In 1954, when horror comics were at an all time peak in terms of sales, artwork and subject matter, a small cadre of academics experts, and a large number of concerned mothers, drove a stake through their heart. Over half a century later, comics may face a similar threat from those same two groups, but for completely opposite reasons.
Let me fill you in on a little bit of history before I elaborate. The esteemed US editor and brilliant wit H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy”.
As nothing makes a disturbed kid happier than a horror comic like EC’s Haunt of Fear, it stood to reason that this happiness would stir haunting fears among the puritans. As early as 1948 concerned citizens groups, PTAs and library meetings were debating the ‘problem of comic books’. Bands of enraged mothers would charge down to the newsagents and grocery stores that carried comics and grab armfuls of them off the shelves.
This hysteria came to a head in 1954 with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent written by the German psychiatrist Dr Frederic Wertham. This damning survey of comics and their effect on children titillated its readers with sensational pictures of violent and sadistic acts from the comics (just as the comics themselves did). The publishers of the book consider these sections to be the principle reason it became a minor best seller. One of the themes it picked up on was the recurrent use of images depicting ‘injuries to the eye’ – hence the title of this column.
The book also made a lot of unscientific observations and unsubstantiated claims about comics based on undocumented anecdotes. Superman was a fascist, Wonder Woman a lesbian and Batman a paedophile. Crime and horror comics turned innocent little children into thieves, rapists and murderers. Wertham was a special adviser to crusading US Senator Estes Kefauver. When Kefauver was looking around for another campaign to match the success of his 1950 investigation into Organised Crime, Wertham suggested Juvenile Delinquency and comic books.
In April 1954 the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, led by Kefauver, called Wertham and several leading lights from the world of comics to give evidence. Although the committee eventually exonerated the comic book industry, the effect of the hearing was calamitous. Comics opted for self-censorship and founded the Comics Code Authority. A group of self appointed censors whose ‘code’ was principally designed to drive the best selling crime and horror comic publishers, like Lev Gleason and William M Gaines, out of business.
Kefauver and Wertham were genuinely well meaning. As well as fighting organised crime, Kefauver did more than any US senator of his time to advance the cause of civil liberties. Wertham set up a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem, to treat poor and disadvantaged children and adults without health insurance. It was the children he met in his clinics that first drew his attention to comics. Their good intentions were misplaced however. Comic sales plummeted to an all time low and horror comics disappeared completely for over a decade on both sides of Atlantic.
Fast-forward to the present day and the academic and parental response to comics couldn’t be more different. There are journals, papers, symposiums and conferences filled with esteemed professors all extolling the virtues of comics and their beneficial effects on improving literacy and encouraging reading. Hearing how successful graphic novels are in encouraging children to read, parents are marching down to the book stores that stock them and grabbing armfuls off the shelves. Not to burn, just to thrust upon their Xbox addled offspring, in the forlorn hope of coaxing them into reading more.
And the result this has had on the comics industry? Sales have plummeted to an all time low.
Comics commentators, who are more intelligent and better informed than me, will point out that this is largely due to the exorbitant prices currently charged by comics, their practical disappearance from the newsstands and the competition posed by video games, social networking and a thousand other distractions. Not to mention the huge impact online piracy has on profits, when anyone can read a comic for free within twenty-four hours of it being published.
However true these arguments may be, they’re frankly a little bit depressing. So gentle reader, I’d like you to indulge me by entertaining another explanation for the slump in comic sales: maybe we just took the fun out of them. Let’s face it, who wants to read anything that our teachers or our parent give us? Seriously, what’s cool or exciting about that? I read horror comics as a kid principally to give the finger to well-meaning parents and teachers. Now we’re handing comics to our children telling them that they’re good for them. Do we seriously think that’s going to get them to read more comics?
Before I go any further I think it’s time to step forward and admit my own guilt in all this. Last week I was interviewed by a leading parents’ magazine about the educational benefits of encouraging children to read comics. This was partly because I’ve written hundreds of kid’s comics, and partly because I’ve written an award winning series of Dark Fantasy graphic novels called ‘Battle Cries’ that are used in schools throughout the country to encourage literacy in young adults. I had the best of intentions in doing this. I hoped that by encouraging parents to buy more comics for their kids we’d increase sales in our stricken industry. I also hoped that by starting kids young, and improving their reading through comics, I’d nurture the next generation of comic readers.
But now I ask you, gentle reader, were my good intentions as misplaced as those of Dr Frederic Wertham and Senator Estes Kefauver?
Is it time to make horror comics disreputable again?