Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Across My Desk: "Are Comics Better or Worse?"

My work as a librarian occasionally leads me across some fascinating detrius in the history of comic books... such a post is this. From the August, 1955 issue of Parents Magazine, I offer you this 3-page article:

If you're familiar with your comic book history, then you know this was published a year after Frederic Wertham had helped spur on the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings and only shortly after the Comics Code Authority shield began defacing comics on the racks. The CCA resulted in tepid, lifeless comic books because of the restrictions on what was considered "in good taste," as though crime, horror and funny animal comics should each play according the same rules for the same audience. The stigma generated against comics by the hearings and CCA is still felt by comic book fandom today.

In another sense, this is all in the past and thus safe for us on the other side of history to look back and guffaw. Certainly this article's criteria for judging comic books is baffling. The "No Objection" list includes much of what Archie and Dell were publishing at the time - in fact, the list is almost entirely comprised of teen humour comics, funny animal comics and romance comics. And yet, what grants Superman No Objection but Action Comics & Superboy Some Objection? Why does the Lone Ranger warrant Some Objection while the spin-off comics Silver and Tonto are clear?

There's also practically no daylight between the Riverdale teens of Archie and the company's Katy Keene, yet Katy is Objectionable! It ranks a "2," which... hm, let's check the standards... Moral Area... ah, yes, "The portrayal of drug addiction or excessive use of alcohol."

Actually, Katy and the similar Millie the Model were probably written up over "Any situation having a sexy implication" and/or "Persons dressed indecently or unduly exposed; costumes not appropriate to the occasion." Yet how was Dan DeCarlo's Millie substantially different from Dan DeCarlo's Betty & Veronica?

Perhaps the most baffling Objectionable comic to me was Rin-Tin-Tin, who earned a "3" for Morbidly Emotional (as did the similar Rex the Wonder Dog). How could Rin-Tin-Tin differ much from the clean-as-a-dog's-mouth Lassie? Perhaps the objection was over "Kidnapping of women or children, or the implication of it," but that must be the most unhelpful criteria ever invented. The "implication" of kidnapping? Who determines when kidnapping is implied? How? What is a super dog like Rinnie supposed to do for a living if he's not allowed to rescue women and children in peril? Is he only allowed to rescue adult men? How emasculating for them.

As a fan of Atlas Comics, it's interesting to note how few Atlas comics listed under "No Objection" - just Patsy & Hedy, My Own Romance & Homer the Happy Ghost. None of their adventure comics made the cut, while DC at least scored with Superman and Tomahawk. It's strange to see the various Atlas fantasy books listed with different objections as their content was virtually identical and all of it rather bad; that's the really galling part - even after cleaning up their horror comics into fantasy comics, Atlas was still told their material was too "morbid." Check out this from the article (emphasis mine):

"Horror and crime comics are less numerous and somewhat less offensive according to this year's review than formerly: yet a new subtle type of mystery story has appeared on the scene. To some parents it might seem even more objectionable than the obviously fantastic and weird stories of other years. These new mystery stories present arson, walking dead, and even in some cases horribly disturbing incidents that seem a threat to civilization."

I would love to understand what the bold type refers to. "Seem a threat to civilization?" What, like a science fiction story about the end of the world? Was two-year old Alan Moore already publishing stories which promoted anarchy?

How about the wild "Crime stories unless they relate to folklore or classical literature." So, that's fine for Classics Illustrated, but what is a "crime story?" Wertham considered any comic involving crime (even in Looney Tunes) to be a "crime story," so what's their definition? Superman certainly seems exempt, despite being a crime fighter.

Some titles on the Objectionable list hit the coveted 3-in-one in culture, morals and morbidity! These are Authentic Police Cases (St. John), Blue Beetle (Charlton), Crime and Justice (Charlton), Crime and Punishment (Lev Gleason), Don Winslow (Charlton), Mad (EC), Outlaw Fighters (Atlas), Outlaw Kid (Atlas), Piracy (EC), Rugged Action (Atlas), Straight Arrow (Magazine Enterprises) & T-Man (Quality). DC doesn't list a single title under all three, although it's interesting to see Batman came close, missing only on culture. I suppose Robin's shorts won them a moral objection for "costumes not appropriate to the occasion."

It's a small wonder to see EC's Mad on the list, although they were already headed to their magazine format by the time of this article. What is surprising is to find Charlton's Mad rip-off Insanity considered clean!

In other "EC can't catch a break" headlines, Valor is written up for culture and morbidity. Again, a company tried to clean up their content into something less sensational with decent values, only to be slighted.

In all, a portrait of the times; the US public eventually tired of poking their nose into people's comic book habits. They retain an insatiable appetite for intruding in people's religious, political and sexual background, however.


Colin Smith said...

I loved this and Tweeted a link to it. I hope that'll make one or two bleery-eyed Wednesday morning folk pop in. People should know that Rex The Wonder Dog was so slandered!

Michael Hoskin said...

Colin, it's fun to imagine what parents of the time must have felt, because the standards in this article are so ill-defined; Rex listed with a "Morbidly Emotional," but how was an uninformed parent to judge what it meant? If they concluded it referred to "...suggesting use of black magic," they might well have concluded Rex was a devil-worshiping dog and refused to let their kiddies indulge in him.