So I seem to remember stating last time out that the Senate subcommittee hearings weren’t witch hunts. But that doesn’t mean that a witch hunt did not occur. Outside the even-headed bounds of Federal politics (where any kind of censorship law would, let’s face it, be a tough win for anyone), things were downright ugly for the comics industry. Comics creators found their social circles shrinking, as people no longer wanted to be associated with someone who worked in such a foul industry, peddling poison and smut to kids.
Stan Lee (who was working as a young writer/editor for Timely/Marvel at the time) has an even better story: he was once told off by the neighbor of one of his co-workers when the man found out that Lee was a comics editor (the co-worker being in the closet about what branch of commercial art he worked in). Later, the neighbor was arrested for smuggling guns to South American rebel armies. So even scumbag gun-runners thought that making comics was a reprehensible way to make a living!
But it didn’t stop with simple suburban ostracism. The mothers driven to action by Wertham and his fellow anti-comics spokesmen were particularly vociferous in public, too. Why just react when you can OVER-react, after all? More comic book burnings occurred, and a hue and cry went up that just kept building. This public outcry inspired political action, as well. In the two years following the Senate’s 1954 decision, something on the order of 14 states wound up passing some kind of legislation governing (or outright banning) the sale of crime and horror comics. Of course, they needn’t have bothered. By the end of 1954, the crime and horror books were already gone.
After the Senate decision, the comics industry lost no time in reacting. Forming a new trade association to replace the divided and already-discredited ACMP (Association of Comic Magazine Publishers), they called themselves the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). And, in another of the seemingly endless bits of irony that haunted the man throughout the 1950s, the CMAA’s founder was none other than EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines.
That‘s right. Gaines is indeed the man responsible for the formation of the CMAA. The organization was his idea. He made the phone calls and hosted the meetings. And though attendance was sparse at the first meeting, by the fourth, just about every major publisher in the industry was showing up. Gaines’ plan was to pool the industry’s resources to fund a counter-publicity and public relations campaign, consulting with pro-comics psychologists to clear the industry’s good name and try to come up with some sort of plan that would keep all of them in business. Of course, things didn’t quite go the way he planned. And by “quite,” I of course mean “not at all.”
Actually, that’s Gaines in later years, after the cultural revolution of the 60s allowed him to look the part of the rebel he’d been at heart ever since his ass hit the Senate’s interrogation chair. Here he is in the 50s, looking a bit more harried...
|...if less hairy.|
|I can't see why he was so upset...|
So when they voted to create the Comics Code Authority as a funnybook censorship board, and the first rule they came up with was to ban the words “Horror” and “Terror” from any Code-approved comic book title… Well, I don’t suppose anyone was terribly surprised. Except, of course, for Bill Gaines. “This is not what I had in mind,” he said, and walked out of the meeting.
|(When these are your two biggest sellers, after all, it’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall.)|
|Alright, you two! Party's over!|
|If only they hadn't written|
"CRIME" so big...
|I know what you're thinking.|
But since they're men, it's A-Okay!
4. Miscellaneous Naughty Things!
On the plus side, slurs and prejudice against religious and/or racial groups were forbidden, as was violence against women (two more points that Wertham had crusaded against). Not that there were a lot of Wife-Beating KKK funnybooks out there…
|Except this one.|
But, hey. At least they said those things were wrong.
Unfortunately, they also said no cussing, and no excessive use of slang. References to physical deformities were out, too, no doubt because of that Kirby freak show story they opened the Senate hearings with. You also couldn’t accept advertising for booze, smokes, guns, knives, fireworks, gambling equipment, nude artwork, or sex manuals. Which I’m sure broke a lot of hearts.
Only three major publishers declined to join the CMAA and present their comics for Code approval: EC, Dell, and Classics Illustrated. EC didn’t join for obvious reasons, but Dell just didn’t see a need. Their comics had retained their good reputation as wholesome entertainment for young children, and they‘d suffered few ill effects from the scandal. Classics Illustrated, meanwhile, felt that their connection to classic literature would save them (which it did). They may also have looked at those Code bylaws and realized that the works of, say, William Shakespeare couldn’t possibly pass, and so bowed out rather than embarrass both themselves and the Code.
But the rest of the industry signed up. Once they had their rules in place, the CMAA proposed offering control of the Authority‘s review board to none other than Dr. Frederic Wertham himself (!). Which is mind-boggling, but would have been a fantastic PR move. I couldn’t find any report on how that meeting went down, but I’d really love to know. Whatever happened, the CMAA and Wertham could not come to an agreement, and Wertham went on record as saying that the Code didn’t go far enough. Whether he meant that the guidelines weren’t stringent enough (which is a little crazy), or if he just wouldn’t be satisfied with anything other than actual legislation, is unknown. He may have simply been thinking about how poorly the original ACMP code was enforced, and assumed that they’d do the same thing all over again.
No such luck. With Wertham out of the picture, the CMAA turned instead to Charles F. Murphy, a New York City municipal court judge with a strong record of working with young people. They planned a press conference for September 16th, five months after the April Senate hearings. Getting wind of their plan, Bill Gaines planned his own, pre-emptive, press conference for two days earlier. In the months since the hearings, EC had been getting back bundle after unopened bundle of comics on return. Their books weren’t even making it to the shelf in most towns, and that was a situation that couldn’t continue. So on September 14th, Gaines announced that he was suspending publication on his entire crime and horror line, and starting over.
Then he said something even more interesting. He took the CMAA member companies to task for their (still-unannounced) plans, saying that they’d just be putting out the same old crime and horror books, but with “innocuous titles and pictures of clowns on the covers.”
|Personally, I think John Wayne Gacy Funnies would have been a big hit!|
Now, I have no idea if Gaines actually believed that, or if it was just a “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee” sort of cheap shot against his professional enemies. But it’s a really interesting statement in light of something DC Comics artist (and later editor) Carmine Infantino said years later about Comics Code head Charles Murphy: “He was hired to be a figurehead, like a rubber stamp … Even after the code was written up, it was supposed to be more of a symbol. Nobody thought he was going to come in and really enforce it.”
But enforce it he did. With extreme prejudice.
Which is what we’ll look at in Part Four...
The 1954 Comics Code Guidelines
The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu
This book is the reason it took me so long to write this chapter: I've been reading it for the last three days. It's not available for free as far as I know, but you can buy it pretty cheap right here. It's fascinating reading if you're any kind of funnybook historian. Most of the quotes in tonight's chapter are pulled directly from it.