An Inky, Well-Paneled Place: Comics and the Cold War | The Nation


An Inky, Well-Paneled Place: Comics and the Cold War

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Doug Chayka

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

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For a long time I used to go to bed early. Unbidden by my parents I'd hurry up the stairs to my room, turn out the light, burrow beneath the covers, reach under the bed for the flashlight and then, safe where I'd left it the night before, the latest issue of Superman or Batman. Proust can keep his madeleines. For me, nothing brings back that childhood sensation of safety, or the inky smell of clandestine pleasure, quite like Batman No. 166, "Two-Way Deathtrap!" in which the caped crime fighter, confiding the details of a nightmare to Robin, is overheard by a villain who proceeds to turn Batman's fevered dream into deadly reality. Or the next issue, No. 167, with "Zero Hour for Earth"--a "book-length spy-thriller" in which Batman jets off to fight the criminal organization Hydra.

I was 7 years old, undergoing weekly chemotherapy at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The side effects of the treatment were unpleasant, and since I couldn't keep down an ice cream cone or a slice of pie, my parents would give me a quarter to spend on comic books. At 12 cents apiece, it didn't take long to amass a considerable library of my favorites; even now I can remember Batman's narrow escape from the Deathtrap and the temple that, in retrospect, must have been based on Angkor Wat--in 1964 Cambodia was a peaceful haven. And though I long ago moved on to other forms of escapist entertainment, I still know more about Superman's double life than I'd care to admit.

Why? Because there was always something slightly shameful about comics. "Yellow journalism" was originally "Yellow Kid Journalism"--a reference to the nightshirt-wearing protagonist of "Hogan's Alley," a comic strip that began in 1896 in the pages of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and ran until the kid's creator, Richard Outcault, was lured away by William Randolph Hearst. In the 1920s and '30s, even before comic strips migrated from the daily newspaper or the Sunday "rotogravure" section to proper comic books, comic heroes and heroines were being drafted into "Tijuana Bibles"--eight-page pornographic pamphlets featuring familiar characters like Wimpy and Olive Oyl or Maggie and Jiggs in unfamiliar postures. "Without the Tijuana Bibles there would never have been a Mad magazine," Art Spiegelman has observed, adding, "Looking back from the present, a time simultaneously more liberated and more repressed than the decades that came before, it's difficult to conjure up the anarchic depth-charge of the Forbidden that those little dirty comics once carried." Throw in the notion that superhero comics are essentially kid stuff, and the equally widespread certainty--until recently a truth universally acknowledged--that comic books were irredeemably lowbrow in conception and execution, and there were reasons to be abashed.

Like so much else in cold war America, comic books emerged from the shadows in the 1960s. By the middle of that decade my beloved DC heroes had been surpassed, at least in popularity, by the angst-ridden horde of maladjusted Marvel mutants, including the Fantastic Four (1961), with superpowers derived from exposure to cosmic rays; Spider-Man (1962), who gains superpowers from the bite of a radioactive spider; and the X-Men (1963), mutants from birth whose powers typically become manifest at puberty. Mainstream comics were well into their Silver Age. At about the same time, artists like Spiegelman, Vaughan Bode, R. Crumb and Spain Rodriguez began to write and draw what would become known as "underground comics." With their giddy mix of sex, drugs, sacrilege and rock 'n' roll, underground comics are an essential link between the juvenile antics of spandex-clad superheroes and such eminently respectable contemporary auteurs as Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and, of course, Spiegelman. But to say that underground comics marked a triumphant return of the repressed raises a number of questions. Repressed by whom? Why? And what exactly did comics need to emerge from?

Their own Two-Way Deathtrap or, as David Hajdu explains in The Ten-Cent Plague, the Great Comic Book Scare. "In the mid-1940s," writes Hajdu, "the comic book was the most popular form of entertainment in America. Comics were selling between eighty million and a hundred million copies every week, with a typical issue passed along or traded to six to ten readers, thereby reaching more people than movies, television, radio, or magazines for adults." The industry provided permanent employment to well over a thousand men and women, many of them, as Hajdu says, "members of racial, ethnic, and social minorities who turned to comics because they thought of themselves or their ideas as unwelcome in the more reputable spheres of publishing and entertainment." Comics also offered steady pay to writers with loftier ambitions. Stanley Kauffman, The New Republic's film critic, churned out Captain Marvel scripts to pay the bills, and when he quit Fawcett in the mid 1940s, the aspiring novelist Patricia Highsmith took his place.

By the end of 1954 the party was over. That April, writes Hajdu, just as New Jersey Republican Senator Robert Hendrickson "concluded his inquiry into comic books and juvenile delinquency, in New York, Joseph McCarthy began his probe into alleged Communist infiltration of the Army, in Washington. Both sessions were decisive, but in contrary ways." The Army-McCarthy hearings were the beginning of the end for Wisconsin's Grand Inquisitor. Hendrickson had better luck; the ensuing combination of public pressure, religious fervor (schools and scout troops across the country staged comic-book bonfires), local legislation (more than a dozen states outlawed the sale of violent or obscene comics) and national exposure drove many comics publishers out of business. Even The Nation, which opposed an outright ban, stopped well short of embracing the condemned publications. "Comic books are an opening wedge," the magazine warned. "If they can be 'purified'...ewspapers, periodicals, books, films, and everything else will follow." Nevertheless, the magazine harrumphed, "a generation of Americans has been driven several degrees toward illiteracy by the 'comic' book," and found it "appalling that 60,000,000 comic books are sold in this country every month."

Given that The Nation's circulation at the time was around 20,000, a certain amount of envy may have curbed the magazine's enthusiasm. And with defenders like The Nation, most comics publishers understandably declined the chance to become martyrs to free speech, opting instead for public recantation and self-censorship under the hastily devised Comics Code. Charles Murphy, the former New York City municipal court judge who administered the code, put an end to busty superheroines but allowed the men to bulge "in costumes that amounted to skin paint," Hajdu writes; Murphy also banned all stories that might "create disrespect for established authority." The Rawhide Kid lost his bullwhip, then Dick Ayers, who drew the strip, lost his job. From 650 titles in 1954 the industry shrank to fewer than 300, many of them anodyne fare like Casper the Friendly Ghost aimed exclusively at young children. More than 800 artists and writers laid off during the panic never worked in comics again.

As in Positively 4th Street (2001), Hajdu's account of the intertwined lives, loves and musical careers of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Richard Fariña and Mimi Fariña, The Ten-Cent Plague is an intrepid excavation of pop-cultural history. Hajdu didn't just interview the victims; he tracked down newsstand owners, a number of the young book burners--even the chair of the American Legion's "Book Swap," which offered children who turned in their comics a choice of approved reading like Heidi or The Swiss Family Robinson. The Ten-Cent Plague unravels the Comic Book Scare with novelistic flair and great sympathy for people whose only crime was "to tell outrageous stories in cartoon pictures."

When it comes to extracting some deeper meaning from this four-color tragedy, however, Hajdu is less resourceful. "The panic over comic books falls somewhere between the Red Scare and the frenzy over UFO sightings among the pathologies of postwar America," he writes. That's an awfully big "between," and though he clearly hopes to invoke some kind of parallel with the Hollywood inquisition, Hajdu seems lost among the anecdotes. What made Naming Names (1980) unforgettable was Victor Navasky's insistent focus on the moral choices forced on those caught up in the blacklist: to inform or not, to break with the Communist Party or not, to defy the blacklisters or not, to keep faith with former comrades when you no longer believed in the cause--or not. It may be that Hajdu feels it would be inappropriate to ask such questions of the cheerfully amoral purveyors of titles like Tales From the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear and It Rhymes With Lust. Or perhaps he was just reluctant to put his sources on the spot. When Stan Lee tells Hajdu that firing the entire staff of dozens of Timely/Atlas/Marvel titles "was the toughest thing I ever did in my life," he isn't pressed on whether collaboration with the censor was inevitable--or even whether, when Marvel's fortunes revived in the 1960s, he made any effort to rehire the artists he'd put out on the street. Though prepared to indict "the reckless extremism of horror comics," Hajdu also caricatures Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent and the scourge of horror comics, as a pseudo-scientific charlatan with "an ear for the headlines and an eye for the spotlight." Wertham's insistence that comics contributed to juvenile delinquency makes him an easy target, but the psychologist was also the founder of a free clinic in Harlem, a good friend of writers Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and in general a far more complex character than Hajdu's--pardon the expression--cartoon villain.

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