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.