Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
I’ve actually told this story elsewhere, but I might as well tell it again. When I was a kid, my parents got me a subscription to Clubhouse Magazine, which is Focus on the Family’s periodical for late elementary / early middle school–aged kids. I’m not here to take digs at the magazine, but one story that ran in its pages sticks out in my memory as particularly misguided, even all these years later.
The story—I don’t remember its title or author, and can’t find now, so you’ll just have to take my word that it existed—concerned a Christian kid who was assigned to write a horror story for her English class. This resulted in a crisis of conscience for her, as she considered writing horror unacceptable for Christians, but she didn’t feel comfortable not doing the assignment either. Her solution was to submit a retelling of a macabre Bible story (I think it was the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28)—thus fulfilling the assignment while remaining true to her convictions.
Living in the real world means dealing with the possibility of running into horrifying, disturbing, and immoral things. . . Certainly stories that exploit them cynically are out there, but the solution is stories that take them seriously, not rules banning them outright.Even at the time, I thought this a bizarre and obvious contradiction (apparently it’s okay for biblical authors to engage with the macabre, but not for Christian writers? how in the world did we arrive at that tortured conclusion?). And in retrospect, that story was probably pivotal to the trajectory my life has followed, leading me to a writing career with one foot in the Christian world and one foot in the horror world (a situation I would recommend to absolutely no one who wants a real career). It made me reckon with the difference between a story about evil and a story that is evil—a not unsubtle distinction, well worth pondering. But it’s also not the only time it’s been implied that entire genres of literature are off-limits for moral, upstanding types.
Take, for instance, the panic over comic books in the 1950s.
By way of background, comic books appeared seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the nineteenth century, originally just as a cheap way to reprint old newspaper funnies and resell them. Thanks to their cheap cover price, though, they exploded in popularity in the early twentieth century. At their height—which roughly coincided with World War II and the years directly following—comic books were literally the most popular medium in the U.S., reaching more people than movies or radio. The genres and content were widely varied as well, dealing not only with superheroes but also detectives, science fiction, romance, and more. As comics expanded beyond their original audience of kids, so too did the subjects they covered, which eventually led to stuff like grisly crime and horror-themed publications. More on that in a second.
The perhaps-inevitable moral panic over comics began with a psychologist named Frederic Wertham. A German immigrant and a progressive, Wertham worked with troubled (mainly black) youth in a clinic in New York City. Observing his patients—many of whom had fallen into petty crime—Wertham noticed that nearly all of them read comic books. Given the enormous popularity of comic books at the time, this observation was about as interesting as the fact that nearly all of them ate food, but Wertham was convinced he was onto something. He spent a few years reading comics himself and in 1954 published Seduction of the Innocent, a damning exposé of the horrors of comics. (In some cases, literal horrors, because a lot of what we’re talking about here is horror comics.)
Some of Wertham’s complaints about what he called “crime comics” (which he used as a generic term for everything from true crime to horror to superhero fiction) were pretty self-evident. A lot of these comics portrayed heinous crimes and contained grisly images. A lot of them promoted racial stereotypes. At the same time, though, a lot of his claims were awfully far-fetched: For instance, Wertham asserted that Batman and Robin were gay lovers, and that Wonder Woman was clearly a lesbian. It was a hodgepodge of accusations, but the upshot was that Wertham argued that comics were literally more dangerous than the Nazis. “If it were my task to teach children delinquency,” Wertham would later say, “I would have to invent the crime comic book industry.”
Wertham’s book became a bestseller and actually led to congressional hearings where comics publishers were grilled for hours on end. Of note were the interviews of William Gaines, publisher for EC Comics, an imprint that had made a fortune printing grisly horror comics throughout the 1950s—many of which deliberately upended American norms of the time and would be seen as being on the proverbial “right side of history” today (e.g., many carried racial equality messages). “I was the first publisher in these United States to publish horror comics,” Gaines told the Senate. “Some may not like them. That’s a matter of personal taste. It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid.” (It…was the fifties.)
Remarkably, Congress actually took Gaines’s side in this, finding that there was no correlation between reading comics and engaging in criminal acts, but the comics industry had been spooked by the whole thing and was now living in fear of government censorship. The obvious solution for comics publishers was to censor themselves—after all, it had worked twenty years ago for the film industry with the Hays Code (a whole other can of worms). The code the industry came up with, however, somehow turned out infinitely more censorious than the one ruling the film industry: Not only did the newly formed Comics Code Authority ban sexually explicit and violent images. It out-and-out banned entire genres like horror and crime. It also banned any depiction of werewolves, zombies, vampires, and ghosts, along with divorce, “slang,” and all racial and religious prejudice. (That last one may sound great to modern readers, but it actually had the “chilling effect” of making most publishers scared to depict minorities at all.) Oh, and criminals always had to get their due. The bad guys could never, ever be depicted “winning.”
If you’re left wondering “Then what stories could you tell in comics?” you’re not alone. The Comics Code effectively cut the industry’s output in half overnight as publishers struggled to come up with stories that actually satisfied all of its requirements. In the end, they all sort of arrived at the same thing: silly stories about superheroes catching and locking up wacky bank-robbing villains. So if you were wondering why comic books as a medium are associated in so many people’s minds with bland stories of do-gooder heroes, well…now you know. That’s basically what they were from the 1950s until the 1980s, when the Comics Code’s grip finally started to weaken. Then again, that’s basically what movies are now, and…I dunno, I guess somebody likes it.
As a side note, the sudden ban on horror comics led to the creation of one of the pillars of American satire. Having been forced to shut down all of EC’s horror comics lines, Bill Gaines had no choice but to get creative. In his desperation, he took EC’s horror-comedy series Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad, and retooled it into Mad Magazine—which, as an “illustrated humor magazine” as opposed to a comic book, was exempt from the CCA’s oversight. It’s probably no coincidence that Mad went on to be one of the icons of mid–twentieth century American publishing: literally no one else could do what it was doing.
If it’s not clear, I’m on Gaines’s side on all of this. Living in the real world means dealing with the possibility of running into horrifying, disturbing, and immoral things; stories that pretend these things simply don’t exist therefore tend to ring hollow.
Certainly stories that exploit them cynically are out there, but the solution is stories that take them seriously, not rules banning them outright. As I pointed out earlier, the authors of Scripture clearly understood this (which…buy my book). Why can’t we?