Tuesday, February 7, 2012
The Brief History of 50s Horror Comics Exposed in The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!
When I think of horror and sci-fi stuff from the 1950s, three things immediately come to mind: the rise of the "atomic mutant" subgenre of horror/sci-fi movies, the popularity of alien invasion stories, and Hammer Studio's early ventures into horror cinema. On the other hand, I never thought much about horror comics from that era. I knew that there were Senate hearings about the content of comic books in 1954, and that these hearings were prompted by the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a book by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. In his book, Wertham accused comic books of inciting juvenile delinquency on an epidemic level. By the end of the hearings, the comic book industry implemented a self-regulating Comics Code Authority (CCA) just so it could stay in business.
Fans of superhero comics (myself included) are well-versed in how the CCA Code sanitized the content of DC's superhero universe, and how also it set the stage for Marvel to introduce a new generation of innovative-yet-CCA-compliant superheroes. Yet in comparison to other genres, horror comics vanished from newsstands overnight because of the CCA. In his book The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!, author Jim Trombetta recounts the hysteria surrounding horror comics during the mid-50s and the people who were involved--the critics, the publishers, and the artists. He also reprints many examples of artwork from these controversial comics, which he uses to critically analyze the comics' recurring imagery and themes. Click below to read my complete book review, and why Trombetta's work is a great addition to the short lists of books that chronicle the most successful act of government-sponsored censorship in the US.
Trombetta begins his book with an overview of the Senate hearings and the hysteria that led up to the hearings, with subsequent chapters devoted to particular aspects of 50s era horror comics (skeletons, sexuality, shrunken heads, race, etc.). Each chapter is separated by pages of reprinted artwork from the comics themselves, including covers, panels and a few complete stories. In one of the initial chapters, Trombetta succinctly describes the reasoning that drove the censorship of horror comics: "(I)n April 1954, comics became the first pop-art medium to be regulated nearly out of existence by the government. ... It was, in true Orwellian fashion, as if the government thought that bad things would vanish if they couldn't be read or thought aloud." Given how comic books have been repeatedly derided by cultural elites as "junk" entertainment, it's astonishing to read Trombetta's account of how influential members of our own government willingly believed that horror comics could do so much harm to society and that banishing them to the point of complete cancellation would ultimately serve the greater good.
What I enjoyed about The Horror! is how Trombetta analyzes horror comics and the fears and insecurities they reflected at the time. Early horror comics feature many of the same ideas and images that many other forms of horror storytelling have, but Trombetta keeps his scrutiny of them rooted in the popular culture of the late 40s and early 50s to give readers a better frame of reference for understanding. To that end, he notices certain overlaps between the horror comics with the then-contemporary war comics and "true crime" comics.
Further contextualizing the horror comics is the inclusion of an episode of Confidential File, which is on a DVD inserted in the book's rear flap. Confidential File was a news magazine show that ran from 1953-58 and was hosted by LA Times reporter Paul Coates; the episode on the DVD shows Coates "investigating" horror comics. If you think that news in our current era of 24-hour cable- and Internet-driven coverage is nothing but empty sensationalism, then you need to see this episode. Not only does Coates lack any meaningful facts or credible "experts" to support his indictment of horror comics, but he uses child actors a provide dramatization of what he thinks kids do to each other after reading horror comics as he prattles on about how reprehensible he thinks the comics are. The dramatization is so blatantly staged to fit Coates' view of what horror comics do to kids (think The Lord of the Flies in suburbia) that it's hard to believe that anyone other than Coates would take this episode seriously. Curiously, the episode was directed by Irvin Kershner, who would later go on to direct Empire Strikes Back.
(Then again, it has been argued by some that horror comics of the pre-CCA era weren't meant for kids in the first place. According to graphic designer Art Chantry, "The artists working this turf back then were virtually all war vets (it seems) with varying sorts of emotional damage (let’s be honest). The writers were virtually unknown haggard hacks and a few really f#$ked up madmen tossed in to the stew. Combine that with a forgotten generation of comic book professional hacks and an entire new generation of adult men who entered WW2 and the Korean war as children (and had to grow up way too fast) and you begin to see a crazy new market emerging. The truth was that these horror comics weren’t really made for 'kids' at all. They were made for new postwar damaged adults taking over the new modern world." Read Chantry's complete post about pre-CCA horror comics over at the Madame Pickwick Art Blog here.)
Trombetta's contextualization of the horror comics would be incomplete if he couldn't convey how popular they were before their government-mandated discontinuation. This point is driven home by the reprints of the horror comic covers from various titles between 1951 and 1954. There are dozens upon dozens of the covers on page after page in the book; I had no idea that there were so many horror comics published in such a short amount of time, which makes their subsequent disappearance from the newsstands after 1954 that much more stupefying to comprehend. If you only buy The Horror! for its reprints of rare comic art, you still won't be disappointed.
Where The Horror! stumbles badly is in its conclusion. Trombetta jumps from the mid-50s to the post-9/11 era in an attempt to make some larger point about censorship and how it functions in two different times in American history, but his argument falls flat due to its lack of substantial connection to the rest of the book. Had he paid more attention to how the horror genre and its fan culture had continued after 1954--and how many times that horror-related materials have been the subject of controversies both frenzied and fleeting in the years since then--he might have been able to build a firmer link between the 50s and now. For example, even though the CCA vanquished horror comics for a few years, it didn't stop Eerie Publications from publishing several horror anthology comic magazines from 1966 to 1981. Trombetta could have used this example to emphasize how futile the anti-comics effort ultimately was and how tragic it was for our government to violate the First Amendment for the sake of appeasing momentary hysteria.
Overall, The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read! is a book I would recommend to any horror fan who has a fervid appreciation of macabre visual art (such as horror VHS covers from the 80s and horror special effects work by artists such as Tom Savini, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker) and would like to learn more about the frequently forgotten golden age of horror comics.