Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Four: "You Can't Have a Negro"

In our last episode: Driven by increasing public outcry over the content of crime and horror comics, the comics industry enacted the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board designed to ease concerns. But things didn’t go quite as anyone planned…


Judge Murphy Walks the Funnybook Beat

So the CMAA sacrificed Bill Gaines and EC Comics on the altar of public opinion, and attempted to appease their critics by putting the Comics Code into effect in September of 1954. Their chosen administrator, Charles Murphy, immediately set about spending the Code’s $100,000 annual budget on setting up offices and hiring a staff of five (all women, all college graduates, as the CMAA proudly advertised) to begin the task of reviewing every comic put out by every member publisher. They were set up and ready to go by October, and immediately gave the industry the shock of its life by enforcing the Code, to the letter.

The first few months of Code oversight were chaos. Stories were being submitted for approval so close to deadline that there was no time to re-draw offending panels, leading to some very clumsy, very unprofessional edits. If a female character’s dress was deemed too revealing, or her breasts too large, they just slapped some ink over her and went to press. If they were told that a character couldn’t use a weapon in a fight, it got whited out, leaving the impression that the combatants were beating each other to a pulp using nothing but empty air. 

Not all of the changes lead to such clumsy censorship, of course. The Marvel/Timely Western character The Rawhide Kid had to stop using the bullwhip which was the source of his name, and become a farmer between adventures. Nobody was immune to the requests, either. Even artists at Archie, the company of CMAA president John Goldwater, were told to lower the hems and loosen the blouses on Betty and Veronica. And for some reason, any number of panels were changed to remove perspiration from characters’ brows. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what Code by-law prevented sweat. Perhaps it put the censors in mind of some sort of grunting sexual exertion. Or perhaps they thought that the depiction of any bodily fluid, no matter how commonplace, was inappropriate. 

(An aside: I always wondered about the perspiration thing. When I first saw some of the old ECs reprinted in college, there was sweat all over the place. But it seemed like nobody ever sweated a drop in the funnybooks I grew up reading. Not even in the street-level books of the 70s. And if there was ever a sweaty decade, it was the 70s…)

Sweet Christmas! You'd think at least one of these dudes would be sweating!

All-told, in the first two months of its existence, the Code reviewed 440 issues of 285 separate series. Of those, they rejected 126 stories outright and requested changes to 5,656 panels of art. In addition, 38 series were simply cancelled because they couldn’t meet Code requirements.

Clearly, nobody expected to be held to the Code guidelines so very closely, but if that was the case, they might have chosen their administrator more carefully. Charles Murphy was a New York City municipal court judge whose public concern for the well-being of American youth was well-documented. By all reports, he was a serious, no-nonsense type whose legal background meant that he’d hold the publishers to the letter of the law they themselves had drawn up. Perhaps unknown to the CMAA board was Murphy’s private experiences with comics. His sons would sometimes bring home comics he deemed inappropriate, and when he found them, he would burn them. These experiences drove him to protect other children from what he saw as harmful material, and he called his job at the Code a “purification drive.” So in hiring the perfect man from a PR perspective, the comics industry had created its own worst nightmare.

The general consensus of those working in the industry at the time was that the Code’s reviewers saw comics not as an art form, but as a cheap and empty entertainment commodity for the very young. They didn’t care about artistic expression, or telling a story that meant something to its readers. They only cared that the books didn’t violate a very narrow standard of decency, and (as we’ll see in a minute) if abiding by that standard meant ripping the heart out of the story, so be it. Comics writer Arnold Drake said that they “robbed the medium of [its] integrity,” and it’s hard to argue with that. The Code reduced comics content to only the most puerile pabulum, fit for the consumption of very small children, and practically nobody else.

It would be easy to argue that the CMAA publishers merely got what they deserved. They wrote the rules, after all, and now they had to live by them. But that’s not entirely fair. As I said last time, the anti-comics movement only got bigger after the Senate hearings, and all the publishers spent that summer watching their circulations go down because of it. The numbers here don’t lie: the Cincinnati review board entered into evidence at the Senate hearings had looked at over 500 titles in 1953. By the time the Code started its review process in late 1954, the number had dropped to under 300. Even taking into account the Dell, EC, and Classics Illustrated lines (which weren’t being submitted for Code approval), that’s a huge drop in the number of viable on-going series. The comics industry had a serious problem, and it was either censor themselves or go out of business completely.

Even then, it wasn’t enough. The heart of the comics industry (and of the publishing industry in general) was New York, and it was in New York that Wertham and his political allies continued to strike in the months following the enactment of the Code. Regulating offensive comics wasn’t enough, Wertham argued. They had to be eliminated entirely.

It's all gonna end in tears.

And in March of 1955, in spite of how far the Code went, and in spite of testimony from Charles Murphy in defense of the CMAA, the state of New York passed tough laws governing the publication of comics magazines, making it illegal to print or distribute horror and crime comics there, and barring the sale of such comics to anyone under the age of 18. The vast majority of titles targeted by this law had already been cancelled the previous year, of course, and the language of it was so broad that it could be applied to everything from the crime fighting super hero fantasy of Batman to the violent slapstick of Tom and Jerry. But nobody seemed to care. The anti-comics fervor had reached too high a pitch.

New Direction: Straight Down

Meanwhile, Bill Gaines was setting up EC’s “New Direction” titles. EC’s war comics continued, as did Mad, but crime and horror were gone, and cancelling those books tore Gaines’ heart out. He really felt that his company had done good creative work, and so he did his best to keep the quality high as he tried out new genres and subject matter that he hoped wouldn’t offend American sensibilities. He succeeded on the art side, but the stories were weak. They weren’t poorly-conceived or shoddily-written, but they felt perfunctory, and all the life had gone out of the work. It seemed obvious that the EC team wasn’t having fun anymore, and so neither were their few remaining readers.

 It was an odd mix of books, too. On the one hand, you had EC trying their hand at their first heroic series: Valor, which told tales of medieval knights, and Aces High, about fighter pilots. Then there was Impact!, which offered up tamer versions of the twist ending suspense stories that had been EC’s main stock in trade up to this point. And, in perhaps Gaines’ shrewdest move at the time, he traded in the gangsters for pirates in the series Piracy. Which wasn’t a crime book at all. Because it was set in the past. On the water.

Yarr.

All of that seems like fairly typical funnybook fare. But then there was the other half of the line. Always pushing the limits of the industry, Gaines tried out three titles that seemed aimed at a distinctly older readership. Extra! was a series about the newspaper business, while M.D. covered the exciting world of doctors (!). But the capper of the New Direction line, the book I really thought was a joke when I first heard about it, was a series called Psychoanalysis. That’s right. EC Comics, the boogeyman of the funnybook business, actually did a series based on the profession of their arch-enemy, Dr. Frederic Wertham.

Actually, it’s more likely that Psychoanalysis was based on Bill Gaines’ own experiences on the psychiatrist’s couch. Gaines was a strong proponent of psychotherapy, and had spent years trying to overcome issues with his father (Max Gaines, another giant of funnybook publishing, who actually had a hand in the creation of the very first comic book). The patients’ problems, and their doctor’s analysis of them, were over-simplified, boiling months or years of therapy down into one session. It was a ballsy book to release, one without an obvious market, but Gaines saw it as a natural progression from the romance comic, a series centered on emotion rather than action.

It didn’t last, but neither did any of the “New Direction” titles. Gaines refused to join the CMAA and released his new series without Code approval, counting on press coverage and “New Direction” cover blurbs to get his books into the hands of readers. But EC’s reputation was too tainted by that time, and no retailer was going to put his books on the shelf without a Code seal on them. So, finally admitting defeat, Gaines gave in to the Comics Code.

He entered the brouhaha described above, and found his company’s efforts at genuine artistry an even worse fit than many of his competitors. Of course, it also seemed that Code administrator Charles Murphy had it out for them. Murphy reviewed all EC publications personally, and put the screws to them at every available opportunity. They had their battles with him, just like everybody else, but the final straw, according to EC editor Al Feldstein, came over the November 1955 issue of Incredible Science Fiction. One of the stories for that issue featured mutants, and Murphy informed EC that they couldn’t have mutants.

A restriction that, obviously, vanished in later years.
 At any rate. That killed the story completely, and they were racing a deadline, so they decided to reprint a pre-Code piece called “Judgment Day.” This was a sci-fi piece clean enough to pass the Code, but it was a favorite “message” story in the EC offices. It was about an astronaut visiting an alien planet to invite the inhabitants to join the galactic alliance. But the natives were all robots, painted in two different colors. One color hated and oppressed the other, and so the astronaut withdrew the invitation. Obviously, their culture wasn’t yet advanced enough for more enlightened society. Then came the twist: safely back in his ship, the astronaut removed his helmet to reveal… that he was a black man!!

Dun-Dun-Duuuuuunnnn!

Keep in mind that there were no Code violations anywhere in this story, and it even adhered to the Code’s admonition to decry race hatred. So what was Murphy’s response?

“You can’t have a Negro.”

Let me repeat that, in case you thought you didn't read it correctly:

"You can't have a Negro."

Unbelievable.

Feldstein took this response back to Gaines, who called Murphy on the phone, demanding an explanation. Murphy apparently couldn’t give him one, but stuck to his guns.

“You can’t have a Negro.”

Gaines hit the roof. He threatened to take Murphy’s denial to the press, and to decry the Comics Code Authority as a racist institution. That made Murphy back down, but he then insisted (of course!) that the beads of perspiration on the astronaut’s forehead be removed.

“Fuck you,” Gaines replied, and hung up the phone. He ran the story unchanged, with the Code seal on the cover, and then ceased publication of comic books forever.

He’d finally had it. The New Direction books had tanked, even after going with the Code. He was running out of money and patience, and it just wasn’t worth it to him anymore. He cancelled all his books but one: Mad. He switched Mad over to a magazine format and raised the price to 25 cents (cheap!), which freed him from the scrutiny of the anti-comics crowd (apparently because magazines were considered too expensive for the budgets of small children). In “The New Mad,” he was free to embrace all the crazy energy and disrespect for authority that had made the EC line so great to begin with, and he never looked back.

Wertham’s Dream Come True

Gaines wasn’t alone in leaving funnybooks. Many top artists, annoyed by the sudden restrictions on the creative freedom they'd enjoyed for ten years, moved on to advertising work. And many that did continue to do comics created them for more adult venues, such as Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, where Mad alums Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder did the strip Little Annie Fanny for close to 30 years.

Other artists and writers weren’t so lucky. Some (like super hero and romance comic legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) took boring, but paying, gigs at the few remaining companies that could afford them. But many left their creative careers behind altogether. The comic book field had always employed artists who (frankly) weren’t good enough to get work anywhere else, and when the funnybook work dried up, too, they just went out and found “respectable” jobs.

Anti-comics sentiment continued to grow throughout 1955 and ‘56, with as many as 13 other states following in the footsteps of New York and passing anti-comics legislation. Circulations spiraled down out of control, companies went out of business, and the number of comics on the stands decreased on a monthly basis. Roughly two-thirds of the comics industry vanished between 1953 and 1956, and the decline wasn’t just attributable to the anti-comics fervor. The funnybooks we were left with after the Code were pale shadows of their former selves, and mostly weren’t worth reading. As writer/artist Harry Harrison (who went on to find great success as a science fiction novelist) said, “All the dark craziness that made comics so interesting and so successful [was] stripped away. They were so juvenile that Howdy Doody was more interesting.”

One thing that perplexes me as a modern reader of this history is that nobody, not Wertham, not Bill Gaines, not the CMAA, nobody, ever once suggested that comic books were maybe not just entertainment read by children. I asserted earlier that the publishers knew they were selling books to former WWII soldiers, adults who were reluctant to admit to their “juvenile” reading habits. But now I’m not so sure. Gaines and the EC crew said they were writing to a teen-age audience, both in the horror books and in Mad. And if those guys didn’t have grown-ups in mind at the time, nobody did. Regardless, their work represented the medium’s first faltering steps toward presenting fiction of adult interest, and I’m damned grateful that they did it.

So I’m a little stunned that the idea of putting “suggested ages” on comics covers doesn’t seem to have been put forth by anyone. Granted, this was more of a different time than we sometimes realize. The movie ratings system wasn’t in place yet, and the mass media culture we take for granted was still in the process of being born. All media was designed to be more or less “all ages,” with adult content suggested rather than shown. Still, that adult content was there in novels, radio, movies, and even television. But it was driven out of comic books with a vengeance.

Which was exactly what Dr. Wertham wanted to begin with. His juvenile delinquents, of course, moved on to other entertainments that fed their appetite for thrills, and more delinquents were born in their poverty-stricken neighborhoods all the time, with or without evil funnybooks to inspire them. And eventually, after two or three years, the anti-comics movement ran its course. It couldn’t maintain its hysterical levels of energy forever, after all, especially not without any nasty (and by “nasty” I of course mean “interesting”) comics to fuel its fire.

Zacherley!
So the movement died out, and the comics industry was left to its own devices again. As time moved on, the enforcement of the Code relaxed somewhat, as it was bound to do, and better material started coming out again by the early 1960s. But by then, the mass audience had already fled the scene, seeking their forbidden thrills elsewhere. The spirit of the EC horror comics lived on in the early TV horror movie hosts (another pop culture phenomenon well-known to us here on the Dork Forty). How far removed was Zacherley the Cool Ghoul from the Crypt Keeper, after all? And if the Monster Kid generation wasn’t made up of the little brothers and sisters of the juvenile delinquents who grew up on a steady diet of EC horror, I’ll eat my hat. Hell, I’ll eat YOUR hat, and I don’t even know where your head’s been.

But most importantly (and heart-warmingly to my way of thinking) the anti-authoritarian spirit embodied by Bill Gaines and his EC Comics Fan-Addicts was the same spirit that inspired the cultural revolution of the 60s. That lead to all kinds of good things, and it paid itself back to the funnybooks fifteen years down the line.

But that’s a story for our next chapter, when Harry Osborn gets high, and the Comics Code finally gets the first of many spankings to come…



Sources:

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