AMERICAN COMIC BOOKS AND THE HORROR GENRE 1939 - 1955
question of some importance, the lack of clarity and
distinction with regard both to terminology and subject
matter displayed in the opening remarks were in fact
nothing else than a sign of things to come. However,
Senator Hendrickson may even be excused to some degree,
as he was relying heavily on preliminary work for the
hearing which can at best be described as having been of
extremely poor quality.
This preparation work for the hearings had been compiled by Richard Clendenen, chief of the juvenile delinquency branch of the United States Childrens Bureau (Nyberg, 1998), but in all of his preparations Clendenen had not only overlooked the need to provide clear and concise definitions, but was actually confusing the panel himself only minutes into the opening session with terms such as "horror crime comics" (Transcript I, 1954), whilst a specially prepared display featuring various example covers ran the heading "Representative Comic Book Covers / Crime Horror & Weird Variety".
When Chief Counsel Herbert Wilton Beaser insisted ("When you say crime and horror comics could you be more specific in describing what you are talking about?", Transcript I, 1954), Clendenen sought refuge in a definition based on a specific example.
even as he was describing one specific comic book (Black
Magic #29 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, published by
Prize Comics in early 1954) he didn't make it out of the
woods - initially calling it a "crime
comic" he concluded only a minute later that
this was "an example of a comic of the horror
variety" (Transcript I, 1954).
Thus lacking even a working definition, the afternoon session of the first day at least seemed to be able to pinpoint the origin of "horror comics" to one person when William C. Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, made his testimonial.
Unfortunately, this claim did not correspond to the facts either and only added to the muddled collection of anecdotal and hearsay input the hearings produced - whilst Gaines was the undisputed number one publisher of horror comics at the time, he was not the first to introduce the genre to the medium.
Comics began to publish its line of horror titles (Weird
Fantasy, Weird Science, The Haunt of Fear,
Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror)
as of 1950, other publishers had done so since 1947.
Whether or not Gaines knew about these earlier horror
comics (and viewed them as such) is unclear (Jacobs,
1972), but his voluntary appearance before the
subcommittee was, in any case, a brazenly misjudged
publicity attempt which completely backfired. Immediately
following Wertham's testimony, Gaines stood no chance and
came out of the hearings portrayed by the media as
America's most shameful publisher of comic books. Within
a year, EC Comics would be driven out of business.
Ultimately, the famous Senate hearings on comic books were thus conducted without a valid general definition of their subject and instead relied entirely on individual case data and ad hoc terminology for their entire duration. Given the results (creation of a watchdog body in the form of the Comics Code Authority) and the aftermath felt by the industry (with many publishers partially or wholly closing down shop and staff as well a sfreelancers looking for new jobs), this may seem a rather astonishing and inadequate form of procedure for a government body. However, it needs to remembered that although still an industry selling a mass-market product (Wertham himself was lamenting in 1948 that the number was 60 million copies a month, comic books and the individuals who created, produced and distributed them were not part of the general public's awareness nor concern, let alone appreciation. This fact of life for the comic book industry had been underscored a few years earlier as the Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the case of Winters v. People of the State of New York (333 U.S. 507, 1948) on 29 March 1948, when it overturned a New York state law prohibiting the publication or distribution of "true crime" magazines and comic books.
Furthermore, the 1954 Senate hearings were to no small extent the result of years of continued and systematic pressuring by anti-comics groups and its leading figures such as Fredric Wertham. Discrediting the medium and the industry wherever and whenever the occasion would arise, Wertham and his brothers in arms had long since dictated the language and the approach used to discuss comic books as much as the agenda itself; for them, the 1954 hearings were nothing short of the nationwide tribunal they had sought for so long.
One of the minor resulting outcomes of this setup was that the history of the horror genre in US comic books would be muddled for decades to come.
|The Mask of Fu Manchu is clearly concerned with worldly terror rather than supernatural horror - Fu Manchu poses no danger in terms of losing one's soul or being torn into an existence between life and death. However, he does represent an overwhelmingly powerful threat to the physical and psychological integrity of his opponents who, if captured, must surely face excruciating methods of torture and painfully slow deaths.|
|PULP FICTION INFLUENCE|
|In terms of
popular culture genres, this distinction between horror
and terror equates to the distinction between gothic
horror and pulp fiction. It is important to
highlight this distinction because, looking at the
history of the American horror comic book, it is quite
evident that many elements of pulp fiction crossed over
into the horror titles, and that it was precisely this
aspect which was predominantly responsible for the public
outcry and ultimately crusade against horror comics and,
to some extent, even comic books in general, as seen in
conjunction with the 1954 Senate hearings mentioned
Defining horror comic books and setting them apart from pulp fiction (i.e. distinguishing horror from terror) is primarily made difficult by the fact that the emerging American comic book industry of the early 1930s was not just connected with the pulp magazine market but actually grew out of it. Several publishers of comic books were in fact publishers of pulp fiction who had diversified into the new medium, including the two big names dominating today's comic book market. Both have a pedigree of direct descendancy from the pulp magazine industry through Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (who launched Detective Comics, or DC for short) and Martin Goodman (who founded Marvel's forerunner Timely Comics).
Pulp magazines were widely published in the US from 1896 through to the 1950s, their name being a reference to the cheap "wood pulp" paper used in their production. Within their 100+ pages they mostly featured lurid and exploitative stories which were often accompanied by similarly sensational cover art. The combination of cheap printing on cheap paper featuring stories written by cheap authors provided affordable entertainment to the readers and became a successful business for the publishers - the most successful pulps could sell up to one million copies per issue in the 1920s and 1930s (Haining, 2000). But even though this success resulted in the pulps branching out into virtually all conceivable genres, "weird menace" titles always remained a mainstay for pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. Also known as "shudder pulps" they featured stories in which the hero was pitted against evil and almost invariably sadistic villains, and the plot typeset was filled with graphic descriptions of torture and brutal murder (Jones, 1975).
even though the contents were clearly and virtually
always terror fiction (Jones, 1975), the pulps
were soon featuring covers which mixed classic horror
visuals with the gore and sadistic terror of the pulp
Slowly but surely, pulp themes also started to creep onto comic book covers as the publishers brought with them a background in the pulp magazine industry. A first step was made when Detective Comics Inc. launched Detective Comics #1 in March 1937 and featured a Vincent Sullivan cover depicting Sen Yoi, a Fu-Manchuesque villain whose facial features and empty eyes forebode nothing but menacing evil and doom. The 13-page story which went with the cover was titled "The Claws of the Red Dragon". It pitted a Caucasian hero against the evil-doings of one Sen Yoi in San Francisco's Chinatown district, and was written by Wheeler-Nicholson, who was not only the owner and editor-in-chief of Detective Comics Inc. but also an experienced pulp fiction author.
|By the mid-1940s, elements of pulp fiction permeated virtually all existing comic book genres outside the classic "funnies", and elements which would be singled out during the 1954 Senate hearings as defining elements of "horror comics" were, in fact, present all across the board. This in turn resulted in the Senate sub-committee (and all individuals present at the hearings) primarily discussing stories and plot devices which were, to all effect, elements of pulp fiction - without a single reference to that genre. This is in stark contrast to the fact that whilst the label "horror" was used frequently during the discussions, virtually no actual elements of the horror genre actually formed the basis of those discussions. As a result, the differences between horror and terror became completely obliterated - in spite of the fact that there had been several true horror genre comic books published by 1954.|
|1940-1946: FIRST STEPS TOWARDS HORROR IN COMIC BOOKS|
episodic appearance of true horror motifs in an American
comic book took place in Crestwood Publication's
anthology title Prize Comics #7 (cover date
December 1940) and was spearheaded by one of the genre's
classic and iconic figures, the Frankenstein Monster.
Appearing in 8-page adventures alongside mostly superhero
characters (such as Black Owl, Dr Frost, Green Lama,
Captain Gallant or the Great Voodini), writer-artist Dick
Briefer (using the pen name Frank N. Stein as
penciller) did start out with a modernised and
Americanised account of the Monster's origin, thus adding
another popular culture variation on Mary Shelley's
story. For several issues, Prize Comics featured
a rampaging and rather brute Monster, running wild and
causing havoc in contemporary New York City.
However, this horror feature remained highly episodic as the Frankenstein stories were virtually submerged in the otherwise almost exclusively superhero themed content which featured on the remaining 56 out of 64 pages of each issue of Prize Comics. Before too long the wartime success of the superhero genre would even make substantial inways into Briefer's Frankenstein version, and by October 1942 (Prize Comics #24) the Monster had been introduced to the ranks of caped protectors and even found himself battling Nazis in Europe (Goulart, 2001).
After the end of the war, the character underwent yet another change and even became a humour feature from 1945 until 1952, starting out in Crestwood's Frankenstein #1. This versatile accessibility of gothic horror to both the superhero and the humour genre - as demonstrated by Prize Comics - was discovered very quickly by publishers and would become a significant trait of the genre in the 1950s and 1960s. In their early days, horror motifs thus did occasionally surface in individual comic books, but this took place almost behind the scenes and was well hidden by covers which contained no clue of spookyness at all.
single-issue titles (publishers liberally threw titles
onto the market in the mid-1940s which never made it to a
second issue, sometimes simply because no follow up was
planned) illustrate the wide range the genre was very
quickly set in: Spook Comics #1 (Baily Publishing,
1947) did feature "Mister Lucifer" as per its
cover, but the remaining three stories were humorous
pranks, albeit involving ghosts, zombies and a haunted
Spooky Mysteries #1 (Gleason, 1947), on the other hand, featured nothing but spooks entirely moderated by comic relief - or, as the cover puts it, "thrills, chills, laughs, rib-tickling horror". It almost seemed as though creators and publishers were looking for the right place in comic booksfor the horror genre.
|1947: EERIE COMICS #1 - THE FIRST AMERICAN ALL-HORROR COMIC BOOK|
1947 finally the saw the release of the first stand-alone
horror-only comic book featuring original content
material - Eerie Comics #1. Published by Avon
Comics, an imprint of Avon Publications, this small
business was located at 115 West 57th Street in Midtown
Manhattan and was basically run by sisters Jospeh and
Edna Myers since 1941, when the American News Corporation
bought their pulp magazine publishing company and renamed
it Avon Publications. The basic business idea was to get
a foothold in the paperback publication market, but the
company also began to branch out into comics in 1945
Myers built on his previous pulp fiction publishing experience and pursued a policy which aimed at having a distinctly "popular appeal" rather than striving for any literary merits. As a consequence, Avon predominantly published ghost stories, sexually-suggestive love stories, fantasy novels and science fiction in its early paperbacks. Myers and his sister knew their trade, and a number of acknowledged authors such as Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard and James M. Cain had stories published in Avon's titles such as Murder Mystery Monthly, Modern Short Story Monthly or Avon Fantasy Readers (Canja, 2002).
new market segments to touch upon, the Myers found the by
now well established medium of comic books beckoning, and
Avon tested the waters in 1945 with Captain Silver's
Log of the Sea Hound #1.
As with many Avon titles still to come, many would never see a second issue, but after a short hiatus the Myers were back for more and, in January 1947, launched Eerie Comics, a horror-only comic book, and Cow Puncher Comics, a Western title. These were followed later on that same year by The Saint, Penny (a Romance title) and Peter Rabbit Comics.
features no editorial content, and whilst none of the
writers is known, the artwork for three stories comes
from Joe Kubert, George Roussos and Fred Kida (Goulart,
2001), who later on would all become household names in
From an overall perspective, Eerie Comics #1 not only was the first all-horror genre comic book, but it featured several plot archetypes which would become moulds for future horror comic books. It is therefore not only import for the history of comic books as such, but it also has great relevance for both the content and imagery of what would become the genre of horror comics only a few years later, and the influence can still be seen right up to this day. Not all "firsts" in comic book history have aged as well as Eerie Comics #1.
|1948/49: EARLY HORROR COMICS AFTER EERIE COMICS #1|
publication of its first issue in January 1947, Eerie
Comics disappeared from newsstands shelves. Although
this happened with a lot of comic book titles from Avon -
most of them probably never conceived to be more than
just mere one-shots - it does serve as an indication that
the first horror-only horror comic on the American market
did not create such a demand as to have Avon hurrying to
their printers to get out a second issue in order to cash
in. Eerie Comics #1 was thus the first of
its kind, but it didn't establish the genre as such.
This, however, is hardly surprising as sales on the American comic book market of the late 1940s were shifting towards a completely different line of contents.Whilst crime as well as Western comics remained popular (with the interest in superheroes dropping sharply), the industry found a new and promising sales potential in the newly emerging genre of romance comics.
|1950: "ILLUSTRATED SUSPENSTORIES WE DARE YOU TO READ!" - ENTER EC COMICS|
month that Adventures Into the Unknown #1 appeared
on the newsstand in 1948, a small publisher called EC
Comics published its first short horror story
("Zombie Terror") in Moon Girl #5, a
superhero themed comic book (Watt-Evans, 1997). It was a
first and minor attempt by that publisher which would
grow into a dedicated and coordinated stab at the genre
by April 1950.
That month, the American comic book market witnessed the first sign of a significant change with regard to the horror genre, although few could probably sense the importance of two specific comic book titles which had started out in the Spring of 1947 and 1948 respectively as International Comics #1 and War against Crime # 1 and which were now reworked, renamed and relaunched as Crypt of Terror #17 and Vault of Horror #12 by a smallish publisher called EC Comics.
Only three years previously, in 1947, William Gaines had inherited Educational Comics (EC) from his father Maxwell Gaines, who had steered the company - true to its name - towards publishing comic books which generally attempted to provide what today might be called clean infotainment in titles such as Animal Fables, Dandy Comics, Picture Stories from American History or Picture Stories from the Bible. His son, however, quickly changed course and opted for a distinctly commercial orientation.
famous catchphrase "SuspenStories", EC
was satisfied with the sales and virtually plunged into
the horror genre. Right from the start Gaines had set up
what would quickly become an EC trademark, as the famous
host introducing the short stories had already featured
in those two issues of Crime Patrol in the form
of "the Crypt Keeper".
Only one month after the publication of Crypt of Terror #17 and Vault of Horror #12, EC reworked yet another of its titles into the horror anthology format: Haunt of Fear #15, which was issued in May 1950, had started out in life in Summer 1947 as a funny title called Fat and Slat for four issues before being turned into a Western comic book called Gunfighter in Summer 1948.
The policy of transforming existing titles into horror genre titles rather than simply expanding the line of production by putting out new additional titles was not only motivated by the general move towards a niche which looked commercially promising.
Feldstein mixed pulp and horror motives with free abandon
and turned out short stories which typically had twist
endings and were built on the motive of poetic justice
being delivered - often taking the plot to absurd
One example often quoted in order to illustrate this authoring and editorial framework set up by EC is the story "Collection Completed" from Vault of Horror #25 (June 1952): Jonah's hobby is collecting stuffed animals, which increasingly annoys his wife who only cares for live animals and adores her cat. When she finds that her husband has killed and stuffed her beloved pet, she kills Jonah and in turn stuffs and mounts his dead body. Illustrated by Graham Ingels, this story exemplifies EC's take on the narrative motive of poetic justice - where "an eye for an eye" really meant an eye for an eye. The good were good and the bad were always irredeemably bad, and whilst the first often suffered the latter were always punished and made to suffer even more.
Whilst some stories contained critical authoring and a good sense of black humour, others left even some of the EC staff offended with the questionable taste displayed in the tale (Jacobs, 1972). But overall Gaines and his creative team connected to an adolescent readership, partly also because of the way EC addressed its readers. On one hand, they were greeted in each issue by a trio of ugly hosts (the Old Witch, the Crypt Keeper and the Vault Keeper) who acted as sardonic commentators and mocked and teased readers ("Greetings, boils and ghouls...") with their twisted sense of humor. On the other, Gaines successfully pioneered a house style which formed a relationship with its readers through its letters pages and its fan organization, the "National EC Fan-Addict Club".
Gaines was also ahead of his time in the way he looked upon and treated his illustrators. Contrary to the established common practice of the industry at the time, EC allowed the artists to sign their art, encouraged them to develop idiosyncratic styles and even promoted their names by publishing one-page biographies.
Al Feldstein was joined by Harvey Kurtzmann as editor, and EC quickly attracted more prominent and highly accomplished freelance artists, including Frank Frazetta, Bernard Krigstein, Joe Orlando, John Severin, and Al Williamson, as well as additional writers including Carl Wessler, Jack Oleck and Otto Binder (Goulart, 2001).
Sales figures proved EC had hit the jackpot (Watt-Evans, 1997). Crypt of Terror changed its title to Tales from the Crypt with issue #20 in October 1950 and Haunt of Fear, which had continued the numbering of its original title Gunfighter, was renumbered and went back to issue #1 in November 1950.
|1951-1953: HORROR COMICS CONQUER THE MARKET|
breeds imitators, and in the case of EC they seemed to
pop up everywhere. Some were markedly less screamy than
EC's titles (Atlas/Marvel's Strange Tales, Harvey's
Witches Tales, or DC's House of Mystery),
but others (such as Quality's Web of Evil, Comic
Media's Horrific or Ajax/Farrell's Fantastic
Fears) copied EC's house style - albeit with fairly
crude scripts and artwork - to the extent of being little
more than EC swipes and ripoffs, and their contents were
out of the starting box in pursuit of EC was Atlas (later
to become Marvel), not the least because publisher Martin
Goodman's house style consisted precisely of this kind of
working on the opposite end of innovation. He would
follow what he considered to be proven trends - or as
Stan Lee put it:
With this content managment setup, Atlas (or Timely Comics, as the company was still called up until November 1951) was able to jump onto the new trend very quickly and - even following EC's practice of reworking the title of an existing book - put out Adventures into Terror #43 in November 1950, thus turning a funny book called Joker into a new trend horror title.
It proved highly successful, and thus Adventures into Terror saw a new issue #3 in January 1951. That very same month yet another publisher eyeing EC's success appeared on the scene in the form of Harvey Comics and their launch of Witches Tales #1. Just like Atlas before, Harvey found that the market was by now in high demand for horror content, leading them to turn Blondie Comics into Chamber of Chills as of issue #21 in June 1951 before finally settling on Chamber of Chills Magazine (although it was still a comic book) after four issues.
Still in June 1951 Atlas issued Strange Tales #1, following EC's gory take on morality even closer than Adventures into Terror. Finally, in December 1951, DC also joined the horror genre bandwaggon by launching House of Mystery #1 - a title which would eventually become one of the longest running horror comic books.
|Through all of these developments EC Comics had remained the leadind publisher in the genre, but the market had grown to such an extent that there was more than enough room for copycats without hurting EC's sales figures.|
|Until mid-1952 EC Comics had clearly been the dominating creative lead to follow for success in the field of horrorc comic books, but in August 1952 DC Comics made an attempt to position itself up front at innovating the genre. Even though EC's narrator characters (as well as the copycat clones featured in other publishers' titles) gave a common thread to each issue and to a certain degree interlinked the short stories, all of these titles were nevertheless still anthologies.|
|By mid-1953, horror comics in general thus followed the EC Comics mould, and most if not all were a huge success - and in such demand that they began to show up more and more wherever comic books were on display. Their success had moved them more and more into the spotlight of public awareness, but not everybody liked what they saw.|
|1954: CLOUDS ARE GATHERING|
horror comics were taking in a substantial slice of the
American comic book market. In its issue of 3 May 1954, Time
Magazine attributed a 25% monthly market share
(equalling 20 million copies sold) to horror comics
(Time, 1954b), whilst the March 1955 interim report on
the Hearings by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile
Delinquency (Kefauver, 1955) gave an estimate of a 20%
overall market share with a total of 30 million copies
sold each month.
On this path to success, the American horror comic book had virtually set aside completely the genre interpretation set up by its very first representative Eerie Comics #1, which had mixed mostly gothic horror fiction elements with only mild infusions from pulp fiction. Instead, publishers had opted to follow the mould cast by EC Comics, incorporating a heavy leaning towards the gory themes and traits of pulp fiction - where gothic fiction elements more often than not only served to set the stage and the appearances of the protagonists. Arguably, opting for the "EC formula" rather than the "Avon approach" of 1947 was a key trigger for the success the genre enjoyed by 1954, but at the same time the elements which worked so well for the horroc comic book on the market would ultimately also cause its downfall.
The basic dilemma was that with great market presence comes great public visibility, and the general public's growing awareness of horror comics came at a time when American society - even though enjoying material comfort and leisure time for the first time after two difficult and tumultuous decades (Oakley, 1986) - was very much in a state of restlessness.
It was a search for identity and values, and it also touched upon age issues. The term teenager was rarely used before the 1950s, but now young people began to view themselves as being a distinct group, and their attempts to forge an identity worried their parents who couldn't understand the shift (Patterson, 1996).
offering up explanations for what they saw as a
deplorable condition of contemporary youth were legion,
and amongst them was Fredric Wertham - who blamed it all
on comic books and had initiated a series of public and
media appearances in 1948 and 1949 through which he
quickly became the household leading name of the
anti-comics crusade as he explained his
"psychopathology of comic books" to growing
numbers of increasingly worried parents, teachers and
Towards the end of the 1940s, however, Wertham's influence began to fade. He faced a series of sharp rebukes from several reviewers and commentators from his own profession, and his public and media appearances decreased markedly - until America's growing preoccupation with juvenile delinquency gave the 55-year old psychiatrist a new lease of life as figurehead of the anti-comics movement.
|For Wertham and his followers, the decision of the US Senate in September 1953 to set up a "Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency" with the aim of providing a full and complete study of juvenile delinquency in the United States and its causes and contributing factors (Kefauver, 1955) was a godsend. It was not, however, a coincidence.|
the subcommitte kept repeating over and over again that
freedom of speech and freedom of press should not be
abrogated and that there was no hidden agenda for
censorship, the reality was such that pressure groups in
many states were trying hard to ban publications which
did not conform to their views of life, even though they
rarely found the necessary majorities.
|Wertham himself had de facto even condoned the burning of comic books in the late 1940s and publicly supported a law proposal in 1950 which envisaged banning both sale and display of all crime comic books to children under the age of 15 in the state of New York.|
|Now was the time for him to reclaim
the public spotlight, and in November 1953 he launched
his first attack in years in an article entitled
"What Parents Don't Know" in Ladies'
Wertham reiterated his general theory that most (if not all) comic books bring out the worst in youngsters and rebuked the criticism he had met in 1949. The only really new element was his highly obscure - if not downright absurd - claim that certain comic book artwork was intentionally conceived to display pornographic illustrations when certain parts of the images were covered up (wertham, 1953). All of this was still elaborated on with reference to what Wertham called "crime comics", although one large illustration used by Ladies' Home Journal is the first evidence to show that horror comics - and most prominently EC Comics - were now becoming a target for the anti-comics movement.
Incidentally, the picture showing a young girl with a copy of Haunt of Fear #19 (May 1953) in her lap was evidently reworked, as the field of depth of the comic book cover in contrast to the remaining photograph clearly shows.
|THE TEMPEST OF APRIL 1954: SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT AND THE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARINGS|
a social reformer genuinely concerned with the well-being
of underpriviledged children, Wertham had long since
become a populist demagogue. He also possessed a keen and
acute instinct for seizing opportunities when they arose
and knew very well how to get himself into the spotlight
when it really mattered and paid off. And such a moment
The article published in November 1953 in Ladies' Home Journal was a preliminary launch of a larger volume of work Wertham had been compiling from his numerous files, and the finalised text was published in book format on 19 April 1954 as Seduction of the Innocent.
It would be too much to fully attribute to Wertham the optimal timing of the publication - only two days ahead of the first hearing of the Senate subcommittee - but it stands to reason, given Wertham's track record as a lobbyist for his cause, that this proximity is not entirely coincidental either.
In any case, there is clear evidence that Wertham supplied the subcommittee with pre-publication copies of his book and had long before been in touch on the subject matter with Senator Kefauver.
Naturally, Seduction of the Innocent - Wertham's most important work on comic books - more than merits closer inspection and analysis on its own, but in a nutshell it can be summarized as displaying the same characteristics as his earlier work by being an aggressively written pamphlet pretending to be a work of scientific research. Containing 400 pages plus 16 pages of illustrations (although pages 399-400 featuring a bibliography were soon removed by the publisher for fear of lawsuits for libel), the book features an abundance of anecdotal and construed argumentation paired with an almost complete lack of actual facts from scientifically sound empirical studies, be it juvenile delinquency or, as a matter of fact, comic books.
result, the most substantial element Wertham brought to
this publication was, quite simply, his personal opinion.
Embracing the aforementioned uneasiness of parts of American society in the early 1950s, Fredric Wertham got away with this modus operandi largely - if not fully - thanks to his personal standing; after all, he was a professional specialising in children's psychology. Few doubted Wertham's methodological integrity, and those who did were increasingly shouted down by the doctor himself, who in Seduction of the Innocent even blamed comic books to contain Nazi ideology. It may also be taken as a sign of the times that such a statement was not felt to be outrageous - directed, as it were, at comic book creators who were themselves mostly Jewish, and coming from someone who had not raised his voice even once against the burning of comic books which had taken place since 1948. Instead, Wertham gained the ear of Kefauver and made certain he was invited as the foremost authority on comic books to present his views before the subcommittee (Wallace et al., 2010).
Following the aforementioned opening of the hearings, the afternoon session of the first day opened with Wertham giving a 20 minute prepared statement and answering questions from the panel.
always, he set out by establishing his credentials and
claiming the soundness of his research and the
conclusions and results he would be presenting.
This claim to scientifically sound methodology contrasts sharply with a statement Wertham made towards the end of his testimony.
to elaborate on how he knew that publishers, printers and
distributors of comic books were forcing the vendors to
sell comics, Wertham replied:
Elaborating further on that point, Wertham mentioned a discussion he had with a small vendor wo claimed to be have been bullied into selling comics. Again, the fact that such statements were taken seriously by at least parts of the subcommittee can only be explained by Wertham's professional standing and his claim to being the well-meaning underdog fighting a vicious industry mafia.
Wertham seized the opportunity to plug his Seduction of the Innocent and once again lashed out at comic books and the industry.
Wertham's fear of being strapped down and silenced by the comic book industry was seemingly unfounded. Not only was the book distributed (albeit without the bibliography), it also received some amount of coverage in the news whilst Wertham himself was given a number of subsequent platforms, such as the May 1954 Reader's Digest where his article carried the ominous title "Blueprint to Delinquency".
Although the hearings took place over a period of three days, the first day was decisive. However, it was not Wertham's appearance alone which nailed the lid on the coffin for horror comics (even though Wertham insisted on calling them "crime comics"). In order for that to happen, the anti-comics movement needed something slightly more sensational - and they got just what they needed from the most unlikely source: William Gaines.
a minefield when they saw one, the comic book industry at
large cautiously tried to keep a low profile at the
televised hearings (such as DC sending their consultant
Dr Laura Bender, herself a psychiatrist), but Gaines
misjudged the potential - and indeed very likely -
pitfalls completely, possibly also because he was not
really well connected within the industry.
Giving testimony immediately following Wertham made things even worse, and Gaines quickly got himself tangled up and cornered.
Although prepared and building up an argument that e.g. newspapers did not incite juvenile delinquency simply by running news items on acts of murder and violence, Gaines was quickly led into contradictions, and the famous sinking moment for the publisher of EC Comics took place when he was being grilled for the cover of CrimeSuspenStories #22. His statement backfired completely, and it featured prominently throughout the press, such as Time Magazine.
|It was a
highly selective report which highlighted the more
obscure elements of the testimony given by William
Gaines, and as such it was precisely what Wertham most
certainly had wished for - and what he had in many ways
set up through his own testimony immediately preceding
Gaines. Other points raised by the publisher of EC Comics
were not taken up by the print media.
Gaines fought back passionately, but he may have sensed there and then that it would all be in vain, and in a brief moment of bitterness he lashed out at Wertham.
The moment that stuck with the public, however, was Senator Kefauver holding up the cover of Crime SuspenStories #22 and the reaction from Gaines. The next day the New York Times ran a front page story under the title "No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says", and the New York Post ironically described Gaines as "the high point of the day". His appearance in front of the subcommittee was reduced by the media (including Time and Newsweek) to the "good taste" incident.
However, the question of "good taste" was closer to the heart of the matter than it may have seemed. Essentially, Gaines had claimed a prerogative to decide on his own terms what was right for one publication or one reader, and that this might be wrong for another of a different orientation or of a different age (Hajdu, 2008).
those terms, Gaines kept fighting back and published a
satirical ad on the inside front cover of Tales
from the Crypt #43 (September 1954)
entitled Are You a Red Dupe? in
which he mocked Wertham once more and told readers that "it
isn't that they don't like comics for them! They don't
like them for you!". EC Comics also ran a full
page editorial urging readers to write to the
subcommittee in favour of comic books.
In reality, the fight was over in a flash. The subcommittee hearings and the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent - both sparking a firestorm of controversy and bonding parents, teachers and others in a campaign for censorship (Goulart, 2001) - stigmatized horror comics, and even though the subcommittee did not actually blame comics for juvenile delinquency, it recommended that the comic book industry tone down its content. Not wanting to be seen as promoting censorship, the subcommittee emphasized "voluntary content control" by the industry itself, but the public backlash was such that publishers simply had no choice - and no time to lose. Publication schedules were hastily reworked and content was checked and double-checked, but in many cases the cancellation of titles seemed the only quick way out of the fire.
cases, this meant that newly launched titles which had
been designed to cash in on the now toxic EC formula
would not see a second issue, such as Premier Magazines' Horror
from the Tomb #1 (September 1954).
The comic book industry was acutely aware of the need to regain a positive profile in the media and, ultmately, public opinion, and that simply ceasing to publish certain content - most prominently concenring horror comic books - would not be sufficient.
|THE COMIC BOOK CODE AND THE EUPHEMISM OF CENSORSHIP|
|Proactive measures were required urgently if the amount of damage inflicted on the comic book publishers was to be contained, and so the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) was formed in September 1954 together with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). Quickly, the CMAA appointed New York magistrate Charles F. Murphy as head of the CCA, which presented a Comic Book Code to the public in October 1954.|
hoped for, the media reported widely on this act of
industry out to save its collective hind, William Gaines
was left pinned to the wall by the clauses in the code
forbidding the words "crime",
"horror" and "terror" in comic book
titles - clearly, this meant not short of the end for
EC's best-selling titles Crime SuspenStories, Vault
of Horror and Crypt of Terror. These
restrictions, together with those banning vampires,
werewolves and zombies, were a de facto
publication ban for EC Comics. Not surprisingly, Gaines
refused to join the association, convinced that the comic
book code had been set up entirely and exclusively to
target EC (Jacobs, 1972).
Comic book content approved by the CCA featured a stamp design on the cover, and although the CCA had no official control over publishers, most distributors refused to carry comics that did not carry this seal of approval (Nyberg, 1998). The CCA's effect on the comic book industry was thus substantial, and whilst some publishers were able to thrive under these restrictions, others were forced to adapt by moving out of certain genres and focus on Code-approved content.
publishers simply went bust, and many artists left the
business temporarily or for good.
|It was clear that the EC mould for success in the horror genre was broken completely, and Gaines soon gave up and published an editorial in the form of an obituary. Production of his horror titles ended between September and November 1954, resulting in the last issue of Haunt of Fear (#28) appearing in November 1954, whilst Vault of Horror ended its run with issue #40 in December 1954. Tales from the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories were both cancelled for February 1955, but others had felt the pressure to pull an emergency stop even sooner than EC.|
by cancelling Adventures into Terror immediately,
i.e. in May 1954.
Harvey Comics tried to go with the previously proven "name game" and turned Chamber of Chills into Chamber of Clues in February 1955, but this time things were different and the CCA was not to be trifled with. After only two issues, Harvey called it a day and cancelled the Chamber in April 1955.
|With all EC-style titles wiped from the market by February 1955, the sanitization of the comic book industry was more or less an established fact, and whilst it did not spell the end for the horror genre as such, it was certainly the end for any pulp fiction influence. The remaining horror titles - such as ACG's Adventures Into the Unknown or DC's House of Mystery - had already been rather tame in comparison to EC's house style, and they were being toned down even further, often by featuring more and more science fiction elements as monsters from outer space were the least problematic form of monsters in dealing with the CCA.|
were even some new titles on the market, such as DC's House of
Secrets which was launched in November 1956. But it
was precisely comic book titles such as this one which
illustrated the fact that the days of being a big market
success were over for horror comics - running for a total
of 80 issues, House of Secrets started out as a
toned-down horror anthology title before featuring the adventures of
modern-dress sorcerer Mark Merlin as of August 1959 (House of
Secrets #23). This was the first sign that the
few remaining horror titles were about to hand over their
pages to a growing trend of moving towards superhero
Whilst parts of the industry could not escape a substantial amount of blame for bringing about a censorship body through their often all too gory publications, the true horror may indeed be seen in the fact of just how easy it was for Wertham to impose his views - even though this seemed to provide him with no substantial satisfaction once the battle was won. He immediately considered the CCA inadequate to protect youth, and in early 1955 Wertham was already testifying before a New York State Legislature committee hearing that the comic books were no better under the Code than previously (Decker, 1987).
even neutral observers began to question Wertham's goals,
such as Albert Deutsch in reviewing Wertham's 1956 book The
Circle of Guilt in the Saturday Review of
Hearings by congressional subcommittees on violence in mass media were almost a run of the mill phenomenon in the early 1950s, but they mostly reached rather gingerly formulated conclusions, such as the 1952 hearings on television violence as well the hearings run in parallel by the Kefauver subcommitte in 1954 (Hoerrner, 1999). The comic book hearings, however, had far reaching and damaging consequences for the industry and the medium.
By mid-1954, the heyday of horror comics was over, and in 1955 sales in comic books all across the board dropped by 70% (Carter, 2010), leaving the medium hanging virtually by a thread.
Possibly the most frightening aspect of this sharp turning point in 20th century American culture is the fact that it was to a large extent brought about by the lobbying of a New York psychiatrist hell bent on imposing his own moralist and cultural elitist views on the general public (and who insisted on calling horror comics "crime comics"), and a US Senate subcommittee which held a hearing without ever clearly defining the actual object of its investigations.
|FURTHER ONLINE READING|
|Anyone interested in 1950s horror comic books will find a nice selection of tidbits - not the least entire stories (now in the public domain) scanned and presented for reading - served up by Tillmann Courth on his website Fifties HORROR! There's a mass of insight to be found in the German text, but even if you don't understand that language the original stories are, obviosuly, in English, and the site's graphics are so well done they merit a peek by themselves. (Wer Deutsch spricht bzw. versteht, sollte Tillmann Courth's website sowieso nicht verpassen). Courth also runs two additional websites in English, Ace Horror (spotlighting ACE publications of the 1950s) and Fiction House & Standard Horror which portrays two publishers of 1950s horror comics in detail. These are clearly go to websites for anybody interested in the topic - and they are fun reading, too.|
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first posted on the web 19 September
Text is (c) 2011-2014 Adrian Wymann