A Red Letter Day for Blue Noses


Ecstasy poster

Imagine a world where no law, human or natural, would ever be questioned, where those who dared to defy laws, even unjust ones, would always be punished. Where all religious leaders were good and honorable and to suggest otherwise was taboo.

No sex, no nudity, no homosexuality, no drugs, liquor in strict moderation (except where its abuse might serve as a lesson to would-be drunkards). There would be no miscegenation (the intermarriage of races), no excessive kissing, no vulgarity at all.

Welcome to Hollywood in 1934.

The seeds of paradise were planted on this day, March 31, 1930, but it took four years for the seed to grow into a mighty tree. Happy birthday to the Hays Code, the “moral” production standards that dominated American entertainment for almost 40 years!

Born in the wake of scandal, Fatty Arbuckle’s bastard child, and equal parts a reaction to the excesses of the Roaring 20s and the tightening noose of the Great Depression, the Hays Code was largely a product of zealous Catholic do-gooders who managed to impose their narrow (and racist) view of morality on an entire industry.

Farewell to Betty Boop, Mae West, shirtless Gable, Hedy Lamarr, and merciless Groucho. Good-bye to realistic social drama, double beds, and the besotted, entendre-laced repartee of Nick and Nora Charles. And, my god, weren’t we a better nation for it? No crime, no poverty, no divorce, no alcoholism, no drug abuse …

A powerful reminder of what can happen when moralizing hypocrites are allowed to make the rules, the Hays Code largely reduced American moviemaking to a world even a child would have a hard time believing. That so many fine movies were made under its auspices is a testimony to the imagination of our film makers in the face of a standard designed to homogenize and desexualize our entertainment.
Tarzan and Jane

If there is a bright side to the oppressive decades of censorship, it may be that those little gems of dark beauty that were made before the Code appear brighter and more lurid by contrast with what followed, and when the light finally emerged from behind the clouds in the 1960s, it burned fiercely and blue.

So here’s to the Hays Code and the men who made it!

May their afterlives be filled with sin.

Review: Secret Identity – The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster

Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster
By Craig Yoe, Stan Lee, and Joe Shuster
160 pages
Abrams ComicArts
$24.95

Review by Drake

“Comic Books are junk.”
-Jules Feiffer

Craig Yoe, artist and author, is fast making a new reputation for himself as the historian of comics’ hidden erotic history. Last year he edited and compiled a fascinating volume called Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings that featured unlikely, sexy work from many of the giants in the comic strip and comic book field, rescued from obscure magazines, private collections, and under-the-counter sources. This year, he has topped that achievement with the truly amazing Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster. The book is a collection of astonishing comic book style art produced for a series of near amateur periodicals in the early 1950s wrapped in an essay on the publications (most of which were called Nights of Horror), the career of the artist, and a fascinating legal case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Secret Identity is like a cutaway diagram of the weirdest elements of American graphic culture and an exploration of an unknown side of artist Joe Shuster, best known as the co-creator of Superman. The introductory text is an enthralling mini-history of censorship, do-gooder hysteria, private obsession, and public attitudes and does a great job of putting these drawings into perspective.

Sadomasochism is a pervasive element in American popular culture and D&S elements were part of comic books almost from the beginning, but to see those elements reduced to these iconic depictions of bondage, flagellation, and sexual humiliation is startling and oddly appealing. That the characters are rendered in the clean, familiar style of early Superman comics (and, in fact, many of the characters look a great deal like the Superman cast!) adds considerable interest to them.

Although Yoe does a great job of presenting this material, without leaping tall buildings to any conclusions about Joe Shuster’s reasons for creating these little masterpieces of smut, some of the comments from his interviewees and in the introduction by comics’ graybeard Stan Lee are amusing in a judgmental way. It’s clear that some of these folks see something a little shameful about this work when, in fact, it seems to me nothing less than an appealing distillation of a widespread, quite common American kink.

If I have any criticism of the book, it is that the text doesn’t include at least one example of the stories in Nights of Horror. As it happens, I have seen and read one issue of this rare magazine and the stories are awful, amateurishly told versions of the same sorts of things you can find in countless internet repositories, which involve innocents falling into the sadistic hands of villains and villainesses, so there isn’t much lost here by not including them. Without an example though, they appear more forbidden and interesting than they actually are. I’m always in favor of a good tease though, so perhaps this isn’t entirely a bad thing!

Highly recommended for anyone with an eye on the seamier (more interesting!) elements of American culture, the history of censorship in America, or early comic book art. I can’t wait to see what Craig Yoe does next!

(Angela here!  Timing really is everything… This
book hit the store just as I was finishing up a sexy superhero tale for
submission.  Now that I’m done pouring steel bar-bending words onto the
screen, I’ve started reading this book with special interest. AC)