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Pow!!! Once again, the innocent citizens of Gotham City have been rescued from the clutches of modern art by their mild-mannered mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The latest menace to civilization? A reworking of the Last Supper, shown by the mayor’s archnemesis, the Brooklyn Museum. Entitled Yo Mama’s Last Supper , the offending picture features a naked black woman—the artist—in the place of Jesus.

Holy, uh, blasphemy! After the fiendish image was zapped by Mr. Giuliani as “anti-Catholic,” the mayor launched a renewed campaign against pornography and called for the creation of a “commission on decency standards” to police any cultural institution that receives public funding.

What has engaged Gothamites much more is Giuliani’s campaign to move stores that sell pornographic materials out of most neighborhoods. After all, to move through almost any section of our culture today is to be bombarded with images of sex and violence that most Americans might consider fine for consenting adults but not for their children.

Our debate over just what is or is not suitable for children has gone on for more than half a century now. It began with a battle over what might have seemed the most innocuous of subjects: the comic book.

Comic books did not even really come into being until 1933. Yet by 1941, one study estimated that some 180 million of them were sold each year, and that children aged 9 to 14 spent 75 percent of their free time reading them. Objections from parents and educators proliferated almost as quickly. Most of these were about the comics’ thin stories and simple pictures. There were even fears, as Amy Kiste Nyberg traces in her fascinating account, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code , that the poor quality of comics printing would “spoil a child’s natural sense of color.”

But the idea of comic books as a national threat burst upon the public consciousness in March 1948. That was the month a 53-year-old German-immigrant psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham convened a psychiatric symposium at which he charged that heavy comic-book reading had contributed to the delinquency of every troubled child he had ever studied.

Dr. Wertham was no stereotypical bluestockinged censor. During a distinguished career at some of the nation’s leading hospitals, he fought tirelessly to bring the first psychiatric clinic to Harlem, one that served its patients free of charge. He had become friends with Clarence Darrow when he proved himself one of the few psychiatrists anywhere willing to testify for indigent black defendants, and his research and testimony would play a crucial role in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ended segregation in public schools. For his time, Dr. Wertham was a broadminded, tolerant, and idealistic advocate for poor and troubled children—and it was from his idealism that his worst excesses would follow.

The charges leveled by Wertham struck a chord. America was undergoing a fresh bout of moral anxiety, worried that the war years had produced a nation of “juvenile delinquents” — a phrase that was just then coming into its own. Wertham would state repeatedly that comic books were not the sole or even the primary factor in producing delinquents. Yet he would pursue the publications almost obsessively over the next decade, producing a host of articles and interviews and finally his famous—and infamous—book, Seduction of the Innocent .

It is impossible to deny much of Wertham’s indictment of the medium. Many comics had begun to feature horror stories, with Grand Guignol depictions of severed heads and limbs and graphic shootings and stabbings. The violence was heavily flavored with sex, and nonwhites were depicted as semi-human. Some comics contained detailed plans for committing crimes.

Yet Dr. Wertham was less successful in linking such images to the behavior of urban juvenile offenders. Social scientists have since picked apart much of his methodology, and even to a layman, many of his stories strain credibility. One passage in Seduction of the Innocent , for instance, relates the deleterious effects of comic books on “Annie, aged ten, [who] engaged in sex play with men for which she received money,” and who is quoted as saying, “I meet the men on the docks.” A ten-year-old who trawls the docks looking for tricks? Could it be that comic books are not the real problem here?

Was life copying art, or art life? It was in answering this question that Wertham showed himself at both his most visionary—and his most frightening. Preoccupied with the effect of mass culture on society as a whole, he let his good intentions run away with him. “People like to be nonviolent,” he maintained. ”... There is no proof that hostility and violence are an ineradicable part of human nature.” It did not matter to Dr. Wertham if comic stories showed that crime didn’t pay or that evildoers would be punished. Even the adventures of Superman were a threat—”phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished again and again.” And “the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual,” Batman’s relationship with Robin “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” that must corrupt children. Wonder Woman was “the lesbian counterpart of Batman.”

WASHINGTON WAS LISTENING. THE SENATE OPENED HEARINGS IN THE SPRING OF 1954.

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.