Monday, May 19, 2008

Red Lantern, Green Lantern

I just finished reading David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2008), an account of the comic book scares of the mid-1950s. I enjoyed Hadju’s book, with its expert retelling of the colorful birth of the comic book industry, which emerged from the fervid imaginations of New York City teenagers in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the promotional abilities of a number of sleazy, fly by night publishers, with tiny offices on 9th and 10th avenues. Within years they had created a new genre of popular literature, led by Superman, who transformed adolescent America’s reading taste just as easily as leaping over tall buildings in a single bound

But the center of the book is an account of how, in 1954, the publication of Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent, alleging a connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency, led to Senate hearings on the same subject conducted by Sen. Estes Kefauver, and the decision of the comic book industry to adopt the Comics Code, which banned violent and salacious subject matter in comics, and led to a great shakeout in the industry, from which only a few comic book makers were left standing.

But I guess I dissent from Hadju’s thesis, seconded by blurbs by such estimable folks as Sean Willentz and Victor Navasky, that the crackdown on comic books was a disaster, an example of mid-1950s America penchant for hysteria and witch hunting, akin to the red scare. Hadju ends the volume with a 14-page list of people who never worked again in comics after the adoption of the Comics Code.

There is no doubt that Frederic Wertham’s attack on comic books was shrill and greatly exaggerated the harmful effects of comic books, which probably had little or no effect on the level of adolescent crime. But Wertham was a fascinating figure, a German émigré psychologist who opened a pioneering mental health clinic in Harlem in 1946, and was an ardent supporter of racial equality, and was a close friend of Ralph Ellison. He was also a prime example of the belief in social engineering that was so prevalent in the 1950s, that bad societal outcomes such as prejudice or juvenile delinquency could be prevented or eliminated by directly changing the mental biases that led to their rise; no more comic books, no more, or at least much less, juvenile delinquency.

And Wertham didn’t have to go far to find lurid examples of comic books, which had moved, as Hadju carefully explains, from stories of patriotic superheroes to horror comics filled with grisly pictures of axe-murderers with blood dripping from their murder weapons, and romantic comics, which largely consisted of busty women in various states of undress. Hadju never really comes to grips with Wetham’s main point, exaggerated as it may have been: lots of the comic books that were being published in the early 1950s were not really appropriate for children.

Once the comics code was instituted, the comic book industry returned to what it did best, superheros, and those of us who grew up in the shadow of the comics code, reading Superman, Batman, and Spiderman, were not aware that we were reading inferior products, and their was plenty of violence, and women dressed in tight fitting unitards. And it seems unlikely that the comic book industry would have continued at the same size it was in the mid-1950s for much longer. New media, television and horror films in particular, were making inroads, and adolescent tastes, no doubt aided by the comic book scare, changed. This was not a blacklist, but the same thing that happened to the authors of dime novels or jazz musicians during the rock and roll era. Popular culture is a harsh mistress. And as Hadju shows, what was no doubt the most important product of the comic book world of the early 1950s, Mad Magazine, transcended the comic book genre, and continued to thrive.

The only problem with comic books these days is that they have become too sophisticated, and is no longer disposable adolescent fare, and are regularly read by adults. I can’t tell you how many progressive twenty-something bloggers I read feel impelled to make a point by bringing in Iron Man, the Justice League of America, or Green Lantern. Enough! What is it that accounts for the hold of comic books over the minds of some of our best liberal commentators? Time for a new congressional investigation.

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