Category Archives: censorship

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

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)

Google says: Sexy Witches Are BAD!


As a review of past entries here will show, Drake and I share a love of vintage erotica.

The internet is full of repositories of imagery and prose from other times and the discovery of such sites is always an occasion of joy.

One of the  finest such sites is the Sexy Witch blog, which delights in exactly what its name would lead one to believe, imagery that celebrates the sexuality of witches as they have been portrayed throughout the last hundred or so years in books, movies, advertisements, and more esoteric places. The sweet innocence of most of the content of the site speaks for itself and even the occasional full frontal enchantress is tasteful and restrained.

Anyone with even a casual interest in the way our Wiccan sisters have been pleasantly exploited should visit the site and enjoy its contents.

But now, if you click on the link I provided above, you get a

warning page from the good souls at Google who – thanks to some blue nosed internet vigilante – have chosen to classify the blog as potentially objectionable, presumably because it has bare breasts scattered among the fanciful ladies of Hecate’s clan.

Increasingly Google is becoming the Walmart of the internet – an inescapable and ruthless arbiter of puritanical morality. As documented by Eros Blog and many other observers, Google is introducing more sneaky, restrictive manipulation in their search engine, blog space, and image and video searches all the time, all in the service of the most dubious and inane brand of decency.

It’s enough to make you wish someone would put a hex on them!