Thursday, March 27, 2008

The '50s myth ...

... Terry Teachout on horror comics.

Terry's right, of course. It wasn't just rightwingers who objected to Tales from the Crypt. Estes Kefauver was one of the senators grilling Bill Gaines. And Congress in those days was a Democratic party fiefdom. I read those horror comics and they don't seem to have warped me any. But it all turned out well in the end. Gaines went on to found Mad.
What continues to amaze me is how that the wonderful decade of my growing-up continues to be libeled by ignoramuses. I had more freedom as a kid than any poor child growing up today.


  1. Anyone who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s and who read comic books as a regular diet, both of which I did, can only conclude after reading David Hajdu’s excellent work – which I also did – that it is dead-on. It is weird—to use one of comic books’ favorite words—to read about events that one has experienced. Comic books set me on the path toward a hopeless love of all printed matter, and Hajdu captures here both what I recall of my adolescent reaction to comics and my later understanding of what society did to them.
    An early and influential blast against comics came in 1940 from a guy who was born just up the road from where I live now, Sterling North of Edgerton, Wis., later a well-known children’s author (“Rascal”) but then a book critic for the Chicago Daily News. In a review of children’s books North included a vilification of comic books; titled “A National Disgrace,” it decried the “poisonous mushroom growth” of comic books. North’s critique received national attention, and its disdain was echoed in criticisms throughout the decade. Part of his disdain arose out of the economic fact that the increasingly popular comics threatened his own nascent career as a writer of traditional children’s lit. I am chagrined to report that I am geographically connected to yet another comic-book protest: A public, and fairly well publicized, comics-burning was held in my hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., in, I think, the early 1950s.
    As for Herr Professor Doktor Wertham, the self-appointed leader of the moralistic crusade against comics, he is effectively discredited by Hajdu, who shows that as a work of scholarly research, Wertham’s tome, “Seduction of the Innocent,” is a total zero. Yet many reviewers, including North, hailed the book.

  2. Well, Roger, like you I was an avid fan of the horror comics. Remember "the old crone"? And I remember the senate hearings and the other hysteria. And yes the comics fell victims to the kind of crap we still hear today: let's ban this stuff for the sake of the children because of the evil effect it will have on their unformed minds. Well, I've done some wild stuff in my time, but reading horror comics didn't turn me into a Norman Bates character. Of course, I can't speak for you, Roger, but I suspect you've been a reasonably law-abiding sort these many years. But I still stand by my points that the '50s were not the awful time people who didn't live then make them out to be and that today's kinds are vastly more supervised than we were and that we were better off than they as a result.

  3. Anonymous10:20 AM

    Frank: While I think Terry's right to point to Hajdu overlooking the Warshow essay, I think he's being somewhat disingenuous to impart a left-leaning agenda for this book. None of those who attacked comic books, left or right, come off terribly well. Including Kefauver. (It's a very good book, by the way.)

  4. Oh, I gather the book is good, as Terry himself says. And you're right: None of the attackers, left or right, comes off well - nor should they, the fools. My point was merely that it wasn't just the right or even especially the right that was behind this. Just the usual puritanical suspects - the people who are afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time. Also, it's interesting to note how perennial - and pernicious - the "for the children" argument is.

  5. Oh, absolutely, Frank. I agree with you, as we like to say these days, 110 percent: The Fifites were not as bland or as conformist as they are usually depicted, and they were a lot more innovative in the popular and serious arts than is generally realized. Plus, the pop music was better and more varied than it is now. I agree with Ed, too, that there isn't a leftish bent to Hajdu's book. Hajdu just shows they were wild and crazy guys (and occasional gal) turning out outlandish stufft, and eventually stumbled on that work of genius, the MAD comic book. The book capturing the 1950s in all the decade's glory has not been written. Maybe I'll write it. After I finish my book on Arthur Godfrey. (Wild and crazy fantasy.)

  6. Anonymous3:11 PM

    My aunt compared China's potemkin-village Olympic preparations to the U.S. in the 50s, saying that like China today, the U.S. in the 50s was "all about appearences".I asked what she meant, and she said that my grandparents covered her mouth after she had said that she wanted to kill president Eisenhower over the Rosenbergs.They covered her mouth because they were walking by a Police Station, and they didn't want the police to hear a Jew say such a thing. She continued, "It was a dangerous time to be a Jew then!" I answered that I didn't think that the Rosenbergs were executed for being Jewish, and that the 50s were a much better time for American Jews than previous decades had been.My aunt called me an Anti-Semite.She went on to work "Leave it to Beaver" and the press' reluctance to out Kennedy's clandestine Sex-life(but wasn't that the 60S?)into the argument, as if Judaism, Communism, and Presidential extramarital affairs were simply not bland enough for people then.