The Children’s Crusade: Horror Comics, 1948-1956

The Children’s Crusade: Horror Comics, 1948-1956

The children’s teachers made compelling arguments to them, citing scientific research regarding the deleterious effect of certain, objectionable literature on the development of a child’s psyche; explaining calmly and rationally that these books warped the development of the brain, turning it towards crimes against the state and against the laws of nature.  The children nodded in agreement; the argument seemed sound, and was coming from an authority figure, who cited an even higher authority in the form of scientific research.  And the children went on a crusade; through the streets of town they walked, traveling in small groups as they went door to door collection the objectionable, criminal literature.  Thousands of volumes were collected; shopkeeps and retailers were threatened with boycotts if they did not stop stocking the obscene, offending books.  The collected books were piled up in the school-yard, and out came the match-book.  Fire met paper, and the mound of literature became a bonfire crackling twenty-five feet tall.

***

The preceding story, a tale one expects from the Third Reich, took place in 1948 in Binghamton, New York.  The obscene literature was comic books — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, as well as “crime comics” such as EC’s CRIME DOES NOT PAY! and romance comics such as LOVE STORY.

I began researching this article early last week, intending just to write a brief overview of EC Comics’ brief moment in the sun in the 1950s.  What I discovered was, quite frankly, a truly shameful episode in American history, and one that has not ceased to be relevant.  Those who do not learn the lessons of history, as George Santayana pointed out, are damned to repeat it; those who do learn the lessons of history seem damned to watch everyone else repeat the cycle while helpless to break it.

Nor is Binghamton an isolated case.  Similar comic book burnings were held across the country; while many lauded these efforts to clean up “filth,” others noted that just a few years earlier the Nazis had burned first books, then people. A parallel could also be drawn to 1946 and Allied efforts to “Denazify” Europe by systematically eliminating every symbol of the Third Reich as well as burning books and papers that could be construed as contributing to Nazism or militarism.

“Where do we begin? We begin by beginning, I guess.”

Comics, as a medium of expression, originate in the late 19th and early 20th century (despite some claims that Trajan’s Column, being a series of sequential images telling a story, could be construed as a “comic strip”) with newspapers such as those of William Randolph Hearst.  Comic characters such as “The Yellow Kid” were a means of selling newspapers to the poor and the illiterate, especially those right off Ellis Island.  Smudgy artwork and big speech bubbles written in broken pidgin English were designed to appeal to those who could not read; almost immediately there was backlash, as groups claimed that these funny-pages caused eye-strain with their low-quality printing, discouraged literacy and encouraged children and those who were like children (i.e., anyone who wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) to imitate the acts of delinquency characters such as the Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids engaged in.

It was not long before comics evolved into a more familiar form, featuring pages of delineated panels and a narrative flow.  While early comics were largely innocuous, as a low-brow medium it attracted the excluded; women, Jews, African-Americans, Latinos all found work in the new-born comics industry when they were unwelcome elsewhere.  Comics evolved to suit the tastes of those creating them, and it was soon discovered that crime comics — tales of cops and robbers, of crimes committed gruesomely — sold very well, whereas the funny animal books didn’t.  Almost over night, hundreds of crime comics popped up, along with westerns, science-fiction, and by the end of the 1930s, comics chronicling the adventures of “super heroes,” gaudily-dressed demigods like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  Romance comics, filled with lurid tales of teenage sex kittens and seductive step-daughters, soon followed, especially as PTA groups began to put pressure on the crime books.

During this time, there had been experiments with horror comics — one-shots with titles like EERIE! and CREEP! appeared during this period, but did not make much of a splash.

It was not until 1950, when Entertaining Comics head William “Bill” Gaines, retooled several flagging crime books into TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE VAULT OF HORROR and THE HAUNT OF FEAR that horror comics saw any sort of rise in popularity.  Drawing heavily on the radio shows of his youth, Gaines’ books were anthologies of short stories characterized by gruesome art and karmic twist endings, each tale narrated by one of the “Ghoulunatics,” The Crypt-Keeper, Vault-Keeper or Old Witch.  While EC’s horror stable would expand to include such titles as WEIRD SCIENCE, CRIME SUSPENSTORIES, SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES and others, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE VAULT OF HORROR and THE HAUNT OF FEAR were the “big three.”

While most adults ignored what their children were reading, pediatrician Dr. Fredric Wertham took note while working in a reformatory for troubled youths; he began to publish articles in periodicals such as “Ladies Home Journal” decrying these “crime comics” (a catch-all term he used to refer to everything from TALES OF THE CRYPT to Superman to WESTERN ROMANCES) as dangerous and a leading cause of juvenile delinquency.

Wertham was not the first to make such allegations; claims linking juvenile delinquency to comic book readership go back a decade, including arguments by author Sterling North (who claimed that were “guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents”) and Congressman Estes Kefauver, who made his name fighting organized crime.  Efforts to get a law passed in New York State to ban or censor comic books were shot down repeatedly by Governor Thomas Dewey (famous for nearly defeating Truman for the Presidency) as vaguely-worded and threatening to the freedoms of speech and press.

Wertham, however, had the letters M.D. after his name to lend credence to his claims and a crisp cadence of speech tinged with an authoritarian German accent.  In a series of articles (which would culminate in the 1954 publication of his book on the subject, Seduction of the Innocent) Wertham denounced crime comics of every stripe.  Superman, he alleged, was a symbol of fascist ideology in his embodiment of Nietzsche’s ubermensch who undermined children’s belief in parental authority.  Batman and Robin presented children with uninhibited images of homoeroticism.  Wonder Woman was a sadomasochistic bull dyke who turned children into S&M fetishizing sex criminals.   While Wonder Woman was admittedly a kinky creative outlet for bondage-enthusiast creator William Moulton Marston, Wertham’s other claims along these lines are largely groundless.

It is particularly telling that Wertham submitted his work not to peer-reviewed psychiatric journals, but rather to magazines aimed at the public.  Seduction of the Innocent is particularly noteworthy in its complete lack of foot- or end-notes and its collection of unverified and unverifiable anecdotal evidence.  It is not good science, nor is it good scholarship.  While he did touch on some good points — he expressed concern over the lack of attention parents paid to their children’s lives, and also to the fact that air rifles and switchblades were advertised in comic books — whatever good he might have achieved is largely buried in sensationalist text and staged photographs of children driven to violent sociopathy by the reading material forced upon them by unscrupulous publishers.

Eventually, Wertham’s efforts had America worked into such a frenzy that the matter was brought before the federal government; specifically, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, upon which Senator Estes Kefauver sat.  Gaines was invited to testify, which he accepted — he had to.  The horror comics had become his livelihood, and he needed to defend himself and his industry.  He was not peddling grue tales to six year olds; the intended audience of TALES FROM THE CRYPT were 14 and up, and Gaines believed wholeheartedly that America’s children were bright enough to recognize the difference between fiction and reality.  Besides, numerous child psychiatrists had been in agreement for over a decade; “crime comics” did no real harm to children’s nervous systems.

Gaines’ testimony was blunt and unapologetic.  It was also scripted; between preparing his statement and general nerves, Gaines had not slept the night before, and was jittery with caffeine and Dexedrine as his gave his statement before the Senate.  He contradicted himself and made confused statements that made him look as deviant as he claimed the children weren’t.  So while Gaines opened strong:

Entertaining reading has never harmed anyone. 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. Judge Woolsey said, ‘It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned.’ May I repeat, he said, “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. Perverted little monsters are few and far between. They don’t read comics. The chances are most of them are in schools for retarded children.

What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to read or do? Do we think our children are so evil, so simple minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery? Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic.

His testimony soon collapsed:

Mr. BEASER. Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine. Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?

GAINES. No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.

Mr. BEASER. Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?

GAINES. I don’t believe so.

Mr. BEASER. There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?

GAINES. Only within the bounds of good taste.

Mr. BEASER. Your own good taste and salability?

GAINES. Yes.

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?

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.

GAINES. A little.

I would like to note here that Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published just a few months earlier, in 1953.  Ironically, in Bradbury’s dystopian novel on the dangers of censorship, comic books are one of the few forms of reading not outlawed, being viewed, along with pornography and trade journals, as being too harmless to waste time burning.

At no point during the Senate hearings was Gaines given a fair shake.  Panels of comic art were taken out of context by men who had never picked up a comic book in their lives — most notably, an instance in which panels depicting Latinos being called “Spics” and “Dirty Mexicans” were used to claim Gaines was teaching children racial hatred; the panels were taken from a story decrying the evils of racism and preaching an essential brotherhood of all men.

Ultimately, the Senate hearings went against Gaines, and he began working with other comics producers such as Timely Comics (which would evolve into Marvel) to develop a self-policing alliance of comic book producers as a defensive measure to show naysayers that the comics community was sweeping its own doorstep.  While Gaines was successful in organizing the Comics Magazine Association of America, it would come at a heavy price; when the CMAA rolled out the Comics Code Authority (CCA) which declared the standards to which comics would be held, it was learned that the CCA’s provisions banned the words “terror” and “horror” as well as any depictions of the walking dead, vampires, werewolves, grave-robbing, cannibalism, the undermining of authority figures or detailed depictions of crime.  The code would subsist for decades, with the last publishers ceasing to adhere to it in 2011.

Gaines was through.  In a televised announcement, Gaines declared that he would henceforth cease publication of all EC horror titles, going so far as to rip a couple issues to shreds in front of the camera.  Only EC’s satirical magazine, MAD, would continue publication, though Gaines would attempt to adhere to the Code with the new comic, INCREDIBLE SCIENCE FICTION.  However, this would fold after four issues, and Gaines would leave the comic industry entirely to focus on MAD Magazine after an incident in which he attempted to publish “Judgement Day,” a story involving a human astronaut teaching a planet of robots about the evil of race-based discrimination, in INCREDIBLE SCIENCE FICTION.  Comics Code censors objected to the main character of the story being black, and requested he be redrawn as a white man — a move which would completely nullify the point of the story.  Gaines threatened to take the matter to the Supreme Court, and the CCA backed down, allowing the story to be published.  After this incident, however, Gaines would resign in anger.

Horror comics as a genre had been shoved into a grave, to lie mouldering in wait for the time of their resurrection to come.

***

This is neither a new story, nor is it an old one.  Johann Sebastian Bach, in the 18th century, was censured by the Church for producing music that incited lewd passions in youths.  Many of Wertham’s criticisms of comics mirror those leveled at the Yellow Kid a half-century earlier.  The moral panic surrounding Dungeons and Dragons in the early 1980s.  The Parent’s Music Resource Center.  The continuing debate over violent movies and video games.  The witch-hunts have not ended — perhaps they will never end.  Targets change, but the rhetoric always rings familiar.  If I may conclude with a paraphrase of a cooler head than my own:

There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found online in the minds of men.  For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children…and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confied to…the funny pages.


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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

One Response to “The Children’s Crusade: Horror Comics, 1948-1956”

  1. Great article. I have always been a Gaines fan; which is why I read this in the first place.

    You may have known this already, but Mad was a “magazine” in order to skirt the Comics Code Authority.

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