Comics censorship at PRINT, Sean Howe, and Wallace Wood

Twelve pages of the February issue of PRINT magazine are devoted to a well-researched, sprawling feature on censorship in comics. Writer Michael Dooley unpacks a thorough history of censorship within the medium, and carefully surveys the contemporary comics landscape — which, even now, is rife with attempts to ban print graphic novels and digital single issues. The PRINT piece (excerpted here) touches on the now well-known recent efforts by Apple to suppress images in graphic novel apps and in comics like Image’s Saga, but Dooley also unearths older, lesser discussed censorship episodes that involved FBI raids and more. And as no article on the American pastime of censoring art works should be without a discussion of EC Comics and child psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham, Dooley recounts Wertham’s war on comic books as part of his assessment.

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“Sex and violence are the top two ingredients in the cultural censorship stew,” writes Dooley in PRINT. “Most media watchdogs, such as the Motion Picture Association of America, typically advocate more severe censure for the former, as if images of copulating couples are more damaging than that of cleaved corpses. But it was primarily the gory crime and horror comic books of the early 1950s, the medium’s peak sales years, that generated the outcry that led to the ruin of many publishers.”

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Dooley’s piece cites EC Comics — purveyors of crime, science fiction, jarring horror stories, and more in titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror — and its president William Gaines’s testimony in front of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. Gaines defended the work that his company was producing back in the early 1950s, when Wertham and others had been publishing magazine articles that took aim at the comics industry, trying to publicly build a link between juvenile delinquency and comic books. A June, 1954 New York Times report spotlighted a quote from Gaines: “The truth is that delinquency is a product of the real environment in which a child lives, and not of the fiction he reads.”

Writer and illustrator Wallace Wood had been working on the sort of horror and crime comics for EC and other companies that drew the ire of Wertham. Dooley offers a fascinating overview of Wood’s satirical work, citing “The Disneyland Memorial Orgy” and “Superduperman” while writer Bill Mason, in an essay that introduces Came the Dawn (Fantagraphics, 2012), regrets that Wood is better known for his science fiction than he is for his work in Mad magazine and elsewhere. Came the Dawn is a handsome hardcover that culls Wood’s artist contributions to EC’s crime and horror books. Fantagraphics will issue Cannon this year, a collection of Wood’s sex-and-military combat strips (which are seemingly stocked with images of naked women for little reason other than for ogling) that appeared in a military newspaper “to boost morale”.

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The “gotcha” conclusions that cap each one of the Al Feldstein-penned Shock SuspenStories obviously don’t quite deliver the punch now in Came the Dawn that they did in 1952, but the Haunt of Fear stuff, and the mud-caked, rotting undead that lumber into stories like Tales from the Crypt‘s “Scared to Death” here, pack every bit of the gruesomeness they did when I first encountered them via the Gladstone Publishing EC reprints circa 1990 (colored by Marie Severin). Of course, I knew none of these names then, and couldn’t possibly have appreciated the way that Wood’s pitch-black shadows lent lifelike depth to an old mansion’s dark corridors, or the remarkable detail given to the frantic mug of one of his chiseled philanderers who’d just been fingered by an eyewitness for the choking death of his mistress’s old man. These double-sized batches both delighted and repulsed me as a teenager. I loved them.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story author Sean Howe briefly discusses Wallace Wood, who was brought on board to draw and plot Daredevil in 1964, before he realized “he was plotting the story without being paid or credited.” Howe delves somewhat into the era’s censorship battles in his riveting late 2012 book, which is the result of mind-bogglingly deep research. The author conducted between 100 and 150 interviews with writers, artists, and more, some of whom go decades back at the company and confesses to a lifetime of pure comics fandom, give or take a “break” from the medium in the 1990s.

At a January event held at Brooklyn’s WORD bookstore, Howe reflected on the research he’d done for his sprawling history of Marvel Comics. “I discovered while working on this book that I had obsessive qualities,” he joked. Howe sat next to Tim Leong, author of 2013’s Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe, and a laptop slideshow flashed cinema-sized splash pages from Jack Kirby-era Fantastic Four stories on the wall behind them.

Howe spoke of an unconstrained urge to gather all of the material he possibly could about his subject (“This is the chronology, and I want to fill it in as much as I can”), and referenced having set up a Tumblr account to serve as the book’s supplementary visual component. “I want to force myself and other people to stare at the panel and to appreciate the work,” he explained.

Howe’s exploration of the 1950s comics industry witch hunt comprises a comparatively small section of the second chapter of his book, but it certainly doesn’t go unmentioned. I’m reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story now, and as you might have deduced, Howe’s work is wholly concerned with the history and inner workings of the industry giant, from meticulous details of how certain writers and artists got assignments on whatever books to careful, richly woven dissections of landmark comic stories and their illustrations (see an excerpt at Grantland). And even as the focus of the early chapters is relegated to recounting how Marvel giants like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and John Romita came to work with Stan Lee, Howe makes a point of discussing Wertham’s endeavors, and its wide-spanning impact on comics.

A recent University of Illinois study found that Wertham manipulated data and purposely changed quotes to support his “investigation.” Professor Carol Tilley, with whom Michael Dooley spoke for his PRINT feature, was among the first researchers to have a look at Wertham’s work in 2010, when the Library of Congress opened more than 200 containers of his reports, lectures, correspondence, and more. Tilley found that Wertham misrepresented his findings, but the damage inflicted by the doctor is obviously now decades-old.

Following the “moral panic” that Wertham’s crusade had incited, writes Jeet Heer for Slate, “the once-thriving comic-book industry went into a severe decline. In the two years after Wertham’s book came out, more than a dozen publishers and hundreds of cartoonists left the field. Those publishers that remained were severely restricted by a self-imposed code that prevented comics from publishing anything but the most anodyne kiddies’ fare. Only with the rise of graphic novels in the last few years have comics recovered from the stigma of the Wertham years.”