Kent reviews the latest coffee table slab from Abrams ComicArts.
Jim Trombetta,Â The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2010. 306 pp, full color, $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-8109-5595-0. Includes a DVD featuring a 25-minute television broadcast from 1955 that looks at the threat posed by horror comics. The “book trailer” can be foundÂ here.
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Mutilated body parts. Liquified human remains. Insects crawling out of eye sockets. Highlights from a collection of 1950s horror comics? Not exactly. In fact, they are the kinds of images viewers take for granted when they turn on Bones, which currently airs from 8 – 9 pm EST, i.e., the family hour.
Cultural norms have shifted, in other words. The goalposts have moved. Prime time nowadays comes up with nightmares that would have been barely conceivable to the architects – and adversaries – of the midcentury horror (and crime) comics craze.
Despite the fact that horror has gone mainstream, midcentury horror comics can still make people nervous. More than half a century later, images and stories from pre-Code comics retain their power to shock. It’s not difficult to imagine a local sheriff or judge closing down a comics store on the basis of a contemporary reissue of a sixty year old horror comics title. (“Dear God! They’re playing baseball with arms and legs!”)
For many years it was more or less axiomatic that a true comics fan would take the side of Tomb of Terror or Weird Mysteries over that of Frederic Wertham and Estes Kefauver. Admittedly, a particular panel or storyline might get a little gross, or even offensive, but that for creator, publishers and readers to worry about, not public officials or literary gatekeepers.
The climate of opinion has started to change, however. Mike Rhode’s recent piece for the Washington City Paper did a nice job of recording the reactions of various scholars and writers to the opening of the Wertham papers at the Library of Congress.
Charles Hatfield, for example, concurred with the one-time consensus view that Wertham was “wrong” about the “supposed impact of the form on literacy and reading habits, which he saw as uniformly detrimental,” but he also told Rhode that Wertham may have had a point about “the content of the most retrograde and vicious comics of that era.”
Mike Rhode also quotes Bart Beaty, whoseÂ Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (2005) offeredÂ a bracingly revisionist take on Wertham and the anti-comics campaign. In a debate at The Comics Reporter, which Rhode quotes from, Beaty said he was “mystified” by the notion that “Wertham should rot in hell for criticizing EC Comics”:
Here’s a man who opened a free psychiatric clinic in Harlem at a time when he was one of a small handful of doctors who would even treat black psychiatric patients, working there no less than two nights each week as a volunteer, and providing testimony that was important to overturning American school segregation, and we’re worried about the fact that he didn’t like EC? Talk about missing the forest for the trees.
Equally distant from the old consensus is Joseph (Rusty) Witek, who told Rhode that most of the old horror and crime comics were, in fact, pretty bad:
One thing that gets lost in the demonization of Wertham is something that has become clear now that digital scans of pre-Code comics are becoming widely available: his characterization of those comics is often absolutely accurate. To a large extent, later comics readers have been misled by the narrow selection of reprinted crime and horror comics that were previously availableâEC comics were not “average” in taste or quality by a very long shot. You don’t have to agree with Wertham’s ideas about the social or moral consequences of reading such comics to see that many of them contain depictions of violence, sex, and to some extent, racism that go far beyond anything shown in most other media of the day. Many comics were available to anyone big enough to put a dime on the counter that certainly would have “Mature readers” or other content warnings today.
While Witek may be right about some of the details, his larger argument makes me nervous. As he points out, EC titles were, on the whole, superior to that of their competitors. It’s also the case that EC reprints are more common than reprints of, say, Crime Does Not Pay. This publishing history has no doubt warped our sense of what most midcentury comics were like. And perhaps content warnings would have been a sensible concession to the feelings of parents and other authority figures.
But were most pre-Code comics, particularly those aimed at older audiences, such as horror, macabre and crime comics, as dreadful as Witek seems to suggest? Was Fredric Wertham in fact onto something? Or was the development of comics – as an art form and as a medium of expressive communication – significantly harmed by the anti-comics campaigners, as the subcultural conventional wisdom has always insisted?
In my view,Â The Horror! The Horror! adds support to the traditional, pro-pre-Code cause by making it clear that EC wasn’t the only interesting player in the game. While it is true that the Internet researcher can find endless quantities of horror and crime comic scans, this new, oversized Abrams title has the advantage of conveniently packing hundreds of lurid, intense and eye-damaging images (and several full-length stories) between two covers. And there’s plenty of evidence in these pages that the “comic books the government didn’t want you to read!” were full of a kind of crazed, slap-dash wit.
Jim Trombetta was a kid in the early 1950s, and (no surprise here) a big horror comic fan. He grew up to become a reporter, editor and writer for television. At first, he comes across as an enthusiastic baby boomer type who has amassed an enormous collection of horror comics over the years, some of which are featured in these pages. As he gets underway, however, he draws intriguing connections between the tropes of horror-based entertainment and the impact of modern war (Korea and World War II in particular) on ordinary soldiers.
For the most part, the text focuses on horror comics as a window onto American history, rather than as a case study of artistic agency and/or formal innovation. That said, it’s impressive just how much analytical juice Trombetta squeezes out of these low-cost, fast-profit items. Even though the midcentury period is familiar territory for many readers, his account manages to cast fresh light on the anxieties of a famously anxious age.
The real fun, of course, is in the deliberately outrageous imagery itself. The only artist Jim Trombetta singles out for special treatment is L.B. Cole, who Trombetta boldly dubs “the inventor of psychedelic art.” There are quite a few examples of Cole’s astonishing compositions in this book, but not enough biographical detail. And of course L.B. Cole was by no means the only significant cartoonist who plied the horror and crime trade before Wertham’s crusade shut down the festivities.
Setting aside the EC school (Craig, Davis, Feldstein, Wood, etc.), there’s some formidable narrative art on hand by people like Russ Heath, George Roussos, Alex Toth and George Tuska. Before reading The Horror! The Horror! I hadn’t appreciated just how much work Basil Wolverton generated under this rubric, although it certainly makes sense, given his strengths and sensibilities. I also acquired a new-found appreciation for Don Heck, who drew some truly wicked comic book covers before the Silver Age turned him into a superhero penciller.
My question for the soft-on-Wertham revisionists is this: if midcentury horror comics were so objectionable, then why is this book so delightful?