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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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No medium has ever kicked sand over the line between crime and horror as gleefully—and with such spectacular fallout—as midcentury American crime comics. Their reign was brief: only twelve years passed between the 1942 publication of what’s generally considered the first crime comic and a dramatic Senate hearing in 1954 that would effectively toe-tag the medium for several decades. And while much of the rigid censorship that culled the midcentury comics field was trained on the era’s horror titles, crime comics were regulated, censored, and banned just as heavily. In fact, as the forebears of horror comics, crime comics were the primary targets when the U.S. government set its sights on comic books.
To really understand what happened, it helps to consider what was going on in America in the mid-1950s. On the surface, things were good. The economy was barreling along thanks to the post-war boom in manufacturing and home construction, and an explosion in automobile production made us more mobile than ever before. America had recently vanquished not one but two enemy empires, and even if the advent of nuclear weapons had edged us dramatically closer to a self-inflicted apocalypse, at least we were winning the arms race (for the time being).
But the veneer of optimism hid an ever-growing tangle of anxiety and social tensions. The Cold War and the resulting Red Scare bred paranoia and pitched us toward the political conservatism that would produce right-wing groups like the John Birch Society. The Civil Rights Movement was ramping up, but Jim Crow laws were still in full effect across the South. America might have been years away from the tumult of the Vietnam era, but the decade brought its own deeply painful reckonings.
What America was really freaking out about, though, was its youth. For starters, there were a lot of them—they didn’t call the post-war years the Baby Boom for nothing—and the country had, um, concerns. By the mid-’50s, a “teenage rebellion” was in full swing, and kids were consuming pop culture at a rate never before seen. Rock ’n’ roll is the example that most readily comes to mind, but it was also the age when comic books ruled supreme.
However popular the medium seems today, it pales in comparison to its reach in the midcentury years. In 1960 (the first year the U.S. Postal Service required publishers to report circulation figures inside their comics), both Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories were moving more than one million copies per issue. For perspective, last year’s top-selling comic, Marvel Legacy #1, sold 303,574 copies. During the 1950s, it’s estimated that 80 million comics were sold every month.
And while many of those titles were kid-friendly animal stories and “funny books,” many were decidedly not. The superhero comics that thrived during World War II saw their popularity wane in the years after the war. Even in the ’40s and ’50s, comics weren’t just read by children. Young adults, particularly those whose lives had been shaped by one of the most brutal conflicts the world had ever seen, also traded their dimes for four-color fantasy. (During the war, comics accounted for as much as 25 percent of the printed material shipped to military exchanges.)Taking cues from the pulp novels and magazines that had thrived in the 1930s, grittier fare began to hit newsstands.
Readers of all ages were in the mood for something a little edgier than the exploits of costumed heroes, and publishers were happy to oblige. Taking cues from the pulp novels and magazines that had thrived in the 1930s, grittier fare began to hit newsstands. Sequential art had already dabbled in the crime genre—Chester Gould’s legendary comic strip Dick Tracy made its debut in a Detroit newspaper in 1931—but the first comic book dedicated exclusively to crime tales was probably 1942’s inaugural issue of Crime Does Not Pay (actually a rebranding of publisher Lev Gleason’s Silver Streak Comics).
The title sold well upon its launch, with the publisher reporting sales of around 200,000 copies per issue for early installments. Its popularity grew as the war went on, with sales nearing 800,000 per issue by the time the war ended.
Other publishers were eager to cash in on the title’s success. Just as crime lit eventually splintered into numerous subgenres, its comic book counterpart offered titles for every taste. Comics allegedly based on news reports and police files were popular—there was True Crime (not to be confused with All-True Crime), Official True Crime Cases, and Authentic Police Cases, to name a few. Many titles, such as Crime Can’t Win, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, and Justice Traps the Guilty, evinced a stark moral code: break the law and suffer mightily. There were tales of two-fisted investigators (Kerry Drake Detective Cases; Crime Smashers), crime-beat journalists (Crime Reporter; Casey, Crime Photographer), and murderous dames by the dozen (Crimes by Women).
While many of these comics featured the kind of cops-and-robbers violence that didn’t raise many eyebrows in the age of Dragnet, others were decidedly more disturbing. Crime Does Not Pay #24, published in December 1942, shows a man shoving a woman’s face onto a flaming stove. Psychopathic murderers, serial killers, and cannibals rubbed elbows with bank robbers and garden-variety gangsters. By 1947, crime comics had given rise to horror comics, where vampires and werewolves stood in for mobsters and hitmen.
It was often tough to tell where one genre ended and the other began, and no publisher blurred the line as successfully as EC Comics. The company published only about seven percent of the era’s horror comics, but its influence can’t be overstated. Besides flagship horror series like Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror, EC rode the crime comics wave, most notably with Crime SuspenStories, which debuted in 1950.
EC editor and publisher William Gaines, who had changed the name of his father’s company from Educational Comics to Entertaining Comics after Max Gaines’s death in 1947, differed from many other comics publishers in that he genuinely liked the books his imprint produced. He hired outstanding artists—Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, and Joe Orlando are among the comics legends who created EC’s iconic art—and imposed rigorous creative standards.
Publishers occasionally wielded their editorial authority to tame some of their comics’ more shocking images, but restraint is generally not a word that comes to mind when considering the vast body of midcentury crime and horror comics. On the tamer end of the spectrum, torn dresses and bondage were popular front-cover motifs. As the needle ticked into the moral-outrage zone, covers routinely depicted graphic scenes of murder, torture, and mutilation.
Considering the era’s growing fears about youth culture and the rising influence of religious conservatism, the comics section of the American newsstand was a tinderbox waiting for a spark. What it got was a man wielding a flamethrower.
Of all the adults who were scandalized by crime comics and their offshoots, none were as influential as noted psychiatrist and author Fredric Wertham. Wertham was extremely active in his field—he wrote a seminal textbook on brain science and famously testified at the trial of notorious child murderer Albert Fish—but his most passionate cause was his crusade against comic books. He was convinced that comics were rotting young minds. Wertham began publishing anti-comics articles as early as 1947, but his coup de grace was the 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, a shoddily researched polemic that seemed to confirm America’s worst fears about the comics stacked on little Johnny’s nightstand.By then, many adults across the country had already pegged comic books as a scourge that would drive children to delinquency, sexual deviance, and probably murder.
By then, many adults across the country had already pegged comic books as a scourge that would drive children to delinquency, sexual deviance, and probably murder. Churches were holding mass comic book burnings; a few cities had banned them altogether. So by the time Seduction of the Innocent was published, America was primed to go to war against a perceived enemy lurking in its midst. All it needed was a well-positioned general to lead the charge.
It’s tempting to write off Wertham’s crusade as a product of the same malignant paranoia that allowed McCarthyism to ruin so many lives, but the truth is more complicated. Wertham was a progressive activist, and his concern for the wellbeing of children was sincere, if intensely misguided. He came to the U.S. in 1922 to accept a position at Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Baltimore’s prestigious Johns Hopkins. After a tenure at New York’s Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic, he took up the cause of providing low-cost psychiatric care to African-American children, eventually opening the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem. His 1952 article “Psychological Effects of School Segregation” was cited in the pivotal Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court case.
But for all his good intentions, Seduction of the Innocent represented a stunning dereliction of duty. Today, the book is used in some graduate programs as an example of how not to do research. Wertham used anecdotal “evidence” rather than data to back up his allegations that comic books were contributing to youth violence, and he leapt to conclusions that were in no way supported by facts (e.g., comics turned people gay because Wertham knew gay people who liked comics). He concluded that, since most of the troubled children he interviewed read comics, comics were the source of the problem—never mind the fact that, in the 1950s, Wertham would’ve been hard-pressed to find children from any demographic who didn’t read comics. He ignored environmental, sociological, and even physiological factors, even blaming congenital cognitive disorders on comic books.
And it wasn’t just admittedly violent crime and horror comics that got Wertham’s blood up. He cast some serious side-eye at Batman (“psychologically homosexual”), Superman (“a symbol of violent race superiority”), and Wonder Woman (“the Lesbian counterpart of Batman”—capital “L” courtesy of Wertham).
In his quest to eradicate comics from newsstands, Wertham found an eager ally in Senator Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat who had already made a name for himself during the Senate’s organized crime hearings in the early ’50s. Kefauver was a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, formed in 1953, and became a key figure when the subcommittee took comic books to task during three days of public testimony.
When the hearings began on April 21, 1954, Wertham was naturally called in as a key witness. But what he was really about to do was carry out an execution.
Crime and horror comics were probably on their way to the gallows by the time the subcommittee convened, but the most damning evidence might have surfaced in the spring of ’54 with the release of EC Comics’ Crime SuspenStories #22. Drawn and inked by EC regular Johnny Craig, the cover shows a man holding a woman’s severed head in one hand and a bloodied axe in the other. The image is packed with intensely disturbing visual cues: the victim’s long, blond hair is coiled through her killer’s fist; the dripping murder weapon juts from crotch level; the woman’s eyes are rolled back in her disembodied head, her bare legs visible in the background.
The timing couldn’t have been worse, and the issue became one of the key exhibits in the Senate hearing that sounded the death knell for crime comics; it was the very book brandished by Senator Kefauver during an exchange with William Gaines that many consider a pivotal moment in the proceedings:This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Kefauver: This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Gaines: Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
Gaines: A little.
Gaines, exhausted after a Dexedrine-fueled night spent preparing his introductory speech, was the first comic book publisher to testify, and there has since been speculation that he was essentially set up to take the inevitable fall. He proved a poor match for the calculating, media-savvy politicians who questioned him. By the time his session was over, it wasn’t hard to see where things were going.
It was so obvious, in fact, that the comic book industry decided to do the government’s dirty work for it. In September of 1954, a group of comics publishers (including Gaines) formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and adopted the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a panel that would enforce a stringent set of guidelines meant to eliminate objectionable content before the feds could step in and fell the entire industry.
The resulting Comics Code of 1954 was so restrictive that it was virtually impossible to produce a marketable crime comic. Item 6 of the General Standards section states that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” Anything that “promote[d] distrust of the forces of law and justice” was strictly off-limits, as were any comics that “explicitly present[ed] the unique details and methods of a crime.” (If there are echoes of Hollywood’s Hays Code, it’s no accident; the Comics Code was based on the mostly-ignored Publishers Code of 1948, which was in turn modeled on the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930.) Even the word “crime” made the CCA fidgety; it mandated “restraint in the use of the word ‘crime’ in titles or subtitles,” and the word was never permitted to appear alone on a cover or in a larger font than the text surrounding it.
In other words, all but the blandest crime comics were D.O.A.In other words, all but the blandest crime comics were D.O.A.
Horror comics fared just as poorly. According to the Code, no comic was permitted to use the word “horror” or “terror” in its title, and any scene involving “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” was officially off the table. And in case anyone got clever or thought there might be some wiggle room, the Code forbade “all scenes of horror.”
The effect on crime and horror titles was swift and devastating. Horror comics were virtually gone from shelves by the following year; a few crime titles held out, but they were stripped of the grittiness and elements of shock and suspense that made them so appealing to readers in the first place. Crime Does Not Pay, the title that launched the genre in 1942, ended its 147-issue run in 1955, just months after the Code became the unofficial law of the land. (In one of comics history’s many bizarre footnotes, series co-creator Bob Wood later spent three years in prison after beating a woman to death during a drunken argument at a Greenwich Village hotel in 1958.)
And it wasn’t just America that tried to obliterate the medium. Canada outlawed crime comics altogether with 1949’s Bill 10, which was still on the books as late as 2017. England’s comics industry struggled with censorship after its Parliament passed the Harmful Publications Act of 1955, while Australia had its own reckoning after its most notable genre comics artist, Lone Avenger creator Len Lawson, was convicted of sexually assaulting three models he had hired to pose for a swimsuit calendar.
But other creators in Europe, Asia, and South America continued to produce crime comics, and a few rays of light began to shine through in the ’60s, when publisher James Warren realized that the Comics Code could be skirted by producing comics in an oversized, black-and-white format that technically placed them in the magazine category. Horror comics were the main benefactors of the loophole, making a comeback with Warren Publishing’s Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella “magazines,” but legendary comics creator Jack Kirby also took advantage of the workaround in the early ’70s with his short-lived but sophisticated crime comic In the Days of the Mob.
The Code was eased slightly in 1971—incidentally the same year that Marvel’s Stan Lee opted to defy the CCA with a three-issue arc of The Amazing Spider-Man that dealt with drug abuse—and more substantially in 1989. By then, the CCA had begun a steady slide into irrelevance. Advertisers and distributors began to relax their requirements concerning a title’s CCA approval status, and new imprints and publishers stopped submitting their books for CCA clearance, paving the way for the mature-reader titles that began to flood comics shops in the 1990s. Marvel finally ditched the CCA in 2010; DC and Archie Comics followed suit in 2011, permanently defanging the Comics Code.
***Crime comics are in the midst of a renaissance that’s producing some of the best work the medium has ever seen.
Like any good four-color crime story, this one has a twist at the end. Crime comics are in the midst of a renaissance that’s producing some of the best work the medium has ever seen. Prime examples include Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s blacker-than-noir Criminal and the late, great Darwyn Cooke’s pitch-perfect adaptations of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels. Titles such as Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra’s Native American noir Scalped and John Arcudi’s elegiac hard-boiled detective tale The Creep can hold their own on any crime-lit shelf. Creators are also proving that the medium is as flexible as it is durable; Matt and Sharlene Kindt’s deep-sea mystery series Dept. H imagines a murder investigation that plays out in an underwater research station, while Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals centers on a bank-robbing couple who can freeze time when they have sex.
Wertham’s story also has a coda worth mentioning. A few years after the newsstand apocalypse triggered by Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham set his sights on another booming industry that had made its way into tens of millions of American homes. In 1959, he wrote The War on Children, a treatise on the harmful effects of television on malleable young minds.
No publisher would touch it.