VCON 43: Endgame

No Hope for an historian’s interview

Published: Oct 11 2019, 01:01:am

Monday, August 14, 1967.
“IT WAS THE BEST of times; it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens says in the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities. He might well have been describing the second decade of the comic book, the years in which the Golden Age turned into the Age of Gore. It was a time during which some of the best comic artists and writers were at work, and during which some of the worst material ever to appear between covers was produced.
    From the moment that the first comic book appeared in 1929, the picture-story world became the secret hideaway of the young. Nobody except the kids paid much attention to them, and not even the kids were aware of the slow changes that were taking place. But change they did, and one morning America woke up to find that crime and killing, death and dying were all part of comic book entertainment.
    The secret world had developed two faces. On one side was the smiling, parent-approved world of cartoon fantasies, full of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers characters, bright Little Lulu-like girls and Classics Illustrated. The other face, however, wore a grotesque leer, and was peopled by some of the shadier semi-superheroes, hoodlums, ghouls, the Old Witch and the Crypt Keeper.
    The sinister crime-story comic book oozed up out of the war years. Crime comics represented about one-tenth of all comic books in the period 1946-1947. One year later they were responsible for one-third of the sales. By 1949, comic books featuring crime, violence and sadism made up over half the industry. And, in 1954, they were forming the overwhelming majority of the market.
    The takeover was complete before the adult world realized that anything was going on. Comic books, after all, were far too trifling for grown-ups.
    In 1954, the trifling comic book's circulation was in excess of one billion. Some 70 million were sold per month, and more than $100,000,000 a year was spent on them. That figure represented more money than was spent for the entire book supply for elementary and secondary schools in the United States in the same year. It was four times the combined book purchasing budgets of all public libraries. And the figure excluded consideration of the market for second-hand comics.
    Parents finally became aware that they had turned their children loose into a horrible, perverted world where murderers, maniacs and monsters glared down from every newsstand. Where, they asked, had this terrible giant come from?
    Despite the appearance in 1929 of Famous Funnies, comic book history doesn't really start until 1937. (Funnies was nothing more than a collection of newspaper comic strips arranged in magazine format.) The first genuine comic book was Detective Comics (D.C.). Its stories were all its own, and they were about crime fighting.
    Detective Comics developed a sister magazine, Action Comics, and it was in the August, 1938 issue of that book that the world's first superhero, Superman, was born. That strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, was the first nugget turned up in what was to come to be the “Golden Age" of the comics.
    Batman joined the D.C. line a year later, and the era of the Great Comic Book Heroes was in full swing. Many of the heroes were a little strange, and some of them were a whole lot strange, but they had one thing in common. They were all "good guys."
    The police appreciated them, and often looked to the variously costumed crusaders for help. The citizens loved them. In fact, the only people who didn’t like them were the nasties. Midway through the war, though, the nasties began to get the upper hand.
    When the boys went off to war, they took their comic books with them. The publishers found that they were able to sell more comics when they presented a more violent and gutsy story line. The  criminals became the chief characters and their drives the dominant theme.
    Back at home, the kids who were already getting a full diet of war news and propaganda attitudes were now given their very own crime primers. The comics were handing out complete, detailed and illustrated manuals on the planning and commission of every kind of crime, in magazines with titles like Crime Does Not Pay.
     It was paying the publishers handsomely.
    The first public outcry came early in 1948. Police and educators were beginning to suspect that a relationship existed between comic book reading and juvenile delinquency. Too many young people were involved in too many criminal situations. Something, it was said, had to be done.
    In Canada they said: There ought to be a law. Davie Fulton, currently [1967] a contender for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, sponsored a private member's bill in Ottawa's House of Commons which passed easily. From 1949, it became a crime in Canada to "make, print, publish, distribute, sell or possess" crime comic books. Canadian children were thus saved from the second and most horrible development in comic books.
    In the United States they said: Maybe there shouldn't be a law, but do . . . well, something. The Association of Comic Magazine Publishers was set up to act as a self-policing agency within the industry. Its creation quieted the critics but its existence was ignored by the publishers.
    Somehow crime comics weren't as exciting as they had once been and, early in the fifties, a new gimmick appeared — horror comics. Like the example pictured above [From Tales from the Crypt No. 39, Dec-Jan. 1953], there was nothing funny about the comic books' treatment of death and the supernatural. Comics took the long, last step into worlds of terror, torture, ghouls, graveyards, witches, werewolves and warlocks.
    In a way that words could never hope to reproduce, the comic books pictured murders, mutilation and mayhem. No story was too gruesome nor any picture too gory to print. The comics literally sold their souls to the devil, and were forced to pay up when he came to call.
    His name was Frederic Wertham, and he was a psychiatrist in New York City. To the publishers he was the devil, but to concerned adults he was nothing short of a crusading knight who came to slay the dragon. In 1954, he published Seduction of the Innocent, and that book became the headstone on crime-and-horror comics' grave.
    In his book, Dr. Wertham laid it out for everyone to see. Not only were crime comics showing the children how, he argued, but they were giving them reasons why. Prolonged exposure at an early age to anti-social attitudes can only result in children taking those attitudes for their own. Violence, he said, can only beget violence.
    By this time Americans were getting the idea. The United States had been virtually isolated, told by the rest of the world that they could keep their comic books. Crime-and-horror comics were denied access to both Mexico and Canada. The governments of the countries of both communist eastern and democratic western Europe had issued blanket bans on them. Even the United Nations condemned them.
    As a result, groundswell movements began in all of the United States, and local municipal governments began to study courses of action. The comic book publishers responded with a second code to be administered by the Comic Magazine Association of America.
     The public was dubious of the publishers' sincerity, and made it clear that they would be well advised to see that their new code worked. It did.
    Unfortunately, it became a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The comics were clean but they were also dead.
    On this page is comic art, circa 1953 [Tales from the Crypt] and 1967 [Thirteen “Going on Eighteen", No. 20].
    In recent years, comic art has come to be recognized as one of the great native American contributions to the world's cultural heritage. Such sentiments at the time would probably have taken the fun right out of it. But this is part of what is behind the current interest in the Pop Art movement.
    Comic book illustrators used to be craftsmen and artists. Comic book stories used to be carefully plotted and developed. EC Comics, publisher of some of the worst comic books, also produced many of the best. When they ceased publishing, however, they ceased everything.
    Today, despite renewed interest and fairly vigourous sales, the comic book picture continues to be bleak. Superman is so very tired that it has taken to running “imaginary” tales. What would have happened, one asks, if our Superman had had a brother? Who cares, really?
    Batman, for its part, has become rather silly, too busy playing up to his “camp” [1966] television image to really bother about setting up a solid comic book story. The only light on the scene is reflected from the banners of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
    Marvel Comics, unlike their competitors, seem to care. They have been, in the past few years, assembling an interesting cast of characters and creating some surprisingly involved and involving story lines. Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, Nick Fury and the rest just may be the only things left of the greatness that comic books once knew.
    To all intents and purposes the comic book is dead. Television, the startling upstart, has taken much of the punch out of the printed picture and word. Comic books, the real ones, have passed on into the world of collectors, along with Big Little Books and 78 r.p.m. records.
      We should remember them for what they were — the shadows of lost childhood, the toys of the dead.

The above is a restored version of a Toronto Telegram feature by Michael Walsh originally published in 1967. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Reporters do not write the headlines that appear over their stories, so I am not guilty of that hyphen in “The Crusade that Cleaned-up Comics.” As for the rest, well, it was 1967, and 52 years ago there weren’t a lot of comic-book historians in Canada. Serious comics fans had to make do with cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s pioneering book The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965) and the occasional newspaper (or magazine) article put together by some journalist working against a deadline and, it must be admitted, with the attitudes of the day.
    Today, a list of books about comics, graphic novels and sequential art would fill its own book. Cultural historians really began taking comics seriously in the early 1970s, and in 1974 I took the opportunity to review three representative titles (posted here). In May, 2017, I had the pleasure of reviewing Hope Nicholson’s The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen. Her work continues and, if the stars align, I'll see her at the 2020 Vancouver Comic Arts Festival (VanCAF), scheduled for May 16 and 17 at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre in Yaletown.