What follows are some postmortem thoughts on David Hadju’s book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. I’ve always been fascinated by this period–the so-called Golden Age of Comics–and have certainly been influenced by many of its artists like Al Williamson and Wally Wood.
Most comics fans of a certain age know the story told here already: how a group of misfits at EC Comics managed to produce the most cutting-edge titles of the early 50s that revolutionized the industry, only to collapse a few years later in the face of a McCarthy-era political witch-hunt. The basic facts are as follows:
After its lowly birth as an advertising supplement, the comic book grew to enormous popularity during the WWII era, with its phenomenally popular superheroes like National/DC’s Superman & Batman, Timely’s The Human Torch and Submariner and Fawcett’s Captain Marvel (aka Shazam). After the war, the superheroes fell out of fashion and a new crop of genres attracted ever-more readers. The foremost of these were the crime comics, with Crime Does Not Pay leading the pack not just in sales but in lurid and sadistic material:
When a round of book-burnings occurred in right-wing communities and Catholic schools–stoked by liberal publications that blamed the incipient problem of juvenile delinquency on comics–the industry retrenched, toning down the crime and playing a new genre: the romance comic. For a few years things ran smoothly, with a huge number of titles–thousands a month, published by dozens of houses–appealing to a large number of first wave baby-boomers.
Within a few years EC Comics emerged as the leader of the pack with its New Trend titles like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Crime Suspenstories and Weird Science. Under the leadership of publisher Bill Gaines and editor/writer/artist Al Feldstein EC attracted a Who’s Who of great artists like Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels and others who revolutionized the potential of comic art and defined its possibilities for generations of future talent. With their O Henry twist endings and edgy sci-fi, noir, and horror themes, EC Comics mapped the twilight zone long before Rod Serling gave that dark corner of culture its name.
The golden age, however, was short-lived. Thanks largely to Bill Elder’s and Al Feldstein’s mockery of Christmas in Panic # 1 (1954), a new wave of comics criticism forced the industry to self-censor, driving hordes of artists and writers out of the business, ruining publishers, and allowing only the most juvenile and saccharine pap on the newstands. This Pyrrhic victory for the forces of repression, while ruining Bill Gaines’s New Trend, left one of his comics still standing: Mad–which became after several issues, the magazine-format satirical staging ground for the 1960s countercultural revolution.
This is–for the most part–the way Hadju tells the story–much in synch with the party-line of comics fandom. It’s a story that pits fundamentalist book-burners and egg-headed extremists like the infamous Dr. Frederic Wertham (one of comics’ most vocal opponents in the 1950s) against the visionary artists, writers and publishers who created an American art form that is now a pop cultural dynamo, self-evidently vindicated by its awe-inspiring and enduring influence. While I think it’s a very satisfying narrative for comics fans–I think such a story–a myth of good versus evil–avoids addressing some of the very real problems with comics ideology–not just in its Golden Age but today.
Let’s take the question of censorship. Most free-thinking people don’t care for it. It smacks of totalitarianism, fundamentalism, oppression. In the 50s many comics–especially in the crime and horror genre–were criticized because they were thought to stimulate juvenile delinquency. The so-called experts were never able to prove their case. Comics fandom tends to view any antagonism toward comics as pure philistinism. But take a look at a pair of Johnny Craig’s most infamous cover images, which in the 50s drew a great deal of criticism:
Hadju’s implied argument is that the politicians attacking EC for publishing these images were self-serving hacks bucking for influence, with fellow-travelers eager to impose their Victorian morality on a new generation. He is correct. But I think it’s worth pointing out that these are also dreadfully violent and misogynistic images–and the fact is that children did in fact read these comics. Would anyone be comfortable allowing an elementary school age child to read these today in much more free-wheeling, open-minded times?
If you look through the vast majority of EC’s output you will find one story after another either involving women being killed or tortured, or men being sadistically brutalized by nasty, shrewish bitches and femmes fatales. Another case in point:
What Hadju–and so many comics fans have failed to ask–is what are we to make of these images? Is it completely ridiculous to ask the question: What do these images do to the children (and adults!) who look at them? Why is it entertaining to watch women being brutalized? These questions are never asked in comics fandom because the fans (especially of Golden Age fare) are predominantly–almost exclusively–male.
Crime and horror comics were no more objectionable than film noirs, many of which are acknowledged masterpieces–like Double Indemnity, Strangers on a Train, Out of the Past, Dark Passage–and many others. These often violent and brutal films subverted the myth of post-war prosperity and peace by revealing the existential underside of the American dream. EC comics were a ten-cent, full color version of film noir and as such probably deserve to be considered with the great films above.
But those films are not simply enjoyed unqualifiedly by film geeks. They are seriously studied, debated, critiqued. In other words, people interested in film noir take the genre seriously. I don’t see the same kind of open-minded curiosity and critical thinking employed in looking at comics. Are people who question the often jingoistic ideology of war comics “Red Dupes” as Bill Gaines famously labeled them, or are they simply willing to see the often reactionary ideas distilled in four-color visions of power and patriarchy?
Interestingly, Hadju ends in France, with Robert Crumb–a kind of triumph of art over censorship–an antinomian monster-child born of 50s repression. But I’ve never been drawn to Crumb’s pubescent objectification of women and his fetishistic obsessions. Crumb’s a rebel from the waist down, as Orwell put it in 1984–which isn’t the kind of rebellion that does much damage to the system that’s doing the repressing–especially when it mimics its forms of sexual oppression and epistemic violence. Cartoonist Trina Robbins said, “none of the male cartoonists would acknowledge this hostile element in Crumb’s work…Crumb was sacrosanct, and criticizing him was a sin that earned me ostracism.” Maybe I’ll be doing the same by questioning the pulchritude of EC Comics–despite having been fascinated by EC’s great artists for years. I love how they draw but not necessarily what they draw. Their minimalist Caniff-inspired chiaroscuro has a richness and emotiveness lacking in a lot of contemporary work. But we make up for that, I hope, with an increased sense of how violence works and how to tell stories that don’t simply portray that violence to bask in it but rather to mobilize the self and others against it.