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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

June 11, 2006

Comic Books and Censorship:
What if Fredric Wertham had a point?

I recently came upon yet another article by yet another comic book professional talking about the dark days of the 1950s and the crackdown on comics. And it got me pondering something I’d been considering for a while.

So today I’m going to put my head on the chopping block, swim against the stream, and make an argument against one of the most entrenched, wildly accepted back & white truisms of 20th Century pop culture. Yeah, you wanna piece of me? I‘m ready for ya, man. Bring it on!

So let‘s begin…

If you’re aware of the comic book industry, you’re probably aware of a little contretemps that blew up in the 1950s. Mainstream American comics had seen sales starting to dwindle for the pioneers of the medium -- super heroes, funny strips, and the like -- and there was a mass marketing shift towards increasingly sensationalistic and lurid horror and crime comics. As there was no overseeing body or regulatory agency, the editorial standards for these comics were just whatever the individual publishers were comfortable with…and they were comfortable with quite a lot.

And the official story, as told by 99.9999 percent of comics folks, goes something like this:

Into this situation came the Devil of our story -- one Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychologist who had long argued there was a connection between pop culture and delinquency, and in 1954 published his book “The Seduction of the Innocent” claming a direct link between comics and the corruption of America’s young. Because this was the 1950s, and witch hunts were already in full swing over alleged communists, it wasn’t hard to get a major outrage going about comics, including government hearings.

Rather than be regulated, some comics publishers got together and created their own regulatory body, The Comics Code Authority, which drew up a dos and don’ts list of what could be published in a comic. The Comics Code couldn’t enforce anything, but it could refuse to put its stamp on your comic, and most newsstands would only carry comics with the Comics Code stamp. Scores of publishers went out of business virtually overnight, and the comics that were left were watered down pabulum, not worth the ink they were printed with, ushering in a dark age of creative malaise that helped lead to comics being the marginalized, looked-down-upon medium we know today.

As well, Wertham and his crowd, we are often left to infer, were social Nazis and the Comics Code was used to foster a racist, sexist, homophobic agenda.

The Great Satan (Dr. Wertham) had won and a vital art form was delivered a crippling blow.

That’s the official story, told, and re-told, by comics folk.

But there’s a little bit more to it than that.

For example, Dr. Wertham, the villain of the piece, wildly denounced by comics folks as an incompetent, unscrupulous -- and often by inference, racist -- oaf…testified against racial segregation in schools, his testimony used in the famous Brown vs. The Board of Education case which ultimately led to the dismantling of a racially segregated (and therefore racist) American school system. In other words, in that situation, Wertham was one of the good guys…a fact conveniently omitted by most comics folks when deriding Wertham.

As well, comics weren’t just an innocent medium unfairly being picked upon when film and TV weren‘t -- because, particularly in the horror comics, scenes of violence and graphic gore were being depicted that would never have been shown in the other visual mediums of the day (film and TV).

Modern comic fans say the whole argument that many of these comics were unfit for kids was spurious…because they weren’t intended for kids. Some have denounced the comics industry leaders of the day for not pursuing, and pushing, this argument. But isn’t that possibly because it wasn’t true? Isn’t it possibly because, after all was said and done, the publishers knew their main audience was kids? Isn’t that why Wertham’s (and other’s) allegations shocked a nation…because most adults weren’t reading comics and didn’t know what was being published in them? It’s all very fine to point to the “why shouldn’t adults read adult stories?” argument…but I think deep down inside, even comics fans know it wasn’t really true. Yes, some adults read comics…but it wasn’t the main demographic. Today, yes, a large section of the readership is older (like yours truly), but back then?

There have also been allegations that the Comics Code was thrown together by publishers who were already publishing “safe” material, that it was a deliberate, arguably underhanded, mercenary move to cut the competition off at the knees. Key words that were now forbidden by the Comics Code (Terror, Horror)…were words used in the titles of the competitions’ comics, while approved words were those coincidentally in use by the publishers who cobbled the code together. After all, neither Wertham, nor the government, created the Comics Code -- the former was just raising concerns, and the latter just investigating concerns. It was the industry itself that actually did the dirty deed.

But the real, intriguing thing about the whole Comics Code Destroyed Comics argument is…it doesn’t really hold up, even within the industry.

You see, the claim is comics in the 1950s was a vital, edgy, creatively fertile period and the Comics Code destroyed it, turning it into a bland, artistically dead wasteland of safe, badly written comics. Except, shortly after the Comics Code was created something else significant happened in comics…the so-called Marvel Age of comics when Stan Lee and the gang at Marvel Comics largely revolutionalized comics -- specifically super heroes -- with titles like Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men. The stories became more complex, the characters more nuanced, the themes and issues examined became more diverse and challenging -- all under the Comics Code.

In fact, although comics folks praise the 1950s in general…the specifics are oddly vague. There are few characters that are cited as great series, few individual stories that are actually cited as great stories. Having read comics from many different decades, personally I’m hard pressed to point to many well-written 1950s (or earlier) comics. Don’t get me wrong -- I can enjoy these comics, find them entertaining…but more in a “for what they are” way. And often when comics folks do point to great 1950s comics and stories…they tend to be adaptations of “real” stories, or are praised more for their art than their scripts. Okay, I’m probably exaggerating somewhat. I’m sure there are stories a modern fan would stand by as examples of “great” storytelling…but just not as many as you would expect given the unreserved praise for the period.

And even the claim that the pre-Code comics were more radical and provocative is rarely backed up with specific examples. One incident that often is cited, as an example of the “evils” of the Comics Code, was a story in a sci-fi anthology comic which ended with a previously anonymous astronaut removing his helmet and revealing in the last panel that…he’s a black man! A panel objected to by the Comics Code! This is cited as proof of how progressive the comics were…and of a racist agenda by the Comics Code. Yet, firstly, this story is cited so often, in so many different articles and books…one begins to suspect it’s the only example of a black character portrayed in a progressive way. Secondly…everyone’s awfully vague about what the Comics Code was even objecting too, as the objection seemed to have more to do with the depiction of the black astronaut as sweating, rather than the colour of his skin!

And therein lies a paradox -- one that even comics folk seem unable to recognize or acknowledge. As even within a few breaths they will tell you, uncategorically, that the Comics Code destroyed comics creatively and intellectually…and then praise the “Marvel Age” as a creative golden age.

Far from destroying comics creatively, the argument could be made that the Comics Code actually gave the industry a much needed kick in the pants. No longer able to coast by on cheap gore and lazy sensationalism, the comics industry had to bounce back with something else -- better plots and characterization. It’s perhaps interesting that comics folks claim the 1950s comics were read by adults…yet it wasn’t till the Comics Code approved era of the 1960s that comics actually started to become popular on University Campuses!

And today? Well, actually, the Comics Code is no more, the publishers having opted instead for internal self-regulation a few years back. Blatantly adult comics are published all the time, but now with clearly marked “mature readers” warnings on them. Marvel Comics in particular has come up with its own ratings system (from All Ages, to PG, to Mature Readers) just to show what a good corporate citizen it is.

But you know what? Me, personally, I’m starting to see the excesses of the past come creeping back in. See, the problem with “Mature Readers” labels for a publisher is you slap that on, and it cuts into sales…and no publisher wants to put a mature readers warning on a mainstream super hero comic anyway. So it’s a kind of hit and miss affair, based purely on the whim of the publisher. I’ve read mainstream, general readership comics…that, frankly, I’d be appalled to give to my nieces and nephews. Usually because of violence, sometimes because of sexploitation.

"Invincible", a critically popular comic which I’ve sort of enjoyed (and might review at P&D at a latter date) is an amusing, almost cute super hero title…that sometimes features characters having their heads ripped off and entrails yanked out…all depicted on the page and with nary a “mature readers“ caution in sight. While, just to give you an idea of the behind-the-scenes attitudes of creators, in Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s new Batman title, “All-Star Batman and Robin”, a special edition of the first issue included Miller’s script…which included notes to artist Lee on how to depict the heroine like “Detail her BRA. It‘ll drive them crazy, Jim“ and “Let’s go with an ASS SHOT” (his capitals)

It’s not that I object to brutal violence or underclad women -- far from it, particularly the latter, heh heh (I am the writer of the :Neekin stories, after all). Heck, I was rather disappointed when Marvel’s recent mature readers Shanna mini-series -- think Sheena with dinosaurs -- was hastily edited before publication, removing all nudity…but leaving in the gore and exploding viscera! (Personally, if I’m gonna lay out a few bucks for a comic, I’d rather see some skin rather than the stuff under the skin -- but I guess I’m just twisted that way).

I happily encourage mature readers comics…but they should be put under a mature readers label. Not marketed as being for all ages. And the worst thing is, left to their own devices, and arrested adolescent writers and artists and editors no longer worrying about an “evil” comics code looking over their shoulders, sooner or later they just might incur another backlash, as once more mainstream society wakes up to what’s going on between those garish colours.

And if that happens, it won’t be Fredric Wertham who’s to blame, but themselves. But on the bright side…it just might induce another Marvel Age of genuine creativity.

D.K. Latta, editor

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