In what is sure to be a fairly unpopular, if not inflammatory piece amongst lovers of horror-themed comic books (I'm talkin' to you, Karswell), The New Yorker has published a review of two new books on the subject of the 1950s Congressional hearings into the comics industry that challenges how the controversy has been viewed for the last half-century.
The review, by Louis Menand, though peppered with cultural snobbery in the grand New Yorker tradition, nevertheless is a fascinating read, which I was drawn to as a lover of both horror and comics. Was Dr. Francis Wertham, author of the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, not really the witch-hunter he's remembered to have been? Was William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, more to blame for the collapse of his genre than anyone else? And was that collapse actually caused by factors completely unrelated to the 1954 hearings?
The two books being reviewed are David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America and Bart Beaty's Fredric Wertham And the Critique of Mass Culture. In his combined review, Menand jumps full-tilt into the 50-year-old fray, indicating, for example, that an amphetamine-fueled Gaines practically hanged himself in the witness stand with devastatingly ill-conceived testimony. He also points out that Wertham actually opposed the creation of the restrictive comics code that the industry imposed on itself, but rather favored something more akin to a ratings system.
In his appraisal of the two books, the reviewer takes a viewpoint which, while unpopular, is certainly worth a look for anyone interested in the subject. Particularly, he suggests that Gaines was not some first-amendment martyr, but rather a profiteer crafting entertainment for children that may not necessarily have been appropriate for them, especially in 1950s America. Menand points out comic industry insiders hired private investigators to try to dig up dirt on Wertham (below), who, in his words, "was not a philistine, [but] a progressive intellectual" who was anti-censorship but merely concerned with what he saw as racist, sexist and misogynistic representations in children's literature.
The decimation of the comic book industry is also, in Beaty's book, pinned more on the dissolution of chief distributor the American News Company in 1955 rather than the hearings of the previous year.
This is not a black and white issue, to be sure, and Menand also specifically makes mention of the Kangaroo-court atmosphere that characterized the hearings. But instead of simplifying the matter into a good-guy/bad-guy scenario, Menand and the two books he's reviewing take a closer, harder look into the situation than perhaps has ever been taken, pushing aside the mists of nostalgia that have prevailed in post-counterculture America.
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