Let's Talk Comics

Let's Talk Comics
With Rob Lamberti
Garters, stockings, gams and headlights.


Decapitation, addiction, an ice pick in the eye, damsels in distress, damsels armed to the teeth and bondage.
Oh, my!
This was some of the routine stuff on the covers and story lines of comics from the 1940s and 1950s, until the censorship movement under the Comics Code Authority set new rules in a bid to reduce juvenile delinquency.
The new guidelines followed a U.S. Senate hearing in 1954 and the release of The Seduction of the Innocent, a book by Dr. Fredric Wertham.
Wertham, a German-born American psychologist, believed that particular genres of comics, particularly horror and crime, caused young people to become criminals, anti-social and loose in morals.
He was blunt about the comics that offended him, although the study at times is contradictory and appears to be faulty in its science.
In describing Bat-Man, Wertham wrote in 1953, "The atmosphere is homosexual
and anti-feminine."
About a Blue Beetle cover, he gave the name to a style of depicting women's breasts: "Children call these 'headlights' comics."
Wertham was particularly harsh about horror and crime comics, describing them as
training manuals for deviant behaviour.
During the 1954 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing into juvenile delinquency, crime and horror comics were put on the table.
And an infamous verbal exchange between the subcommittee's chief counsel, Herbert Beaser, and Senator Estes Kefauver, with EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines, almost caused the end of comics.
As reported in the New York Times:
"Then you think a child cannot in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that the child reads or sees?" Beaser asked.
"I do not believe so," Gaines responded.
"There would be no limit, actually, to what you'd put in the magazines?" Beaser asked.
"Only within the bounds of good taste," Gaines said.
"Here is your May issue" of Crime SuspenStories 22, Senator Kefauver said. "This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has
been severed from her body. Do you think that's in good taste?"
"Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic," Gaines said. "A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."
"You've got blood coming out of her mouth," Kefauver said.
"A little," Gaines replied.
Gaines entered the hearing fixing for a fight, but he lost the war for public opinion.
The subcommittee urged the comics industry to police itself, or else.
The code banned excessive violence, gore and sexual innuendo. The words "Horror" or "Terror" couldn't be used in titles and zombies, vampires and werewolves were banned.
Authorities couldn't be depicted in a negative way under the code and that good always triumphs over the will of evil.
The censorship that followed, however, almost killed the comic industry.
The strict guidelines on wholesomeness, that would stand until the industry got fed up in the 1970s and realized the First Amendment applied to it as well, encouraged companies to shut down rather than complying, or shrink their product lines.
Circulation went from multi-millions per month to barely there.
The break from the code began in Amazing Spider-Man issues 96 to 98 in 1971
which dealt with drugs. Marvel was approached by the U.S. Department of
Health, Education and Welfare, to write a story about drug abuse and ran them without the code's approval.
A similar story line appeared in Green Lantern-Green Arrow 85 and 86, about
heroin addiction during a realism movement in comic storytelling, but it ran
with the code label.
The racier art found on comic book covers was an extension of what came before on the covers of pulp magazines and glossies from the 1920s and 1930s, which were periodically subject to censorship.
(Those censors, of course, would never apply the same rules to, say, Rembrandt and his 17th Century painting of Andromeda, who was offered up as sacrifice to Poseidon's dragon, until Perseus saved her and killed the beastie.)
But comic artists pushed the boundaries in comic and horror books - and in the odd science fiction title - and the forces of wholesomeness pushed back.
During the peak of the late 1940s and 1950s, great artists did wonderful things with their pencils and pens.
A very short list of examples include Bill Ward with his hot Torchy; Will Eisner with P'Gell and Sand Saref; Milt Caniff with the Dragon Lady and Matt Baker with, oh, so many drawings of beautiful women, including Phantom Lady.
There were companies that thrived on the damsel in distress/damsel with a gat imagery: Fox Feature Syndicate, St. John, Fiction House, EC, a little bit of DC (Wonder Woman was regularly seen bound on her covers) and Quality Comics. But all companies dabbled in the imagery to some extent.
The genre got the nickname "Good Girl Art" by comic dealers in the 1970s.
While Wertham wanted to warn the world about the dangers of comics, that
they contributed to juvenile delinquency, what the Seduction of the Innocent
would do was boost the collectibility of the comics he mentioned.
Expect to pay at least a 20% premium on books mentioned in Seduction of the Innocent. Also expect to pay a premium for Good Girl Art, bondage covers, headlight covers and so on for books not mentioned in SOTI.
The Overstreet Comic Price Guide does a pretty good job of keeping track of
which books were mentioned by Wertham and, of course, prices for these books
are often head-and-shoulders above others in the series that were not.
Indeed, the price guide lists values for Wertham's book, with and without the dust jacket.
Next column: Collecting comics
Let's Talk Comics with Rob Lamberti, who started collecting comics when the going price was 12 cents an issue and Peter Parker really was a teenager. He dabbled in the comic convention circuit in the Toronto area for a while, but stopped to concentrate on his career as a not-so-mild-mannered crime reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped he managed to record a little bit of history the past three decades. You can reach Rob at lamberti@cogeco.ca
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