I’m working through David Hajdu’s excellent The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. While it’s a story that I already knew well, Hadju has collected a lot of interesting reminiscences from comic-book creators of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and from some of those involved in the public attack on comic-books in those years.
Hadju does a good job of capturing how the public attack on comic-books was something that the artists, writers and publishers didn’t really see coming or didn’t take seriously until Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent pushed a steady mid-level chorus of attacks past the tipping point into a middle-American consensus understanding, which the Hendrickson hearings then drove home. Hadju also does a good job of distinguishing the leading edge of the attack on comic-books from the leading edge of McCarthyism, reminding us that McCarthyism was fueled by anti-elitism, while the comic-book critics were largely high-culture snobs or experts who were first and foremost offended by what they saw as the vulgarity and luridness of the comics.
When I finished the chapter in which Hadju recounts Bill Gaines’ testimony in front of the Hendrickson committee, I was struck by the depressing sense of deja vu, the feeling of helplessness I get when I consider the recurrence of panics about mass media and civic institutions. In Hadju’s account (as well as some other histories of Wertham and the comic-book panic), Gaines’ testimony is a kind of tragic denouement. He starts with a strong prepared statement, and then follows with an impromptu response to one of Wertham’s many stupid, deceptive and ham-fisted misreadings of comic-book text which incidentally undercuts the premise of Gaines’ initial statement. Gaines then is drawn deeper and deeper into a swamp of contradictory defenses of comic-books which end with a lame, half-hearted response to an explicit image of gory horror brandished to the mainstream audience, a response which pretty well surrenders the field.
But Hadju makes clear that in many other ways, the game was already up by the time Gaines appeared before the committee. The political and social fix was in, the common sense was already manufactured. There were really only three politically plausible counter-narratives ever available to the comic-book publishers, all of which were before their time in the early 1950s. The only one even in circulation at all was the one that Gaines and others (including comic-book readers) fitfully offered: a defense of free speech against any censorship, even the censorship of civil society. The other two would be a defense of the popular or middlebrow against high culture snobbery, and an endorsement of the importance of fantasy, horror, and speculative narrative for the development of children’s imaginative and creative abilities. It’s hard to imagine how any of these could have been mobilized successfully in 1947 or 1955: it took decades of cultural conflict to make these credible propositions to any degree, and all three are still very much wobbly foundations to stand upon. I know any time I’m talking to parents of my own child’s peer group, the odds are high that no more than a small fraction of them would agree that fantastic or speculative culture is good for children. Many of them would be perfectly happy to sign on to a renewed campaign for censorship or civic authority over some aspect of the cultural consumption of children.
So when you’re looking out at that hearing through Gaines’ eyes, it’s not really clear what he or any other comic-book publisher or creator should have done in the early 1950s. Plenty of respectable experts pointed out that Wertham was an intellectual fraud, or that his conclusions were dubious. Many of the politicians who agreed to give the complaint against comic-books some public airing were appropriately diligent and moderate and pushed back on the wilder claims made by Wertham, Sterling North and other critics. The judiciary was largely moving in the opposite direction from the pro-censorship activists in case law on indecent or obscene content. Lots of the readers of the comic-books developed able, literate defenses of their own tastes and preferences.
Moreover, though Wertham was a fanatic and demagogue, his particular exegesis of many comic-books was more or less on the money. The problem was with his arguments about media effects and with his latter-day Comstockian mania for control of cultural production, not with what he said was actually in the comic-books. William Moulton Marston’s version of Wonder Woman was loaded with bondage and fetishism, very much intentionally so. There was a kind of homosexual vibe between the Golden Age Batman and Robin. Superman did raise some weird, interesting questions about power fantasies. The EC horror comics were astonishingly vivid and grotesque and many of their stories were critiques of the nuclear family, adult authority and civic institutions. Mad Magazine was a broad assault on conventional wisdom and middle-class respectability. To feel outrage today about Wertham’s crusade is not to say that none of this was true; it is to say that all of this was in some fashion good and wonderful and interesting. We don’t want to retreat into the proposition that it was harmless or had no effect whatsoever on readers then (or later); we need to say that if some fifteen-year old in 1952 had pervy, unclean thoughts after seeing Wonder Woman tied up for the umpteenth time, good for him.
I think about the choices facing Gaines and his colleagues, I think about what any of us might do or should do when the fix is in, and our own cultural or civic practice is on the firing line. It’s a given that should that happen to us, at least some of the people attacking us will be malicious, marginal, on-the-make characters who couldn’t hack it in their own professional worlds, allied with unscrupulous politicians looking for scapegoats and diversions from the real problems of the day. You can’t have a reasoned, fair-minded debate with that convergence of interests. You don’t dare ignore them. You can’t just mock or sneer at them: that plays into their hands just as much as sitting down politely with them. You can’t call upon an opposing argument or moral consensus that has yet to exist. It’s hard to avoid the despairing sensation that should it happen to you, you are just screwed, that the best you can hope for is to go down periscope, head into the cultural fallout shelter, and hope that you’ll be able to poke your head back up above ground at some point. But if we’re in a better situation now than in the 1950s, it’s only because a lot of people fought hard and long to write, teach, speak and think as people in a free society should be able to.