Fourteen-year-old David Drew was the poster boy for horror comics in the 1950s, in the worst possible way.
Drew made headlines across California and around the country when, in May 1955, he admitted bludgeoning and stabbing a seven-year-old boy in Oakland. The police said he had a simple explanation for killing Stanley R. Frank Jr.
“I get an urge just like that once in a while,” the Associated Press quoted Drew as telling police.
Drew said he and Frank were in an argument about building a fort in their neighborhood and when Frank refused to leave, Drew tied him up, then accidentally hit the seven-year-old in the head with his hatchet as he was chopping at a tree limb. “I had my knife in my other hand. I stabbed him three or four times. I don’t know what happened. I just got scared.”
Less than a day later, the narrative about the killing changed. A wire service story widely published in newspapers beginning May 19 reported that Drew had told Douglas Kelley, a University of California psychiatrist, that he read horror comics and especially liked comics that “depict torture and throwing people off cliffs.”
As the young killer moved through the California legal system – he pleaded guilty in November 1955 – newspapers and wire services quickly found a memorable label for his crime: “the comic book hatchet slaying.”
Authorities and newspapers were already primed to cite comic books as a bad influence on young people. A year before, in the spring of 1954, the Congressional Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency had held public hearings. Among those testifying was Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist whose book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” posed the theory that comic book heroes like Batman and Robin were gay and a bad influence on children.
Months before young Stanley Frank was killed, in October 1954, the Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America had been adopted by comics industry publishers. The comics industry had waved a white flag in the war on comics.
The Bible influenced comic creators … no, not that Bible
The comic book industry got its start by repackaging Sunday newspaper comic strips and, within a few years, was publishing original material.
The unruly and “disreputable” – as seen by many members of the public – side of comic strips and comic books was strong before Superman was first published in Action Comics in the spring of 1938.
So-called “Tijuana Bibles,” which depicted sexually explicit acts in drawings of well-known figures from newspaper comic strips like Popeye and movie stars like Clark Gable. The small, usually eight-page comics dispensed with much story and got right down to the business of Mickey Mouse or Dick Tracy boning. The comics were small enough to stash in a man’s wallet and vivid enough to make a sailor blush when passed around at the bar.
(Common belief is that the name, apparently coined in the 1940s, was meant to invoke a sense that the comics were imported from Mexico, which wasn’t the case and only served to come off as a racist insinuation.)
Some draw a straight line from Tijuana Bibles to underground comics. When the movie Crumb, about underground artist R. Crumb, came out in 1995, a few newspapers cited in their coverage the Tijuana Bibles. But the undergrounds pretty routinely had more artistic aims than the down-and-dirty “eight pagers.”
In a 1997 piece for Salon, “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman wrote that the horror comics of the 1940s and 1950s and related magazines like Mad were created by artists inspired by Tijuana Bibles. “The comics that galvanized my generation, the early Mad, the horror and science fiction comics of the 1950s, were mostly by guys who in their turn had been warped by those little books.”
Spiegelman went on to note the Tijuana Bibles were “the first real comic books in America to do more than reprint old newspaper strips … without the Tijuana Bibles there would never have been a Mad magazine.” He estimates that as many as 1,000 separate titles of the little comics were published, but he acknowledged there was no real true accounting. He added that millions of copies might have been printed and distributed. And bootlegged. And occasionally seized by police as they were mailed or hauled across country.
Who drew these filthy little works of art? Histories of the Tijuana Bibles have cited several artists, including Wesley Morse, who went on to create the bubblegum staple Bazooka Joe.
How long were Tijuana Bibles the currency of comic porn? I remember seeing them when I was a kid in the 1960s and being somewhat mystified as to what was going on. Was this how Blondie and Dagwood made a baby, or what?
No complaints about the duck, but decapitation …
The history of the downfall of EC Comics and other horror comic publishers of the 1950s is well-trod ground. The authorities and some members of the public were in a panic over so-called juvenile delinquents and the April 1954 Congressional hearings both capitalized on that fear and fed it.
Comic books were hugely popular in mid-century. Most kids, boys and girls, read them, to the tune of more than 1 billion comic books sold each year, according to the Congressional record explaining the impetus for the hearings.
“The comic book industry is big business … Every month in this country, between 70 million and 100 million comic books are sold, most of them to American children. At 10 cents a copy, the 1,200,000,00 copies sold a year provide a yearly income of $120 million.”
“It is not with the Donald Duck type of comic book that (Congressmen are) the least bit concerned with at this time … it is the so-called horror and crime variety which has disturbed literally millions of parents throughout our nation.”
Congressmen said they received 20,000 letters from parents and contacted “some 3,000 grassroots experts throughout the country,” including police and juvenile court judges. The record went on to site FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, “that great American,” who said, “A comic book which is replete with the lurid and macabre, which places the criminal in a unique position by making him a hero, which makes lawlessness attractive, which ridicules decency and honesty, which leaves the impression that graft and corruption are necessary evils in American life, which depicts the life of a criminal as exciting and glamorous, may influence the susceptible boy or girl who already possess antisocial tendencies.”
EC Comics, of course, published thought-provoking, quality comics, addressing issues of racism and drug use, but with its staple art of rotting corpses and axes wielded by murderers, those qualities were not obvious to Hoover or many parents.
EC publisher Bill Gaines famously testified before the Congressional committee on juvenile delinquency, trying to defend a cover that depicted a woman’s severed head. As Gaines noted, the art could have been much more lurid. Outside the auspices of Congress, Gaines argued with the Comics Magazine Association and its Comics Code Authority about the prohibition of use of words like “horror.” EC fell but Gaines went on to excel with his long-running publication, Mad.
Making safe the spinner racks
While Mad survived, 15 comic book publishers went out of business in the months that followed the Congressional hearings, according to Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.” Marvel, DC and other publishers benefited from being able to recruit some of the artists, writers, inkers and other professionals who had worked in those comics.
The modern-day comics industry also inherited something else from those times: The Comics Code Authority, the self-censorship group that ensured comic books remained free of horror elements like vampires, “bad” language, coarse language and sexualized story elements.
For anyone paying attention today, right-wing efforts to gain control over school libraries is very reminiscent of the atmosphere surrounding comic books in the late 1940s and 1950s. Most comic books were innocuous adventures by characters well-remembered and mostly forgotten. The horror and crime comics of more than a half-century ago were likely not high-minded efforts on the part of publishers large and small alike. They were almost certainly attempts to make money and, for a while, horror comics sold in the millions, second only to romance comics at their peak in the late 1940s.
The drumbeat for taking action on comic books was sounding years before the Congressional hearings. In April 1948, Indianapolis Mayor Al Feeney said he would send a special investigator to newsstands to determine if “objectionable horror and comic books were being sold to children.”
“Juvenile authorities have said some offenders ‘got ideas’ from such books,” Feeney told the Associated Press.
When horror comics – and to a lesser extent superhero comics with their supposed gay subtext – were targeted by Congress and parental groups, the comics industry created the Comics Code Authority and blazed a trail that was later followed by the motion picture industry, which created the self-regulating and rating Motion Picture Association of America.
The CCA and its seal – stamp – of approval was a somewhat belated response to years of criticism from parents and conservatives. Within a couple of decades, my school library had nicely bound volumes of old newspaper comic strips, so I either had a very forward-thinking librarian (thank you, Mrs. Jeffers) or comic books were considered okay by some adults.
But whatever brought comics into school libraries by the 1960s had not been the case more than a decade before, when my home city of Muncie, Indiana, saw the creation of a community standards board that wanted to pass judgment on not only comic books but movies that played in town. The group passed a resolution “protesting the newsstand sale of 45 comic books considered ‘detrimental to young people.’”
There’s little wonder publishers remaining in the industry were willing to forestall government intervention in cities big and small. The CCA stamp in the upper corner of the cover meant that would-be local arbiters of comic books could be assured the content was “acceptable” – and that it was appropriate for shelves and spinner racks.
There was no nudity, gore or cursing in these comics, and no horror elements.
When I was a young collector, I heard that Marvel introduced Morbius the Living Vampire, in issue 101 of its Spider-Man title, as a “living” vampire to escape the wrath of the CCA. (“See? He’s a living vampire! He’s not undead. He’s not a real vampire!”)
Even before that, in Spidey issues beginning with issue 96, Marvel had taken the controversial stance that drugs were bad. The issue was published without the CCA stamp, making a statement as well as telling a story.
The CCA was softening its stance on horror comics and by 1972, Marvel introduced the best of its horror titles, “Werewolf by Night” and “Tomb of Dracula.” The rise of comic shops and the growth of publishers diversified the content of comics, but it took until 2003 for Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” comic series to debut.
Comics had come full circle from the days when graphic horror was scandalous. Within a half-century, comic book horror became not only commonplace but another way for the owners of intellectual properties to make a buck with sales to TV and merchandising.
What about David Drew, the young so-called horror comic killer? I’ve wondered if Drew actually said anything at all about his love for horror comics or if that was a convenient way for the authorities to make a point of the tragic death of young Stanley R. Frank Jr.
It’s not likely we’ll ever know. Drew pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was in February 1956 committed to an “indeterminate term” at Atascadero State Hospital. The boy cited as confirmation that horror comics were bad for children didn’t return to the headlines: there appears to be no newspaper mention of him after that.