< Comics on the Stand

Transcript

Friday, April 25, 2008

MALE CORRESPONDENT:
WNYC New York is bringing you the Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency from the Federal Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. This committee this afternoon is looking into the effect of comic books on the increase in the crime rate.
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Comic books cause crime? There was never any hard evidence to back up that charge, but in the middle of the last century, nearly every child read them and some of those children committed crimes. That was enough to spark not just nationally televised hearings but comic book burnings across the country.

As David Hajdu observes in his new book, The Ten-Cent Plague, the genre's creators, quote, "did no spying for rival governments, they traded no atomic secrets. What they did was tell outrageous stories in cartoon pictures, which makes their struggle and their downfall all the more strange and sad."

His story begins in the 1890s, when newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer sought to reach people who couldn't read with the comic strip tales of an immigrant wag called The Yellow Kid. That mischievous Kid was the ancestor of everyone from Superman to Jughead and also the True Crime comics, the horror comics and those, say Hajdu, were pretty much the product of adolescent outsider imaginations. No wonder they were gross.
DAVID HAJDU:
A lot of severed heads, heads blown up - brains spewing out of heads. Comic books in the late 1940s – and I'm not talking about superhero comics, I'm talking about a very lurid, dark kind of comics that are centered on violence and crime and lust – were radical and unnerving. They were as utterly extreme in their time as "The Hills Have Eyes" movies are today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And for a long time, however extreme they were, they seemed to exist under the radar of most parents.
DAVID HAJDU:
Mm-hmm. There were very few things in the 1940s and 1950s that were produced, marketed and priced specifically for young people to buy. And a great many comic book artists in the 1930s and '40s were kids themselves, just in their teens or maybe their early '20s. If they're not young people, a great many of them were outsiders of other sorts.

A great, great many of them were members of minority groups – Jews, Italians, Asian-Americans – African-Americans, many more than people realize – and a great many women. They thought of comics as a place where they were welcome, and in comic books they expressed their pride in their outsider status. And comics were free and wild. Anything did go in comics, and they went too far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So who was the first major critic of comic books?
DAVID HAJDU:
The comics were adaptable demons. The first important critic of comics – his name was Sterling North – he thought that they would induce illiteracy and he also thought they were bad for the eyes. Then, after that, the Catholic Church, because comics focused on the supernatural and they had heroes who were superhuman, they were considered blasphemous.

During World War II, they were considered fascist. In the early days after the war, they were considered Communist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
When did comic books cross the line from sin to crime?
DAVID HAJDU:
There were a string of reports of comics inciting not just bad behavior, not just juvenile delinquency but death and murder in the late 1940s and '50s. They were all dubious.

There was a kid who was playing Russian roulette with friends and the gun went off, and one of his friends died. And because the kid read comics, they made the leap that comics had inspired the crime.

And there were a number of cases like that, as well as the larger claim that was utterly rampant in the late 1940s and 1950s, that all comics, because they depicted crime, were inciting crime. Whenever a juvenile delinquent was interviewed about what he or she did – usually he, by the way – whatever they did, they read comic books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
As sales exploded throughout the country, local authorities, some of them, responded with "Clean Up the Newsstand" campaigns and things like that.
DAVID HAJDU:
And by the early 1950s, there were over 100 pieces of legislation around the country on the municipal or state level that outlawed various kinds of comics outright. Like crime comics were illegal in the State of New York for a while, in Los Angeles County and in the state of Maryland and in many, many cities. And this was the beginning of the utter collapse of the comic book industry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Which was hastened, I guess, in November, 1953, when the U.S. Senate launched an investigation into juvenile delinquency.
DAVID HAJDU:
Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
This was called the Hendricks* Commission, and it was televised.
DAVID HAJDU:
That's right. There had been a set of hearings into organized crime in 1952 that riveted the country because there had never been anything like it on television, and these were among the first national broadcasts. And these were conducted by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.

And just two years later, Senator Kefauver was also a member of the committee conducting hearings into juvenile delinquency and comic books.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
We have a clip of Kefauver interrogating William Gaines, then a publisher of horror comics. Later he founded Mad Magazine.
[CLIP]
ESTES KAFAUVER:
There seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up. It's been severed from her body. Do you think that's in good taste?
WILLIAM GAINES:
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 neck could be seen dripping from it, and -
[LAUGHTER]
- moving the body over a little further so the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
[END CLIP]
DAVID HAJDU:
So the public found again, in televised hearings, the same person now conducting another set of proceedings that again looked like a trial [LAUGHS], also involving crime, but in comic book pages – not real crime. And those who testified on behalf of the comic book industry suffered horribly, in large part because the public conflated these two sets of hearings in their minds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, ultimately, the comic book publishers did what the movie industry had done before it and that was create a voluntary code that you call "a monument of self-imposed repression and prudery."

And among its highlights was government authorities could not be presented disrespectfully so so much for the outsider – females should be drawn realistically – what a buzz kill that is – crime should not be depicted. So what do you write about? No drawings of scenes of horror, sadism, ghouls, vampires, no profanity, obscenity, smut, use of the word "horror" or treatment of romance in a way that does not emphasize the home and the sanctity of marriage.
DAVID HAJDU:
There went the very essence of comic books. There went everything that gave comic books their identity. In the end, it just committed hari-kari with the Comics Code. It just basically killed itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You say that from 1954 to '56 it went from almost 650 titles down to about 250 titles. I'm surprised there were that many. What was left?
DAVID HAJDU:
Well, all that was left after the Comics Code were benign comics, like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Teenagers. But even the teen comics were gelded, and in three-quarter view, Betty and Veronica had to be shown in a way that looked as if they only had one breast, and their breasts were reduced in size.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So is this supposed to be half as titillating?
DAVID HAJDU:
[LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You know, you wrote that the comic book war was one of the first and hardest-fought conflicts between young people and their parents in America, and you write, "It seems clear, too, now, that it was worth the fight."
DAVID HAJDU:
It was absolutely worth the fight because in these lurid pages and their coded expressions of cynicism and contempt for authority, we have the very essence of post-war popular culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
David, thank you very much.
DAVID HAJDU:
Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
David Hajdu teaches at Columbia Journalism School. He's a columnist for The New Republic, and he is author of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America.
[CLIP]
MAN:
What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens too and entitled to the essential freedom to read? Or do we think our children so evil, so vicious, so simple-minded that it takes but a comic magazine story of murder to set them to murder, of robbery to set them to robbery?

*Correct name is The Hendrickson Commission.