Forbidden Comic Books

Drake here. In retro publishing, this fall has turned out to be the season of the horror comic, with a veritable dark and stormy flood of books reprinting classics from the great era of horror comics in the early 1950s. Since I have a deep affection for this material, and since Angela is wonderfully indulgent of my vices, she is allowing me to occupy a few inches of her blog to review some of these books. This topic is timely too, because a modern horror comic has just become the basis for  hit TV series The Walking Dead.

Arguably the most important book ever written about comic books was the one that almost put an end to them. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent: the Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth. The book was the culmination of years of effort by the well-meaning doctor, who had spent years counseling severely troubled inner city youngsters and who had been, perhaps, driven into a kind of narrowly focused fanaticism by his work. Dr. Wertham blamed horror and crime comics for everything from juvenile crime to sexual fetishes.

In 1955, American comic book publishers were pretty much compelled to submit to a production code – similar to the Hay’s Code that cleaned up movies in the 30s. Among other things, the Comics Code Authority forbade the use of words like “horror” and “terror” in comic titles, banned vampires and werewolves, and ensured that good always triumphed over evil. For the next 15 years, comic would be paragons of innocence and goodness until cracks in the structure began to form around 1970. The Code still exists, but I doubt Dr. Wertham would be amused by some of the material published today with its approval.

Before 1955, there were dozens of companies producing horror and crime comics. The best known of the bunch was the Entertaining Comics company (EC), which imploded after the mid-50s to the single, massively popular Mad magazine. EC’s comics have been acclaimed for the literary ambitions of their writers and the quality of their art and are regarded as some of the best comic books anyone ever published. Widely reprinted in a variety of cheap and expensive formats (although the most recent attempt to archive them in classy hardcover editions ran into the churning blades of economic reality and seems to have ended), EC editions are easy to find for anyone willing to spend a little time on eBay.

But ECs were only the tip of a big, bloody iceberg and several book publishers this fall have begun to mine the vast, all but unknown, trove of scary comics produced before the advent of the Code, the very books that drove Dr. W to his crusade. Besides reprinting rare material, these retrospectives raise some interesting points about the nature of horror comics, their place in the times that produced them, and the importance of forbidden texts in an open society.

Next: Four Color Fear

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