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

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

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

Comic books, once the source of cultural panic, have achieved a dominant hold on the public imagination.


Doug Chayka

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.

More significant is Hajdu’s inability to anchor his material historically. At first he seems to be going for the class angle: “Unlike movements in the fine arts that crossed class lines to evoke the lives of working people, newspaper comics were proletarian in a contained, inclusive way.” Later on, having established the middle-class, even suburban, aspirations of most comics artists, he describes “the sentiment against comics [as] a kind of anti-anti-elitism, a campaign by protectors of rarified ideals of literacy, sophistication and virtue to rein in the practitioners of a wild, homegrown form of vernacular American expression.” Though the prose is characteristically felicitous, this description seems amiss as a reckoning of either the Catholic Church or the book burners–or of practitioners like Mickey Spillane (who told Hajdu “a kid’s dime buys the same cup of coffee”) and the often cynical businessmen who employed them. At least Hajdu mentions the Zoot Suit riots–street fights between servicemen and Mexican-American civilians in East Los Angeles in 1943. But apart from a nod to Marlon Brando in The Wild One, America’s periodic hand-wringing about juvenile delinquency, and the underlying anxiety over race and class, remain offstage.

Also missing is a sense of the cultural context. The Comic Book Scare is only one round in a contest that stretches back to the temperance crusaders of the nineteenth century. In their wake came polite revulsion over “scandal sheets” like The Police Gazette, Progressive reformers’ concerns about nickelodeons and concert saloons and the crackdown on burlesque, the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, the furor over Elvis Presley’s pelvis and Chuck Berry’s mixed-race audience, and today’s campaigns against violent computer games and obscene rap lyrics. Hajdu vividly conveys how a Dexedrine-fueled Bill Gaines at EC Comics vowed to defy the censors and in the process nearly destroyed his company, which was saved, ironically, by the decision to skirt the Comics Code and publish Mad as a magazine–meaning that unsold copies, unlike comic books, could be returned. But why each generation seems to produce its own Tipper Gore, and whether the rest of us really need to applaud the use of such powerful lures as sex and violence to enlist teenagers in consumer culture, are not questions Hajdu asks. Nor does he recognize that the same American jitters that made and unmade EC’s fortunes also animated film noir: 1944, the historical peak of comic book sales, was also the year of Double Indemnity. Anyone seeking a clued-up look at how the beginnings of the cold war registered in popular culture would still do better to pick up Peter Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing (1983) or, for those with some tolerance for sociology, Warren Susman’s equally durable essay “Did Success Spoil the United States?”

Despite its subtitle, Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Meanis not really a work of theory. Like his previous book, James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo,” a 117-page commentary on the live album of a concert that took place eight years before Wolk was born, it is, rather, an act of critical devotion. As a critic, Wolk isn’t particularly interested in the ironies of history; nor does his reading of comics pretend to much interest in the world outside the panel borders. His concern is with what Harold Bloom called “the questions of good and bad and how and why.”

The practice of asking such questions about comics is as old as the funnies. Rodolphe Topffer, the nineteenth-century Swiss artist usually cited as the originator of the comic strip, was also the author of “Essay on Physiognomy,” an attempt to explain his creation. Will Eisner, a legendary figure whose career stretched from superhero comics in the 1930s to The Spirit, the first modern comic for adults, in the 1940s (when he was assisted by the young Jules Feiffer) to a graphic novel about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in 2005, also wrote his own manifesto, Comics and Sequential Art. Wolk, like Hajdu, clearly worships Eisner, and also tips his hat to cartoonist Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993). But Wolk’s focus, as he says, is “the reader’s side of the comics experience: figuring out how we experience them in general and looking carefully at particular artists and works.”

Wolk has smart, intelligible things to say about how we make sense of comics–not as a genre or literary form but as a medium in its own right. His remarks on the relationship between “the cartoonist’s line, [which] defines the shape of the comics image,” and a cartoonist’s visual style demonstrate an attractive willingness to get down to the mechanics. And if his insight that “virtually every major superhero franchise…can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories” doesn’t quite make him the Stanley Fish of the pen-and-ink pantheon, it does allow him some engaging riffs, like his observation that X-Men, with its perpetual arguments between the assimilationist mutants and the militant separatists, is “on some level” an allegory “about difference and identity politics.” Best of all, having developed this little “superhero as metaphor” scheme, Wolk admits it doesn’t really apply to Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman–which is like developing a law of planetary motion that doesn’t apply to Earth, Jupiter or Saturn.

Wolk is, in other words, an honest critic, and one who reminds me of two other honest critics of a once-new form: Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. Like Marcus, Wolk is unafraid of ideas, even theoretical ideas; like Christgau, whose sheer enthusiasm for rock ‘n’ roll I find infectious even though it has been years since I’ve had any idea what the bands he’s writing about sound like, Wolk seems willing to persist in his devotion to this upstart medium long after his peers have moved on to more prestigious pursuits.

Perhaps because he’s still writing from inside it, Wolk adeptly explains comics as a subculture. He doesn’t let the self-perpetuating male “comics guy” mentality off the hook, either–for a time he wrote a web column in drag just to bait the misogynists. But he shows that for both male and female adherents, the self-referential sense of tribal belonging is at least as important to the pleasure of comic books as the wish fulfillment of superhero stories or the bohemian frisson of “outsider” books like Ghost World and Love & Rockets. As Wolk points out, comics “that are incomprehensible to anyone not already immersed in their culture aren’t just the norm now; they’re the point. If you pick up a story crammed full of insider references, and you’re enough of an insider to catch them all, you’re going to feel like it was made just for you, and it will intensify the sense of difference between you and non-comics readers.”

The last half of Reading Comics is a selection of (mostly) picks and a few pans–comics that Wolk wants to introduce or to think about in greater depth. Many of these seem to be recycled reviews, with the regular reviewer’s vices of hype and hypertrophied identification. Or it may just be that I don’t share Wolk’s taste for Alan Moore’s pseudo-profundities or Hope Larson’s sub-Chagall dreamscapes. But Wolk is refreshingly irreverent about Will Eisner’s weakness for shmaltz-soaked pieties and convincingly scathing about Alex Ross’s airbrushed epic pretension. Wolk’s reading of Black Hole, Charles Burns’s body-horror chronicle of a sexually transmitted “bug” that turns mid-1970s Seattle high school students into monsters with tails, or extra mouths, or insectoid heads, is sharp and persuasive and sent me right to Amazon.

For all their passion, Wolk and Hajdu suffer from critical vertigo, a sense that the conversation they want to enter still hasn’t been invented. Comics may be older than the movies, but they haven’t yet found their Cahiers du cinéma, or even their Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael (though Wolk, who seems to have read both, clearly thinks of himself as Kael-Man). Umberto Eco’s “The Myth of Superman” (1972) turns up in lots of cultural studies courses, but Eco’s ponderous critique of the continuous present of comic book narratives is, for my money, considerably less interesting than, say, the paradoxical treatment of time travel given in Superboy No. 85, where the Boy of Steel, flying faster than the speed of light, heads back in time to April 14, 1864, to prevent Lincoln’s assassination–only to be thwarted by the adult villain Lex Luthor, who assumes Superboy has followed him into the past and immobilizes him with a hunk of red Kryptonite. (Unlike the potentially deadly green Kryponite, the effects of red Kryptonite are unpredictable.) Eco’s point about the conflict between Superman’s “fixed” character and the need to find “new narrative stimuli” seems banal next to the pathos of the boy superhero’s inability to alter history.

Like formal poetry, comic books spatialize the sense of time. Running over successive panels or pages, the comics narrative makes the fourth dimension visible–and subject to revision. Eco hints at this when he observes that in Superman “the narrator picks up the strand of the event again and again, as if he had forgotten to say something and wanted to add details to what has already been said.” But in assuming that this narrative tic is a measure of comics readers’ inattentiveness, Eco displays a condescension fatal to understanding. Indeed, it might be said that the foregrounding of this process, known to comics fans as retrospective continuity, or “retcon,” is the distinguishing feature of modern superhero comics. Used creatively, retcons reconcile comics tradition and the writer’s individual talent. But retcon also lets a lazy writer tie up loose ends–or justify reviving a character, or a whole franchise. Comics are, after all, a business, and if you can sell a few hundred thousand more copies of The Flash by bringing its hero back from the recycling pile, why not?

Commercial considerations may also have been responsible for the proliferation of the comics multiverse. Despite the pretense that DC heroes come from Smallville, Metropolis and Gotham City, Superman and Batman started out in a world recognizable as our own. Over the decades, however, the cumulative effect of numerous plot twists and retcons was to situate the action in a series of alternate universes whose complex relations eventually broke down, producing DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” Marvel handled matters somewhat differently, with all action originally taking place in a single fictional “Marvel Universe” but, beginning in the late 1960s, slowly shifting the scenery toward an actual present-day New York.

What’s new is the extent to which the comics cosmos has become our own. In the past it was just Superman and Lois Lane (or Batman and Robin) shacked up in the DC multiverse–or Reed Richards and Sue Storm in the Marvel universe. Now comics are all around us. From Persepolis on the big screen to NBC’s hit show Heroes (which takes not only its characters but its story arcs from comic books) to this summer’s “Superheroes” show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute to the respectful review recently accorded a four-volume collection of Jack Kirby’s late work by The New York Times Book Review to the boffo box-office record set by The Dark Knight, comics have moved beyond marginality to become perhaps the dominant cultural form. Maus reaches millions of readers who would never pick up Raul Hilberg–and some, their historical curiosity and moral imaginations engaged by Spiegelman’s theater of cruelty, who now will.

As Wolk says, comics are “full of enticing blank spaces, in both space and time, for readers to decorate in our minds…. The job of the cartoonist, in any case, is to make the reader do most of the imaginative work of moving from panel to panel through the narrative, but to make that work as engaging as possible.” Perhaps it is this necessity of doing the work that is the source of the medium’s new ubiquity–and for the enduring hold of comics on readers’ imaginations. Perhaps it really all comes down to the space between the panels.

Though easy to overlook, the space between the panels is the reader’s point of entry, the place where the imagination does its work. Of course, novels and paintings also engage the imagination. And moviegoers are not an entirely passive audience. But comics bring you much closer to the action. And after Maus, no subject is taboo–or too big, not even, as Joe Sacco’s brilliant reportage has shown, the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Wolk claims the whole medium is on the cusp of another Golden Age, an efflorescence of narrative daring and graphic creativity to rival the pre-Comics Code era. When it comes to superheroes I’m dubious; today’s caped crusaders seem too freighted with their history, too aware of their limitations, to rival the heroic figures I remember. But readers who prefer the “real world” now have plenty of choices, from Marguerite Abouet’s straight-out-of-Africa picaresque Aya to Guy Delisle’s Shenzen to Marjane Satrapi’s latest installment of life in exile. And though I don’t particularly like the term “graphic novel,” there are some amazing storytellers out there finding new ways to draw us in–and keep us close.

In that sense, at least, Dr. Wertham was right. Comics have become a very powerful medium. And as Spider-Man reminds us, with great power comes great responsibility.

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