6

Seduction caption: Children are first shocked and then desensitized by all this brutality.


Haunt of Fear #19

Seduction caption: A comic book baseball game. Notice the chest protector and other details in the text and pictures.


Eerie #9 and Eerie Adventures #1

Although in many children’s lives comic books play a role, no adult court, no children’s court, has ever made or ordered a full inquiry in a child’s case. But when the publishers of the comic book Eerie sued the publisher of the comic book Eerie Adventures for using the word eerie on the cover, the New York Supreme Court gave a learned and comprehensive opinion bristling with details and citations: Justice Frank arrived at the truly Solomonic verdict that both publishers could use the word; but that the second publisher must print it “reduced in size.” If the psychological effects on children would receive the same meticulous concern as the financial interests of publishers, some court would have long since ordered that what has to be “reduced” is not the eerie title but the eerie contents!”


Wanted #35

Many comic books describe how to set fires, by methods too various to enumerate. In some stories fire-setting is related just as a detail; in other stories such as “The Arson Racket” the lesson is more systematic.


Howdy Doody #6

Take one that looks even more harmless [than Hopalong Cassidy], Howdy Doody. I discussed this with a group of white and colored children. Their reaction was partly giggling, partly inhibited. The book depicts colored natives as stereotyped caricatures, violent, cowardly, cannibalistic and so superstitious that they get scared by seltzer tablets and popping corn and lie down in abject surrender on their faces before two little white boys.



Dagar #21

In many comic books dark-skinned people are depicted in rapelike situations with white girls. One picture, showing a girl nailed by her wrists to trees with blood flowing from the wounds, might be taken straight from an illustrated edition of the Marquis de Sade. …

In another comic book the hero throws bombs and a Negro from his airplane. A picture shows the bombs and the Negro in mid-air while the hero calls out: BOMBS AND BUMS AWAY!



All-Top #14

caption to lower right panel: Corpses of colored people strung up by their wrists.


Harvey Comics Library #1: Teen-Age Dope Slaves

When adolescent drug addiction had finally come to public attention, it led to the publication of lurid new comic books devoted entirely to the subject, like the one with the title, Teen-Age Dope Slaves. This is nothing but another variety of crime comic of a particularly deplorable character.


Haunt of Fear #17

Many children, when asked what comic books they like, answer simply like the ten-year-old who reads ten a week, “I like murder comics.”

One of the horror-type comic books for children is called Nightmare, A Psychological Study. It is about a young man who mixes up nightmares with reality and dies a horrible death, buried when the cement foundation of a building is poured over him. He has received incompetent advice from a psychiatrist, Dr. Froyd, who, on his office door is called “Dr. Fredric Froyd, psychiatrist.”



Lolita Book

Fear and Hunger in Japan: On Anthony Bourdain’s Last Graphic Novel
7 Best Vintage Comics Revelations: A Designer’s Report
Hooray for Twisted, Filthy, Disgusting Comic Books!
02/06/2014: Cuban film posters
The Comics that Corrupted Our Kids!

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.

View all posts by Michael Dooley →