The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read!
“Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You To Read!” is the come-on subtitle of this collection, although frankly they didn’t care if you read them or not. It wasn’t so much alarm at the content or concern for ‘the kiddies’ as the self-publicity gained from an easy target that motivated the politicians who sensed blood from blood-drenched comics.
As any politician knows, to distract attention from adventures overseas, particularly those going badly, or any serious bad news due to government incompetence or inaction, the quick fix is to manufacture a problem that hits ‘em close to home. No-one cares about corpses in other countries, it seems, when their own children are eating too many chips or playing violent video games. Gory horror comics made much better news copy than economics or foreign body counts. Like violent TV shows or movies, or sex in books or films, ‘evil comics’ sold newspapers as easily as they sold themselves. If you can’t serialise it, condemn it. Thus, comics, rock and roll, TV shows, horror films, nasty VHS, computer games, the internet, pornography, and burgers and fries all take their turn in the barrel when the powers that be need a diversion from what really matters, and what they’re getting wrong.
Jim Trombetta, a journalist and Hollywood TV scriptwriter (Miami Vice, The Equalizer, The Flash, Deep Space Nine), should get this, and maybe he does, but the text of his book is devoted primarily to analysing the attacks on comics rather than the comics themselves. He provides a fine account of these dark days for scholars and other interested parties, and it’s a sobering and timely re-visit in these censorious and sensitive times as a new but strangely familiar army of bluenoses and angry hand-wringers have been gathering since the turn of this century, with fresh concerns and different problems, but the same old targets. They would be furious, baffled, and outraged to be compared to their fellow fascists in the 1950s even as they also seek to regulate and police what we may think or say or see.
As interesting and admirable as all this is, horror author for kids R.L. Stine has the right attitude when he writes, in his introduction, about his disappointment as a child when these comics disappeared from the newsstands in 1954, and states “As a fan, I always think that the real story of these horror comics is not that they were banned, but that they existed”.
And this book does also celebrate their existence for half-a-decade with a vengeance. Three hundred pages are devoted almost entirely and extensively to beautifully reproduced covers and content from this disreputable trash so lovingly rendered by the jobbing comics artists of the day, just churning this stuff out to make a buck. A lot of it is junk, some of it is beautiful, but all of it is fascinating. The covers, in particular, are a delight, amazing stuff, garish, silly, and fun. It’s strange to think people took it seriously, just as it is to think that controversy once raged over Elvis, smutty seaside postcards, Hammer films, the Rolling Stones, or Dirty Harry.
Since this book was compiled in 2010 there have been many collections of vintage comics and/or their covers, most excellent, and many reviewed by myself, but this is easily one of the best by far for the horror genre, and beautifully designed. Perhaps as befits a collection that concerns itself primarily with the assault on horror comics by the high and mighty, and features a terror-stricken eyeball on the cover, the selections in this one are somewhat more grim and gory than some of the others on the market, which are more enjoyably silly than gruesomely strong in content. While some—some—of the covers are gorgeous, the artwork on the interior stories is a little less stylish, and quite coarse and ugly in fact, and sometimes, blameless characters you might expect to be heroes, or saved, become victims of grisly ends. Most of the content here is bleak and weak, and this collection is one of the few that doesn’t seem to have been chosen for its art or quality, but as examples to make a point. Author Jim Trombetta makes the important distinction that it wasn’t just the horror comics that the authorities were fretting about, it was all comics, and the crime comics were particularly nasty. And of course, as always with America, sex was considered nasty as well; Fiction House’s strong and sexy heroines went to the wall along with the ghouls and gangsters.
Whether the horrors should have been chased off the newsstands is a somewhat moot point now, seventy years later, but it’s worth remembering that if their popularity hadn’t been nipped in the bud by generally wrong-headed politically motivated grandstanding, and continued in the manner of pulps, paperbacks, and sweats, we may never have had DC’s Silver Age super-heroes, Weisinger’s Superman Family comics, or the Lee/Kirby sci-fi shorts that lead to the Marvel Super-Heroes. All these hacks—and most of them were fairly routine and talentless—would have remained employed, and turning out this grim illiterate rubbish. Would they then have run their course, as the sweats did, only to become irrelevant and unwanted in the face of Hammer, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Jess Franco, and the Italian giallos, dragging comics unloved and unmourned into the dustbin of history as the allure of VHS replaced them? Or would DC and Marvel have been crowded off the newsstands by these crude lower common denominator cash-ins, unable to compete and flourish and nurture their artists to the point where comics became respected and artistically competent in the mid-’60s?
While not defending censorship, how different comics might have been if they had continued down the path they were descending to in the early 1950s. DC’s super-heroes, if they had returned at all, might have been bullied off the newsstands as too square and dull next to the blood and gore elsewhere; with no Justice League, Stan would have followed through with his resolve to quit comics and moved on into advertising or TV and movie scriptwriting, and Martin Goodman might have told Jack Kirby not to be so time-wastingly perfectionist and obscure, and dropped a Fantastic Four-free Silver Surfer and Galactus in the bin as a high-falutin’ indulgence he couldn’t sell (“You think college kids read our books?? We sell gangsters and murder!!”).
So, despite the disappointment of the wide-eyed little boys poring over illicit images of ghouls and killers, maybe things worked out best… for the next generation of comic-book kids anyway. In the meantime, we have five years of zombies and screaming repenters to drool over unforgivingly. Be advised though, that this publication is not a collection of stories, but a very heavily illustrated text with examples to support the author’s thesis. So while there are some complete stories, other contributions are single page examples to illustrate points… and some of those points are on shakier ground than the censorship material.
Personally, I think that like many of those who take an academic or sociological view of popular culture, there is a tendency in this book to sometimes overthink things. Too much effort is made to link these naive and foolish comics to real events at the time, whereas in reality they were simply a result of businessmen and hacks trying to make a buck. With all due respect to the writers and artists concerned, these were not deep thinkers, and while they may have had their opinions, most of them weren’t politicised enough, daring enough, or literate enough to put them into their stories, and the werewolves, zombies and skeletons of early ’50s horror comics represent nothing more than werewolves, zombies and skeletons.
The writers and artists who conceived these tales were trying to bring dinner to the table, not ideas, opinions, or deep thoughts. When there were exceptions, such as the strongly anti-racist “Judgement Day”, (the most chilling tale in this book is the attempted censorship of it, and Bill Gaines’ brave stand), it was blindingly obvious, and not hidden, or enclosed in secret meanings and symbolism. Politics in comics are never subtle or sophisticated, and with the exception of some of Stan Lee’s late ‘60s work, rarely accommodate opposing viewpoints; like their characters, they are about heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. So while the text is all very interesting, it is more about what Jim Trombetta has personally taken from the comics, rather than what anyone was trying to put into them, consciously or otherwise. Popular culture tells us much about the society it springs from, but horror is timeless and often thoughtless, and social scientists will be better served by war, sci-fi, or romance comics, or indeed almost any other genre than horror, which almost never changes from one decade to the next. Of course there are exceptions, but 1950s horror comics are not generally among them. Visually, however, it’s an absolute treasure, an excellent starting point if you want to see what all the fuss was about.