Seduction of the Innocent: detective novel set during anti-comic book hysteria of the 1950s

Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition author) sounds like fun — it's a detective novel that take place during the heyday of the anti-comic book hysteria of the 1950s, which was led by the evil Dr. Fredric Wertham, who wrote a popular scare book also called Seduction of the Innocent. (For an excellent historical account of this era, read The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu). In Collins' novel, Fredric Wertham is thinly disguised as character Dr. Werner Frederick, featured in the excerpt below.

It's 1954, and a rabble-rousing social critic has declared war on comic books — especially the scary, gory, bloody sort published by the bad boys of the industry, EF Comics. But on the way to a Senate hearing on whether these depraved publications should be banned, the would-be censor meets a violent end of his own — leaving his opponents in hot water.

Can Jack Starr, private eye to the funny-book industry, and his beautiful boss Maggie unravel the secret of Dr. Frederick's gruesome demise? Or will the crackdown come, falling like an executioner's axe…?

Dr. Frederick strode in, a tall, thin exclamation point of a man in his late fifties with white hair, wire-framed glasses and a crisp dark suit with striped red-and-white tie. He might have been a funeral director or a minister. His well- grooved face lived in a narrow, horsey oval, his eyes dark and small but alert, with a wedge of a nose Chester Gould might have drawn.

I found myself standing.

"Werner Frederick," he said with a curt nod, though of course he needed no identification. A distinct German accent turned "Werner" into "Verner." He moved past me to reach across the desk and shake hands with Maggie, who had not risen, then extended his hand to me, and we shook. His firm handshake stopped just short of showing off. I also got another curt nod, and half-expected him to click his heels together.

I gestured to the visitor's chair, the mate of mine, and he sat, feet on the floor, arms folded, chin as high as Bryce's on the latter's exit.

"Thank you for accepting my invitation," Maggie said. "May I order up some coffee for you?"

"Thank you, no. I confess I am here more out of curiosity than anything. I am as prey to that human frailty as any layman."

I wanted to point out that curiosity wasn't exactly a frailty, but this was Maggie's show. I settled back comfortably and sipped my glass of Coke — Bryce had squeezed a lime in, bless him — and listened.

"I hope we're not adversaries," Maggie said. "But we are obviously on opposite sides of this comic-book controversy."

He shrugged his narrow shoulders. "That fact, of course, fuels my interest. As it happens, I caught that broadcast Monday night, when you and that television host and my friend Lehman got into your heated discussion." His smile was a thin line that curled at either end, patronizing but genuine. "I must admit, it made good viewing. I was amused by your comparison of comic books to traditional children's fairy tales."

She shrugged. "I believe it to be apt."

"With all due respect, Miss Starr, I certainly don't. Or is 'Mrs.' your preference?"

"Professionally, it's 'Miss.' And surely you can't deny, Doctor, that children's literature has always been violent. There's the grimness of the Grimm Brothers, Peter Rabbit's farmer with a shotgun, Peter Pan's pirates."

"Yeah," I said, not able to resist, "and what about those talking clams in Alice in Wonderland that got eaten up? Maybe your buddy Albert Fish read that as a kid."

Maggie flashed me a look that only I could read, but the shrink merely smiled. "You've read up on me, Mr. Starr."

"Part of my job around here, research. I'm clearly not the brains."

That amused him, just a little. He was taking no offense, I'll give him that much.

"I think all of us," he said, "prize the books we read and loved as children. Why, many of us save and even cherish the worn volumes themselves, those frayed mementoes of our youth, and carry them with us into adulthood."

He was right. I had still had the copies of Spicy Models, published by the major, that I'd lifted from his editorial offices when I was in the seventh grade.

"But it's hard even to imagine, isn't it," he went on, in his thick accent and perfect English, "any adult or even adolescent who has outgrown comic books ever dreaming of keeping any of those garish pamphlets over time, out of sentiment or any other reason."

He might have been wrong about that. My Dick Tracy, Dan Dunn and Secret Agent X-9 Big Little Books were in my closet on a shelf. Next to the stack of Spicy Models.

"Be that as it may," Maggie said, "many comic books are perfectly harmless. Or do you object to the likes of Donald Duck or Little Lulu?"

"Such trash is less harmful than the crime comic books," he allowed. "I'm afraid the combination of simple text and crude pictures serves only to discourage children from reading real books. Inhibits their imagination. Still, the sale of such material, I don't protest."

I said, "But don't you lump the superhero-type of book in with the crime comics?"

He nodded. "I do." His eyes met Maggie's. "And this is what, I'm afraid, does indeed make us adversaries of sorts. Your syndication service has distributed the comic strip versions of some of the most dangerous of these characters."

Dangerous. That word again.

"The undercurrent of homosexuality in the Batwing comic book," he said as if tasting something sour, "is extremely damaging to impressionable minds, and children are inherently in that category."

"Homosexual?" I asked.

That got me another flash of a look from Maggie.

"Impressionable," he said sternly. "And the Amazonia comic book is rife with fetishistic bondage, and the lead character herself is clearly lesbian."

"She has a boyfriend, doesn't she?" I asked innocently. "Some captain in the army or air force?"

"Amazonia is a closeted lesbian, frequently shown participating in semi-clothed frolicking with other lesbians."

I never get invited to the good parties.

Rather than argue the point, Maggie said, "We no longer distribute those strips."

"That's an admirable decision."

I noticed Maggie didn't point out to him that in both cases that was a business decision.

"However," the shrink said, "you continue to distribute the strip version of one of the most offensive of these characters — Wonder Guy."

What the hell was offensive about Wonder Guy? He was just a big lug wearing patriotic colors and a cape, going around saving people from fires and earthquakes and punching out the occasional bad guy.

"This," he was saying, his eyes cold and glittering, lost in themselves, "is a reprehensible exhibition of the Nazi theme of the superman. A dangerous celebration of the triumph of power and violence over the logical and intellectual."

I wanted to point out to this dope that the creators of Wonder Guy were Jews, kids from Des Moines who came to the big city. Where other Jews screwed them, but that's another story.

"We also distribute," Maggie said pleasantly, putting it right out there, "the Crime Fighter strip, a spin-off of a very successful comic-book title. That puts us in business with Levinson Publications, whose output you hold in much dis- favor."

"Yes," he said, but now his eyes were narrowing. What is she getting at? he seemed to be wondering.

What is she getting at? I was wondering.

"Here's what I'm getting at," Maggie said. "We are a syndication service, as you accurately put it. We provide content to over two thousand newspapers, Sunday and daily. Some of those papers editorially are Republican, others are Democrat. A good number are in major cities, but many more are in small towns."

"Yours," he granted, "is an egalitarian pursuit. But I'm not sure I understand how that explains…"

She raised a palm like a traffic cop. "We have comic strips that appeal to young children, and we have comic strips that appeal to teenagers, with soap-opera strips for women, a sports strip for dads, and panel cartoons for both sexes."

He had begun shaking his head perhaps halfway through that. "I have no objection to comic strips per se. They are an established medium in the pages of our newspapers. The controversy, so-called, over the crime comic books does not apply, generally, to the comic strip."

"I assure you that comic strips, back at the turn of the century when they began, were crude and rude, fodder for the lower-class, for immigrants, and got plenty of criticism. The Yellow Kid was a hoodlum, the Katzenjammer Kids juvenile delinquents."

The doctor was frowning. In thought, maybe. Or maybe not.

"I do not dispute that the comic strip," he said, mildly irritated, "has blossomed in its limited way in the greater garden of the American newspaper. But its bastard child the comic book is a poisonous weed that infests our newsstands. A dozen state legislatures have worked to ban or limit this blight upon our children, and many parents have risen up, even having public burnings of these wretched pamphlets."

And here I thought the doc didn't like the Nazis….

Maggie raised her hands as if in surrender. "I didn't invite you here to argue, doctor. But I did want to…clear the air."

From his seat he bestowed her a little quarter bow. "I never mind discussing this or any topic with a person of your intelligence."

"Nice to know." She rocked back in her swivel chair. "I needed to find out if our disagreement on this subject would stand in the way of our doing business."

Seduction of the Innocent