Funny Business


Wertham saw only one solution: “the time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores.” Washington was listening. Wertham soon hooked up with Estes Kefauver, the irrepressible Tennessee senator whose interminable hearings on organized crime wildly exaggerated the power of the Mafia but nearly got him nominated for President. Juvenile delinquency seemed to offer another inviting target, and Kefauver’s new Senate subcommittee opened three days of hearings in New York City in the spring of 1954, with Dr. Wertham as both consultant and chief witness.

The hearings did not go well for the comics and their defenders. William Gaines, whose E.G. Comics published many of the most violent books, was outraged by the attacks on his industry and eager to testify. But his mind was muddled by diet pills, and he stepped into an easy trap when he told the committee, “My only limits are the bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.”

Senator Kefauver then held up an E.G. comic and asked, “This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”

Gaines dug himself in even deeper: “Yes, sir, I do—for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the blood could be seen dripping from it. ...”

KEFAUVER : “You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth.”

GAINES : “A little.”

Wertham, by contrast, was convincing and self-assured—and disingenuous. His testimony failed to mention the results of a questionnaire he had designed and sent out on behalf of the Kefauver committee, in which nearly 60 percent of responding psychiatrists had found no link between comic books and juvenile delinquency and almost 70 percent opposed banning any comics. He went on to represent as racist an E.G. Comics story that attacked racism. Why? Because it depicted violent, racist men committing violent deeds and using racist epithets. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry,” he claimed, abandoning all restraint.

“Once you start to censor, you must censor everything,” Gaines warned. If all depictions of bad things undermined our children’s psyches, what was not to be banned? The Bible? Most literary classics? All newspapers?

In the end, the committee decided not to censor officially. Instead, the comics were forced to come up with their own self-regulating code, much like that imposed on the movies following World War I. A disgusted Gaines dropped E.C.’s horror-comic lines to concentrate on his new satirical magazine called Mad . Sales of the new sanitized, homogenized comics dropped precipitously by the end of the decade, though many observers attribute this less to censorship than to the advent of a formidable new contender for children’s attentions: television.

Neither outcome much pleased Fredric Wertham. He felt that the comics code did not go nearly far enough, and he found plenty more to despise on the tube, craving “genuine human voices outside of all mass manipulation.”

As for the comics, like every other medium of American popular culture, they would soon slip their code and reemerge in all sorts of raucous, offensive, fascinating, and brilliant new forms. A visitor to almost any urban comic-book store today will discover plenty of sex and quite a bit of what the “droogies” of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange liked to call “the old ultraviolence,” albeit mostly in adults-only sections. They will also find some of the most original, individualistic, and provocative art in America today, from Art Spiegelman’s classic Maus graphic novels of the Holocaust, to my personal favorite, Ben Katchor’s brilliant hallucinatory adventures of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer , to the works of Linda Barry, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar, the Los Hernandos brothers, Jessica Abel, Angus Oblong, and a whole host of others.

In short, the readers and creators of comics imposed some restrictions on what is suitable for children while nurturing a lively and independent culture. One would like to think that if he were around today, Fred Wertham would be a fan of the comics.