The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!

Being a sucker for lurid comic book art, I devoured Jim Trombetta's The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!, a giant-sized book of utterly depraved 1950s comic book artwork. This is the sordid underbelly of the squeaky clean 1950s, which was readily available in drugstores to any coonskin cap-wearing kid with a dime in his pocket. 201010211020

Not only is the book loaded with gruesome depictions of "Murder! Mayhem! Robbery! Rape! Cannibalism! Carnage! Necrophilia! Sex! Sadism! Masochism! ... and virtually ever other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror"*, the artwork itself is fantastic. Artists featured include Johnny Craig, Reed Crandall, Jack Davis, Steve Ditko, Al Feldstein, Frank Kelly Freas, Russ Heath, Graham Ingels, Alex Toth, Wally Wood, and Basil Wolverton. I imagine these artists had a lot of fun drawing these twisted comics.

The Horror! The Horror! includes a bonus DVD: "Confidential File," a 25-minute TV show from 1955, about the corrupting influence of these ghastly comic books on our nation's youth.

*"Actual language from 'Comic Books and Juvenille Delinquency,' interim report of the Committee on the Judiciary's investigation of juvenile delinquency in the United States, 1955-56." The comics were also sometimes racist (the one aspect I find absolutely objectionable), but the government didn't seem to be concerned about that aspect, obsessing instead over the sexual depravity depicted in the comics.

Buy The Horror! The Horror! on Amazon


  1. If these right-wing conservatives had spent even half the effort on improving public schools instead of fighting the indecencies of society, they might have actually helped “our most important commodity.”

  2. It wasn’t really the horror comics, it was the war comics. The horror and sci-fi comic books were fun but made an easy target. The war comics didn’t do John Wayne fables where soldiers went through a barrage without getting hit. The war comics showed all the blood and guts. The war comics took the hit while they were still recruiting for Korea. There was a real place called Hamburger Hill where a new lieutenant lasted less than 90 seconds. The war comics were too realistic and had to go.
    Even today the government doesn’t want to admit that some of the troops who’ve seen combat will be damaged physically or mentally for life. That’s getting harder to deny given the high suicide rate.

    1. I think you mean Pork Chop Hill. Hamburger Hill was in Vietnam. I’m holding out for a soda pop and oral sex hill before I joint the armed services.

  3. No, the gov’t had a good reason to go against these comics. They had to protect the youth of tomorrow, so that youth in 10 years could start publish comix like FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS, SNATCH, JIZ, SLOW DEATH, FELCH, COOCHY COOTY ALL-MEN’S FUNNIES, ZAP COMIX, YOUNG LUST, THE CHECKERED DEMON 1,2, & 3, SKULL, DOPE COMIX, COCAINE COMIX etc.

  4. I love the ending of the “Confidential File” clip, which I’ll summarize:


    The more things change,

  5. “Our most important commodity, the one commodity we can’t put a price tag on, is our children!”

  6. I’m just curious… why is murder and rape OK in comix but not racism? I get the government hypocrisy in wanting to get rid of the gore but not the racism, but your position seems to be inversely hypocritical. An honest question.

    1. i’m with you on this one… what did they have, squinty-eyed buck-toothed “Orientals” and big-lipped flat-nosed “Negroes”? What I mean is, were there merely racist caricatures, or actual demonizing/dehumanizing vitriol, fear-mongering, contempt and hatred?

      I know I’m a minority in this (irony) but I personally believe that there exists something called “innocuous racism” that’s been mixed up with “hateful racism”. The innocuous variety includes the ‘3 guys in a car, who’s driving?’ joke. The hateful kind includes the Nazi agenda, the beliefs of the KKK, and the actual hatred/fear/judgment of persons based on their race.

      I believe in celebrating the differences between all races and cultures, and one cannot do that by pretending that they don’t exist, or insisting that they ought not be discussed, or denouncing their historical and contemporary depictions. I feel that such wheel spinning dilutes actual acts of racism, the kind with victims and perpetrators and violence and harassment of individuals.



      1. I imagine how “innocuous” institutional racism is depends on your point of view. I mean, if you’ve just been denied a job as a nurse at a great hospital to give someone of lesser qualifications and experience the job (but who happens to be of a preferred ethnicity), you might change your opinion on the “innocuous” “_____’s are dirty” jokes.

        Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that racism (hard or soft), begins with prejudice–pre-judging, that is. You know, basing your opinion of someone you’ve never met “on the color of their skin, not the content of their character.”

        Something along those lines.

        1. Well, until there’s an app for letting people see personal character before physical traits, I guess we’ll all be simple racist humans… even those “intellectuals” who pretend to rise above such things.

      2. Amen. This kind of thing has been stuck in my craw forever. It’s almost like saying someone can be a sadistic, murdering rapist, but it’s okay as long as that person never pointed out peoples differences.

        Caricature is not now, nor has it ever been racism. It can be used for a racist agenda, but it, in itself, is not racism.

    2. That’s a fair question. Here’s my answer, which isn’t very good: The violence and cruel depravity is portrayed as something that people should not do. No hero in a comic would do those things. The comics depicted people who did these things as bad people.

      But the racism is presented as something that is A-OK. The heroes are often terrorized by racial stereotypes. These comics made minorities out to be bad people.

      So to me, that’s the difference.

      1. I think it’s a pretty good answer, Mark. The depictions of rape and violence were intended to evoke horror in their audience — with a generous helping of titillation, to be sure, but the primary aim was to make the reader feel pleasantly queasy. By contrast, the racism in those comics was not intended to evoke horror — the black people and Asian people were, by resonating with the racism of the reader.

        A better parallel would be blaxploitation films, which showed racist cops (&c.) getting their comeuppance at the wrong end of a shotgun. There, the racists were the villains, and watching them get blown away was the half-guilty titillation.

  7. I’m with erratic. It strikes me as really skewed to be against depictions of racism, but completely okay with murder and rape.

    I bet if you had been raped or had a family member dismembered, you’d probably feel a bit differently.

    Social conditioning at its finest!

  8. The bit from the video that struck me the most is that he actually mentioned that he considered his position not to be in violation of the freedom of press.

    Similar morality-based censorship arguments these days don’t even pay lip service to the idea of such a freedom.

  9. Although there was some racism in these comics, the opposite was also true. E.C. (a company specifically targeted during this time) was especially good at cranking out anti-racist comics. Some are famous, like the one featuring a black astronaut. The comics code people wanted to change him into a white guy, but E.C. stuck to its guns. Also famous was “Master Race,” a story that dealt with the Holocaust decades before “Maus.”

    Also, if this period is of interest, I highly recommend “The Ten Cent Plague.” It’s a very well written and researched tome on the times.

  10. The often unmentioned aspect is literal freedom of speech being viewed as somehow distinct from freedom of expression in any other mode or medium. Which of course has the expected effect of being exploited by those having an ability to censor or merely deny the Imprimatur.

    A good description of the concept’s incarnation as applied to comics is here:

  11. My older brother had these comics when i was little. I could read from an early age so when he left one lying around, I picked it up and started to read it. My mother saw me with the comic and FREAKED OUT!

    She took it away and told me that I could not read it because it would give me nightmares. BALONEY! I LOVED it!!!!

  12. “COMICS” is a stupid name for comics… graphic novels works better because it describes what they are – a medium, not a genre. The content, of which, should be entirely up to the creator(s).

    Why even in this day and age folks view these with different spectacles than say “songs” or “books” I’ll never know.

    1. Yeah, but when you’re talking about genres and media and stuff, the words we use tend to wander away from their original meanings. Look at words like “novel” and “romance” and “movie”. I don’t have a problem with “comics”.

  13. I grew up on EC comics; somehow, I never became the horrendous criminal or sociopath predicted by my juvenile reading habits.

    EC at least covered racial issues fairly, and although there was a lot of gore and violence, the general theme that ‘crime does not pay’ was supported (although the criminals usually managed to get away with a lot of things…for a while).

  14. re: Racism… To step into the ring about content of the comic books at all is a mistake. The little editorial bit there lets us know Mark doesn’t like racism. Fine & good… but that editorial intrusion implies that racism is on some linear scale along with the masochism, murder, rape, and so on. And racism (being “absolutely objectionable”) is somehow worse than rape (because rape is not noted by similar editorial intrusion as also being “absolutely objectionable”)? Erratic points this out above…

    But if this review of Trombetta is meant to open a discussion about comic book censorship or censorship in general, it is the act of censoring that has to be pointed out as “the bad” — not the content (which is variously “bad” or “very bad” or “funny” or “ridiculous” or “absurd” or “stupid” or “wonderful” depending on which panel we’re discussing and who’s doing the discussing of the panel…).

    We don’t need to be reminded that Mark thinks that racism = bad. Especially when the reminder itself undercuts arguments against censorship.

    So this echoes Erratic’s question, though I wonder Mark if you can address the notion that making calls on content AT ALL undercuts efforts to oppose censorship.


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