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.
|Sweet Christmas! You'd think at least one of these dudes would be sweating!|
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.
|It's all gonna end in tears.|
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.
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.|
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."
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
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.
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…