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…
If I’d been a comics publisher in attendance, I might very well have crapped my pants right there.
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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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.
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!|
(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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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?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.
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.
(Comic) Strippers in Congress!
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…
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…)
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