The Hidden S in Phone Booth

David Hajdu’s work “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America" (Picador) might be the best published work about comics and comics history published ever. The heart of TCP is the thrashing that comics took in the eyes of the public due to the violence, sexuality and wish-fulfillment...qualities of the most popular comics (more on this later). Hajdu’s book begins, however, at the turn of the century when comic strips were being produced in some of the major papers for the first time. The new printing press technology which allowed mass-production of full color pictures on newsprint helped pave the way for the Sunday color supplements which helped popularize the very early Sunday newspaper strips like “Hogan’s Alley” (popularly known as the “Yellow Kid” due to the color of one of the main character's shirts). These strips, many of which started out as depictions of offbeat, but realistic locales (Hogan’s Alley was set in New York’s Lower East Side), eventually developed into something more along the lines of traditional superhero comics. Hadju notes that the first great comic artists like Eisner, Milton Caniff and Alex Raymond were influenced by the very early strips such as Hogan’s Alley, Krazy Kat and Uncle Nemo. Eisner, Caniff and Raymond’s work was also very much influenced by the violent and exotic pulp work of writers like Walter Gibson (The Shadow) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars,etc). Hadju makes the argument that the modern comic book is a marriage of the Sunday strips (with their emphasis on the visual and atmospheric) and the American pulp tradition with its emphasis on storytelling and strong character development. Hadju makes it clear that the key figure in the development and popularity of the modern comic is Superman in 1938. Superman was not the first costumed superhero (Lee Falk’s The Phantom, for one, beat him to the punch), nor was he the first character with a true secret identity (The Shadow had one, the pulp hero The Spider as well, etc). However, the impact of Superman was far more significant than almost any other superhero in American culture. Hadju outlines some of the reasons for this. The metaphor of Superman/Clark Kent being an alien (tantamount to being an immigrant) and Superman employed the Roosevelt ideal of power for the public good and Superman’s costume somewhat unwittingly resembled the flag with its blue and red highlights. Interestingly, Hadju puts some emphasis on Superman’s iconic first appearance on the cover of Action Comics #1 as probably the moment when comic books found a separate identity from comic strips. Pretty soon, Action Comics was selling about half a million copies per month. Soon enough, superhero comics became the rage and familiar (and not so familiar) names started to be part of the comic book landscape: Aquaman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Doll Man, Hawkman, Hourman, the Whip, etc. The author points out that the low expectations of comics and the artists themselves allowed for greater latitude in creating characters and scenarios which often made for a mix of innovative stuff (like Bob Kane/Bill Finger’s early work on Batman) along with some forgettable works (heard of Amazing Man? Master Man?). Not surprisingly, most adults did not have the patience or foresight to see the difference and the popularity of comics combined with the “lowness” of their form pretty much guaranteed that they would eventually be attacked for some of the things that made them popular, namely, sex, violence and wish fulfillment. One critic at the time called comic books “a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems.” The heart of the narrative is Hadju’s recounting of the book “The Seduction of the Innocent” written by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in 1954. The work, still well known today, theorized that comic books were one of (if not the main one) causes of juvenile delinquency. (This theory grew out of Wertham’s experiences in juvenile facilities where juvenile delinquents consistently pegged comic books as their reading material of choice). Comics had always had serious detractors and papers and articles were often published critical to the content and imagery in comics. This book, however, took criticism of comics to a new, histrionic level as it helped bring debate about the merits (or lack of) comics as an influence on America’s youth to the coffee table. Eventually, a Congressional inquiry was launched into the issues brought up by Wertham. Oddly enough, Wertham’s work covered all types of comics. The EC Comics of the time were a big part of Wertham’s indictment against the American comic book industry. EC was a company which was well known for their horror comics which were marked by violent covers and gruesome narratives. Not surprisingly the company proved an easy target for the psychiatrist. Indeed, these covers seen today are more violent than nearly anything seen in mainstream (or non-mainstream) comics today and of course EC cranked out many dozens of covers that featured severed heads, bloody fates and, my personal favorite a baseball game played with severed limbs. Editor's note: The cover at the top of the post was a main focal point of the comic book witchhunt of the 50s. In a nod to that cover and the times, Marvel created the above cover when Wolverine killed Sabretooth. Wertham appeared before the Congressional Committee in the mid-50s to answer questions about his book and as a way for Congress to get to the bottom of this controversy. EC publisher William Gaines also appeared and did his best to explain his side of the controversy. In a weird and funny anecdote, Hadju highlights Gaines' attempt to explain to members of congress how a severed head on the cover of one of his EC Titles passes the definition of "good taste." In the end, Congress did not blame comics in particular for juvenile delinquency or crime, but the Committee did recommend that comics take the violence down a notch...“voluntarily” of course. The “voluntarily” part was sufficiently ominous in the minds of the comics industry to pave the way for the creation of “The Comics Code,” which was a way to self-police violence, sexuality and even concepts (say goodbye to Zombies). Not surprisingly, this code also mandated that villains be punished and law enforcement officials not be portrayed in a negative light. Wertham’s work retains some power and impact due to 1) his strange theories about the three major DC Superheroes (Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) and due to the fact that 2) there is some truth in Wertham’s theorizing. Wertham basically said that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were comic characters that glorified homosexuality, fascism, and S&M. Superman, he said, was the picture of Hitler’s idea of masculine perfection (Wertham suggested that Superman might be more accurately portrayed sporting an “SS” emblazoned on his chest than his iconic “S” -never mind all of the Nazi fighting that the man of steel did during WWII). He also mentioned that Wonder Woman’s lasso and bracelets were coded S&M trinkets (there was some truth to this as Wonder Woman creator William Moulton admitted as much). He also mentioned that Wonder Woman’s rejection of male companionship and her skill and strength were hallmarks of lesbianism. He saved the weirdest theories for Batman and Robin suggesting that they lived together in "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together" in rich, well appointed Wayne Manor (point taken). Interestingly enough, even now Wertham has his defenders. Let's face it, the sexual kink first explored by Wertham in the 50s is a pretty common idea in contemporary comics and can be spotted in works by heavyweights like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. As for his theories about Batman, Bat-fans have always had a tough time getting around Robin (so to speak) because the set-up is pretty weird between Bruce and Dick (Cough, Cough). Wertham's ideas about Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman continue to fascinate even as they are mostly either wrong or overstated. Subtexts do not translate as an endorsement and historical and cultural contexts need to be considered in these kind of arguments. In all fairness, however, his concerns about violence in comics (particularly the EC line) were mostly understandable. As was stated earlier, the covers were particularly gruesome and it would be hard to argue even today that this kind of thing is appropriate for a youthful readership. Wertham's book did much to change the face of the comics industry. Great artists like Eisner (who quit comics for a while as a result of the uproar surrounding the book), Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were all compromised artistically in one way or another. A positive note about this is sounded by Hadju towards the end of the book when he notes that EC publisher Gaines started MAD magazine in reaction to the flack he got from Wertham and Congress. The iconic Alfred E. Neuman was meant to be a kind of disarming symbol of the silliness and even dumbness of comics. No doubt an attempt by Gaines to give visual definition to the idea that comics were kid's stuff and really not worthy of political and sociological debate. This work Hadju asserts helped pave the way for some of the giants of the independent/outsider comics movement like R. Crumb. Hadju's work is extremely interesting and puts comics in the context of American history like no popular work has ever done. It is a painstakingly researched book with almost 50 pages of footnotes, yet the narrative is very light on its feet. www.picadorusa/thetencentplague Editor's Note: Mark is dead on with his description of this book. Every person that is a fan of comic books should do themselves a favor and read this book because it is an extremely enlightening and well written account of the history of comic books.