Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Two: Funnybooks On Trial

So if you’ll recall our last episode, Dr. Frederic Wertham had lead a movement to clean up the funnybooks in the name of preventing juvenile delinquency. People got so worked up over it that, in 1954, the Senate called for hearings to investigate the question…

Opening Shots Fired Over Kirby’s Bow

The tone for the hearings was set by Richard Clendenen, Director of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, who went into some detail on a story called “Sanctuary” from an issue of Black Magic…
You will note that this shot shows certain inhabitants of this sanctuary which is really a sort of sanitarium for freaks where freaks can be isolated from other persons in society. You will note one man in the picture has two heads and four arms, another body extends only to the bottom of his ribs. But the greatest horror of all the freaks in the sanctuary is the attractive looking girl in the center of the picture who disguises her grotesque body in a suit of foam rubber. The final picture shows a young doctor in the sanitarium as he sees the girl he loves without her disguise. The story closes as the doctor fires bullet after bullet into the girl's misshapen body. Now, that is an example of a comic of the horror variety.
If I’d been a comics publisher in attendance, I might very well have crapped my pants right there.

But after that ominous opening, things lightened up a bit. The senators got into a pretty hysterical discussion of the comic strips they liked when they were kids, and briefly talked about whether the comics of the day were better or worse than the comics of their childhoods. For a few minutes there, it was like Fanboy Night at the funnybook store, albeit conducted in the very formal and wordy style of the period’s Senatorial discourse.

Overall, though, things looked pretty grim for comics. The gist of the anti-comics argument put forth was that comics were a very effective medium for education, so comics that dwelt on crime and violence would educate the children who read them in crime and violence, impeding social development and even inspiring abnormal sexual habits.

This wasn’t exactly an extremist view, either. A brief mention is made in the transcripts of a Chicago grocer who killed his family so he could run off with another woman. At his trial, he was described by the prosecutor as “an unfaithful husband, a deceiver of his mistress, and a comic reader.” Well, no wonder he killed his wife and kids!

Beyond the bad impression of the comics themselves, the anti-comics crowd was also quite suspicious of the comics industry as a whole. Publishers were taken to task not only for not policing content better, but for banding together behind lawyers and “so-called educators” to protect themselves, with the “good” publishers even stepping up to defend the “bad” publishers out of fear of government censorship.

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This kind of paranoia was rampant on both sides of the equation, though. There’s a very weird bit early on in the proceedings where the Senators discuss a strip given to them by William Gaines, EC’s publisher, called “Are You a Red Dupe?” It’s a one-page gag strip, suggesting that the anti-comics movement is actually a Communist plot. While Gaines obviously had an axe to grind, it’s equally obvious that the strip itself was only half-serious. The Senators took it very seriously, however, deciding that Gaines was attempting to stifle debate by calling his opponents Communists. This was only the first Gaines defense to backfire that day, but it may have done the most damage. The Senators seemed incensed at the notion, and they didn’t forget it when Gaines took the stand later on. 


Before the testimony started, more evidence and reports were entered into the record, including one from a comics reviewing group in Cincinnati that I found really fascinating. This group judged 418 separate series on grounds of artistic and cultural merit (including quality of art and grammar), morality (which was mostly concerned with the depiction of crime), and the degree to which they might inspire “morbid emotions” in children (which is to say, how much death and torture they showed).

Based on these criteria, comics were given ratings of No Objection, Some Objection, Objectionable, and Very Objectionable, and listed by rating. These lists are great fun for funnybook historians, not only as a snapshot of the variety of comics available pre-Code, but also just to see what books landed where.

Most of the books that received No Objection were funny animal and gag comics (my favorites of which are The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and something called Rhubarb, the Millionaire Cat). But it’s also interesting to note that Captain Marvel Adventures, Daredevil, Frontline Combat, and Star-Spangled War Stories made that list. Daredevil’s inclusion is particularly mind-boggling to a modern audience, considering how much that book featured the astoundingly racist “Yellow Peril” villain The Claw.

The Some Objection list is packed with romance comics, but it’s also where most of the adventure and war books landed, along with a smattering of super heroes, including Superman and Detective Comics. Oddly, Captain Marvel Jr. was also on this list; I guess Junior’s adventures were filled with more youthful sauciness than those of his senior partner. Or maybe it was a case of too much punching, not enough Tawky Tawny…

The list of Objectionable comics is far longer than any of the others, and is stacked heavy with war and western titles, though a few romance comics snuck in here as well (the provocatively-titled “Love Doctor” being my favorite). Most of the big super hero titles of the day fell here, too: Action Comics, Batman, Plastic Man, Doll Man, and even The Marvel Family. What, was Mary Marvel’s skirt too short? Or perhaps it was Hillbilly Marvel’s lack of shirt and shoes?

Of course, the most astounding thing to me
is that Doll Man still had his own comic in 1954!

The Very Objectionable list is about the same size as the first two, but it’s overwhelmingly packed with horror and crime comics. Virtually the entire EC line is there, of course, along with its numerous imitators. Most astonishing, though, is the appearance of Whiz Comics. Whiz was the original home of the Captain Marvel characters, making the Big Red Cheese the only character with a book on each of the four lists. I’m really curious about this one. Mac Raboy (primary artist on Captain Marvel Jr.) did have a character called Dr. Voodoo, I think, but… unless they thought it was a comic about pee, I can’t imagine what set the good people of Cincinnati off.

A second survey of 555 titles adjusted things slightly, with the super heroes getting off a little lighter. Whiz’s grade in particular improved, going all the way up to “Some Objection.” And that famous lesbian bondage freak Wonder Woman was found not to be objectionable at all.

The very picture of wholesome American womanhood!

But it’s obvious that the real concern of most people was with crime and horror comics, whose content was much more graphic. This also reflects the later Comics Code by-laws, which hit those books the hardest by far. Still, the conclusion of the Cincinnati report was pretty favorable for the funnybooks: “wholesale condemnation of comic books is unwarranted.” They found that 57.47% of the comics reviewed were suitable for small children and adolescents, while only 12.43% were judged as Very Objectionable, and thus they suggested that individual parents and retail outlets make their own judgments.

(An aside: Check out the sales figures they tossed out:
One of the youngest industries in America, the business of publishing comic books now includes the publication of more than half of all magazines published in this country. During the past year or so the distribution of comic books has been variously estimated at 60 to 80 million.
Holy. Crap. The industry would kill for numbers like that now. But more on declining sales later…)

Wertham Takes the Stand!

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Once testimony got underway, it was only a matter of time before our old friend Dr. Frederic Wertham too the stand. His testimony was pretty much what you’d expect, but there are some highlights. He brought the infamous “zombie baseball” story to the committee’s attention, intimated that the comics companies might try to interfere with distribution of his book (paranoid much, Doc?), and claimed that the philosophy of gangster character Kid Melton was the philosophy of the comics industry as a whole.


But  here's the real gem of the Wertham testimony:

“I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”

Ouch. You know how they say today that you've lost the argument when you compare your opponent to Hitler? Not so much the case in 1954...

William Gaines Shoots Himself In the Foot.

And how do you follow that up? Why, with the biggest offender in comics, of course! William Gaines was the publisher of EC Comics, the primary offender in the eyes of the anti-funnybook camp, and he came on like gangbusters with a prepared statement in defense of himself, and of the comics industry as a whole. The highlight is this:
Men of good will, free men should be very grateful for one sentence in the statement made by Federal Judge John M. Woolsey when he lifted the ban on Ulysses: ‘It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned.’ … Our American children are for the most part normal children. They are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action.
It was a valiant effort, a very eloquent statement on the right to free expression. But Gaines also made some pretty crucial mistakes. He compared Wertham to “a frigid old maid,” for example, and proudly declared himself the inventor of the horror comic. Which, considering the tone of the room from earlier in the day, probably wasn’t the best idea. On the whole, Gaines seemed smug and defensive, and the committee treated him like the pornographer they obviously thought he was.

When placed under such pressure, Gaines’ testimony fell apart. Wertham had in his testimony cited an EC story that he said taught race hatred. Gaines countered by saying that Wertham had misrepresented the story, which in actuality taught a powerful lesson against such hatred. The Senators immediately turned this against him, arguing that if a comic book story could teach a good lesson, it could also teach bad ones. Then they proceeded to trot out the bad ones. The most famous exchange came over this cover:

Senator KEFAUVER. Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

Mr. GAINES. 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 that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Senator KEFAUVER. You have blood coming out of her mouth.

Mr. GAINES. A little.

Senator KEFAUVER. There is blood on the ax. I think most adults are shocked by that.
There was blood on the hearing room floor, too. The “Are You a Red Dupe?” strip had raised the Senators’ ire, and they weren’t about to let Gaines off without a serious working-over. He collapsed under the pressure, allowing himself to get caught up in semantic arguments, and then defending images that weren’t really defensible within the frame of argument that had already been established. In later years, Gaines blamed his disastrous performance on a head cold he’d been fighting off, saying that the medicine had clouded his thinking. Whatever the case, his testimony was widely believed to have sunk the case for comics, and his fellow publishers were not amused.

(Comic) Strippers in Congress!

Then it was time for Walt Kelly and Milton Caniff to throw the entire comic book industry under the bus. Well… That’s a little harsh. They spoke on behalf of the National Cartoonist’s Society, an organization of newspaper comic strip artists, and came out against any sort of official censorship. But they also took pains to separate comic strips from comic books, and painted their work in an altogether positive light. When asked about the horror and crime comics covers that had been shown to Gaines earlier, they said that such work violated the code of their organization, and that any member who’d done such work would probably be kicked out. Kelly was charming, Caniff patriotic, and the Senators responded to them with a cordiality not afforded to Gaines.

It’s hard for me to feel too much animosity toward them, either. These guys were just out there minding their own business when all this happened, after all. Newspaper comics really were a whole different world than funnybooks, and the prospect that their work might be put under a microscope because of something they had nothing to do with... Well, that had to be off-putting.

And the Rest…

Though the real action had already taken place (from an historical perspective, anyway), another two days’ worth of testimony followed, much of it dealing with advertising and business practices. The Senators were particularly interested in the odd corporate structures of several of the comics publishers. And the question of whether or not retailers were punished by their distributors for not carrying comics they found objectionable became so heated that they had to open up a third day of hearings to figure it out (they didn’t).

More publishers and experts took the stand as well, with a Marvel representative getting grilled in a similar manner to Gaines over content issues, and a pro-comics psychologist getting blasted by Senator Kefauver because he was being paid by DC to make such statements. The representatives of Dell took Wertham apart with a simple statement of sales figures: Dell (who only did comics so wholesome that even Wertham had difficulty finding fault with them) typically sold nearly a million copies of each and every book they put out, while the crime and horror books only moved around 250,000. With such a predominance of “good” comics out there, they argued, why did the industry need any regulation at all?

(An aside: “ONLY” 250,000. In today’s market, that would be a hit like… Well, hell. NOTHING sells that well in today’s market. But, again, we’ll talk about declining sales later…)

At any rate. The transcript of the hearings (which I’ll link to below) is fascinating reading in places. The Senators were obviously repulsed by the content of the horror comics, but for the most part they were open to the idea that comics may not have much (or any) impact on juvenile delinquency. Much as the Gaines testimony would make it seem otherwise, this was far from a witch-hunt. So in the end, after all the testimony, all the recriminations, all the anger spewed forth on both sides of the debate, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency found that there was no need for any official action to be taken. They instead suggested that the industry find a way to police itself.

Which it did, in spades.

But that’s a story for Part Three, when we finally get around to the subject at hand, and this thing:


The 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency


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