New Yorker on the 1950s comic book panic

Earlier toady, I posted Dale Dougherty's essay about the wifi health scare in Sebastopol. In a similar vein, here's a New Yorker article about the crazy comic book inquisition of the 1950s.

From a congressional hearing in 1954:

200803241235[EC comics publisher William] Gaines was not a stupid man, but, as Hajdu points out, he was in the position many liberals find themselves in when they set out to defend the freedom of artistic expression: he claimed that comic books that treated social issues in a progressive spirit were good for children, and that comic books that were filled with pictures of torture and murder had no effect on them. If art can be seriously good for you, though, it follows that it can be seriously bad for you, and that is the point at which censorship enters the picture. The committee was not interested in debating the merits of comics that treated social issues in a progressive spirit; it was interested in the claim that horror and crime comics were merely anodyne entertainment, and they twisted Gaines like a pretzel. “Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine,” the committee’s junior counsel, Herbert Beaser, asked him. “Is the sole test of what you would put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought a child should not see or read about it?”

GAINES: No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined. My only limits are bounds of good taste, what I consider good taste.

BEASER: Then you think a child cannot in any way, in any way, shape, or manner, be hurt by anything that a child reads or sees?

GAINES: I don’t believe so.

BEASER: There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?

GAINES: Only within the bounds of good taste.

BEASER: Your own good taste and saleability?


Kefauver spoke up. He pointed to one of the covers, from an issue of “Crime SuspenStories,” on display in the hearing room.

KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?

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 blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

KEFAUVER: You have blood coming out of her mouth.

GAINES: A little.

Mwowmg As I recall from reading the (sadly, out of print) Mad World of William M. Gaines many years ago, Gaines has taken a fistful of tranquilizers before he testified, which made him break out in a sweat and act loopy. The overall effect did not help his case. Link


  1. I tend to blame EC comics for my values and code of conduct. As a child, they taught me a form of simple kharma that church really never did. If you were an evil person who screwed over good people, the good people would come back from the grave and eat your liver.

  2. Actually, it’s been a while since I’ve read it, too, but I think he was “coming down” from the effects of his diet pills and THAT is why he was acting a little loopy. But either way, it did little to help him out, no question!

  3. You know, looking at that cover, the woman looks evil. Her eyes are white and her eyebrows are lowered. She looks mean and pissed. So maybe the guy with the axe is the hero? I’m just sayin’.

  4. Thank you for this… I’m currently listening to the kickass podcast novel Brave Men Run, which is in a world that essentially only has two differences from our own that I’ve seen: 1) comic books were banned in the 50s because of these historical hearings, and 2) they have superpowered beings (the Sovereign) that are just coming to light, and that no one knows what to expect because, well, the comic books were banned. Awesome stuff.

  5. If art can be seriously good for you, though, it follows that it can be seriously bad for you [..]

    Is this necessarily true? I know that lack of any art at all can be seriously bad for you, but I find bad art can be quite stimulating (using my own subjective criteria for bad art), whether I disagree with it or its execution.

  6. You know, it’s very easy today to say, “Oh ho ho, those silly 1950s people and their Senate Subcommittee witch hunts!”

    But part of the reason that EC comics and TALES FROM THE CRYPT have the mystique they have today is exactly because of that forbidden fruit. Otherwise they very likely would have vanished into obscurity.

    If you look over those 1950s comics, parents being concerned that these may not be appropriate for their children was a legitimate concern.

    Remember, you didn’t go into some SIMPSONS Comic Book Guy’s cave domain in the 1950s to buy these, they were on a spinning rack in the drugstore next to the LITTLE LULUs or whatever. It’s not That Crazy that some parents thought, maybe I’d like to not have the humorous vivisection stories there. Having some sort of Comics Code Authority stamp their approval, just like the movie ratings we have today, isn’t that ridiculous.

    Did they go overboard? Sure.

    I note that there’s recently been a new TALES FROM THE CRYPT comic, the first new “official” stories in over 50 years.

    Possibly a new Senate Subcommitee would be useful to call people to testify why these new ones turned out so crappy.

  7. Our pal Gordon G met Wertham at a convention, and got his autograph (plus a two-line verse that he pubbed in his zine). That said, I still hold it all against the good doc, who probably staged his crusade because sales of The Show of Violence had levelled off and he wanted another big money maker.

    The Gaines book is a classic. I keep it on a front shelf and pull it out frequently to check things. I flashed on a comment about the MAD trips, and a song the Usual Gang sang at Bill on one of their flights when I was looking at one of the “MAD About…” books (I think it was the 60s — if not, it was the 50s; it’s boxed up just now in anticipation of another move) and saw the dedication. From memory:

    “To the Memory of William M. Gaines:

    I looked at that odd statement for several moments, and then I realized it was (A) a fold-in, and (B) offered sincerely in the spirit of affection.

    Alas, I’ll never meet the big lug, but I can still re-read that book.

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