CENSORS VS. COMIX! 50'S PMRC FORERUNNERS SET SIGHTS ON COMICS!
By: Randy Payton
Rock & Roll and rap music are not the only popular art forms under attack in America 1991:
In Florida, two 'direct sale' comic shops were recently raided under the same obscenity statute used to prosecute 2 Live Crew. Religious broadcasters such as Bob Larson have taken to attacking comic books as "corrupting" of American youth (alongside rock, rap & the occult). One individual, John Fulce, a born-again Christian who once sold comics for a living has since sold his shop and embarked on a crusade against them. His book, reprising the infamous anti-comics books of the 50's, is called SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT REVISITED, was published last year by a Christian publishing house that specializes in "exposes" of the New Age movement.
The specter of arbitrary "labeling" (if not outright banning) of Comic books in the US looms over the horizon and is fast becoming a concern to comic fans and creators alike.
As a means towards greater historical perspective this issue of THE ROC takes a look at the sordid tale of censorship in the 50's. Part #2, next issue, will deal with contemporary assaults against comics.
The 50's were a bleak time, culturally. The youth of the day, suffocating in a sea of Ozzie and Harriet conformity, had few, very very few outlets through which to express their creativity (let alone any kind of social rebellion). Praise to the Sun Absolute for Rock & Roll, James Dean, MAD Magazine and EC Comics for saving that period's youth from terminal boredom and total Eisenhowerian social fascism!
Not that the Self-Appointed Guardians of Morality of the 50's were going to let things get too far out of hand. The underhanded and oftentimes racist tactics used against Rock & Roll of the day (driving the great Rock impresario Alan Freed out of the business, strong-arming radio stations, etc.) will be the subject of a future ROC article. What PMRC forerunners did to the field of comic books, however; was a case study in how a small body of self-righteous, blue-nosed "crusaders" could systematically snuff a whole art form overnight.
Comics' original 'golden age' was during the World War 2 years when nothing could be more apple pie than Superman and Captain America kicking Axis ass. In the years following the war, however, the comic companies' super heroes found themselves retired and replaced with themes of romance, crime and horror. These themes, particularly the latter two, were to prove to be too much for those segments of society dedicated to keeping cultural expression at a bland, Norman Rockwell, Wonder Bread common denominator. 1948 was the year that kids were encouraged by teachers, parents and priests to pile their comic books up in school yards to be burnt in huge public bonfires. It was also that year that in a radio broadcast one John Mason Browne, a writer, actually denounced comic books as "the marijuana of the nursery; the bane of the bassinet; the horror of the house, the curse of kids and a threat to the future."
What were these characters in such a tizzy about which would move them into such wild flourishing of hyperbole? Like, why all the fuss about goddamn FUNNY BOOKS, huh?
Well, first, remember this was the time of the Cold War when Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover nursed incredible public paranoia about Reds Under Beds and anyone to the left of Kate Smith was suspect of being a Dupe of the Kremlin; not an atmosphere real conducive to such 'subversive' concepts as Creative Expression, let alone Democracy, you understand. Combine all this with a developing 50's phenomenon called "juvenile delinquency" and a perceived moral breakdown and you have all the makings for another Great American Scapegoat Hunt! And so it was decided that Comic Books were gonna be "it."
1954 was the watershed year in the battle of Censors vs. Comics. Dr. Frederick Wertham, senior psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals had already become the country's most visible critic of comic books, through articles and sponsoring heavy-handed symposiums with, names like "The Psychopathology of Comic Books." It was in 1954 the Dr. Wertham's book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT was published, with it's assertions that crime comics were responsible for juvenile delinquency and promiscuity and that horror comics inspired brutality and sadism. The book was, of course, larded with scads of titillating drawings from the comics and lurid case histories of sexual obsession. (Among the more amusing parts of the book was when Wertham homophobically singled out Batman and Robin for their "unnatural relationship" and denouncing Wonder Woman for her "undertones" of lesbianism). Wertham's call was for 'action' on the part of parents and government. He was to get his way later that year when the Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary held hearings in Manhattan on comic books, followed soon after by the establishment of the accursed Comics Code Authority.
The Code stipulated no visable blood, no violence, no cursing (real or implied), no sex, no use of words like "horror"--- not even SWEAT was allowed to be depicted. Can you believe it? To New York Judge Charles F. Murphy, the Code's first censor, even SWEAT was a threat to the "young and impressionable."
Understand, the Code was never instituted by any legislature. Rather, the specter of Senate Subcommittees 'investigating' comic books had so intimidated the big printers and distributors that they were loathed to print or distribute any title not carrying the Code's seal. Get it? Censorship without having to pass messy censorship laws. So called "self-regulation." In reality, this was censorship through intimidation and is, in fact the VERY SAME STRATEGY being attempted today by the PMRC.
To their credit, some rational voices were heard before and during the above onslaught of idiocy. One Frederic M.Thrasher, a professor of education at NYU as well as a member of the Attorney General's Conference on Juvenile Delinquency, wrote a piece called, "The Comics and Delinquency; Cause or Scapegoat?" for the Dec. 1949 issue of JOURNAL of EDUCATIONAL SOCIOLOGY. Thrasher stated that "Wertham's dark picture of the influence of comics illustrates a dangerous habit of projecting our social frustrations upon some specific trait in our culture, which (then) becomes a sort of 'whipping boy' for our failure to control the whole gamut of social breakdown." (Are you listening, Tipper?) Even the editors of COLLIER'S (in which Wertham's dubious "results" were first presented) were shortly later to have second thoughts stating that "juvenile delinquency is the product of pent-up frustrations, stored up resentments and bottled up fears. IT IS NOT THE PRODUCT OF CARTOONS OR CAPTIONS, BUT THE COMICS ARE A HANDY OBVIOUS SCAPEGOAT."
Clear-thinking like the above was but a spit in the wind of a tornado which was to reek havoc upon the comics scene. With all but the most innocuous of books (Archie, Disney) failing to cut code mustard, the number of comic book titles on the stands dropped from 500 different titles in 1952 to around 300 in 1955. Years later an apparently guilt-ridden Dr. Wertham would actually lament to an interviewer, "I had no idea at that time that I was doing any harm to any industry."