The Horror! The Horror!

Posted by on November 9th, 2010 at 5:39 PM

Kent reviews the latest coffee table slab from Abrams ComicArts.

Jim Trombetta, 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 found 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, whose Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture (2005) offered 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 available—EC 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, 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?

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5 Responses to “The Horror! The Horror!”

  1. Rusty says:

    Kent, thanks for your comments. I don’t really think I’m making much of a “larger argument” beyond the observations that Wertham said that comics contained violent content, and they did, he accused them of being poorly edited and printed, and they were, and he said that they were racist and sexist, and they certainly were. I might have better substituted the phrase “Wertham’s description” for “Wertham’s characterization,” which I see now could imply that I agree with his argument about the behavioral and cognitive effects of comics reading.

    I find myself resisting rounding off that previous paragraph by declaring my own stance on his actual argument, because the whole concept of being “pro pre-Code comics,” or “soft on Wertham” strikes me as kind of weird, like adopting a rooting interest today in the American Basketball Association—the red-white-and-blue ball was way cool, but no games are currently scheduled because the league’s been defunct for a long time. And I personally can’t get very far with thought experiments like the imaginary history of comics without the Comics Code; it’s tough enough finding evidence about the history that actually happened as it is.

    I’m really not sure what “comics aimed at older audiences” means in the context of pre-Code comics—the comics themselves certainly didn’t send many clear signals in that regard. For instance, taking at quick look at one of the more notorious pre-Code comics, Women Outlaws # 2, we find ads for a “Junior Typewriter,” with the copy explicitly aimed at kids (i.e. “Hey kids! Like to make a big hit with teachers and get better grades in school?”), for a plastic electric juke-box bank, for life-like rubber masks (monkey, Satan, old man/lady, etc.), and for color-painted zipper billfolds with gilt safety chain, in the available styles of Texas Rangers, Sporting Scenes, U.S. Map, and Hula Girl. As far as I can tell, comics were marketed to a single demographic: people with ten cents.

    Again, I have nothing to say about whether the cornucopia of murders, beatings, betrayals, upskirt shots, and incorrect punctuation in Women Outlaws #2 should or shouldn’t have existed, since what’s interesting to me is that it did. I can’t make myself be a reader who experiences that content in a world where the Code never happened, because the world I live in is a world of explicit age-graduated content warnings for popular media, one that was created partly because the world in which Women Outlaws #2 was published wasn’t like this one.

  2. Kent Worcester says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Rusty. I definitely recognize that you’ve looked at far more of these midcentury comics than I have, and that you’ve thought longer and harder than most folks about these issues. I have a couple of quibbles, though: does a network show like Bones come with content warnings? (And, if it does, has anyone noticed?) Isn’t there something a little anomalous about our fretting over “murders, beatings, betrayals, upskirt shots, and incorrect punctuation” in old comics, when prime time offers all of the above, with the exception of the punctuation part? Aren’t plenty of young kids these days watching the very same kinds of scenarios (and worse) that the old comics featured, albeit on 42-inch HD/stereo television sets?
    And…if the old horror comics were as lacking in social or artistic value as Wertham insisted, and as you seem to accept (at least in the quotation I took from Mike Rhode’s piece), then how was Trombetta able to fill an entire coffee table book with so many arresting images and stories – images and stories that of course are richly suggestive of the midcentury world that produced them?

  3. Rusty says:

    You’re asking the wrong person these questions. I’m not fretting about the content of 1940s comics, but I can see why some people were then. My point is that “suggested for mature audiences” (whatever that may actually mean) is a phrase that’s now deeply embedded in the landscape of US popular culture; it wasn’t in 1948. And nothing I have said has been intended to suggest that I think that pre-Code comics were or are “lacking in social or artistic value.”

    However, I’m aware that my personal standards of social and artistic value are a product of a culture that did have the anti-comics scare, that did produce the underground comix, that did develop fan cultures around oppositional, transgressive, and marginal popular culture forms. My own routine use of “bizarre” and “disturbing” as positive aesthetic value terms, or my opinion that the homoerotic relationship between Batman and Robin is one of the most interesting things about them, or the Pete-Sickman Garner page entitled “It’s Gotta Be . . . Sodomy!” hanging on my study wall are not signs that Wertham is my enemy, but that I am now, in part, his heir.

    And I don’t care what other people’s children read, watch, or play.

  4. Kent Worcester says:

    That’s cool. I clearly read way too much into the City Paper quote, which I admittedly found useful as a means of building my case. All I would say is this: just as there is plenty of midcentury, pre-Code material that is just plain crap, there is also buried treasure out there. While Trombetta’s book makes a strong case for the “buried treasure” school of thought, your City Paper quote is in the “just plain crap” tradition. Obviously these newly coined binary categories are meant to be a bit tongue in cheek.

  5. Rusty says:

    Yes, indeed–“beware the reified binaries!”

    I will say that it’s a new and fascinating experience reading cover-to-cover scans of original comics instead of reprint collections organized by character, publisher, or theme. Individual stories come off very differently when read in the context of five to seven separate features in comics mixing gag pages, adventure stories in several different genres, teen humor strips, true fact pages, etc.

    And we agree–some comics were very good and others were very bad. That’s true of some other art forms as well, now that I think of it.

    OK, all of them.