Friday, July 9, 2010

Comic Books are Dead II: Seduction of the Innocent

Thích Quảng Đức (1962); Howard the Duck

I should have grown up with a pile of moldering golden age comic books at my bedside, but because comic books had become a collector's item I grew up looking at them in glass display cases. The first comic book store I can remember was a young guy named Rick who had taken over a single glass display case at the used book store up the street from my mom's house. Rick kind of looked like Mick Jagger. He couldn't have been too much older than me at the time, probably still in his teens, but he was easily past the crucial six years mark. His counter top display would eventually become a really big comic book store - I can remember at least three increasingly larger shops at different locations over the years. 

At our first meeting I remember him asking me if I had any John Byrne X-men I wanted to sell. I was at an age that I was obsessed with collection old Archie comics (I had found a junk shop near my dad's place that had a mother-load on consignment). I didn't know even what an X-man was, but I played it cool and told Rick I had a bunch and would bring them in. I bought a Giant Sized Man-Thing featuring Howard the Duck as a show of good faith.
For those who just rolled their eyes, I feel it is important to defend my childhood self. Howard the Duck was not a terrible first move on the road to aesthetic awakening. It not only shows where I was: weening myself from the lame, static universes of Disney and Archies comic books (any time with Disney comics was, I will admit, a total loss - I do however remember some really first rate art in the Archies), it also directed me in a direction most other 10-year-olds weren't headed in 1980: away from Rick's comic book store and into a stranger world of horror comics. (As best I remember that fists Howard the Duck, it was really well drawn - as goofy as the character was the original art was first rate.)
I was ready to enter (if not totally prepared to navigate) the more complex and difficult quasi-adult worlds of superheroes - luckily after that first Howard the Duck purchase I immediately lost track of Rick, it would be three or four more years before I found him again. I don't consider myself particularly lucky (my mutant power seems to be discovering the half-and-half needs to be refilled at coffee shops), but as chance would have it I was very lucky when it came to this particular transition. At a time when most other kids were having their heads turned by archival-mylar-bag-shilling-Virgils like Rick, I was left to wander the lower rings of comic book hell all on my own.
Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 5 (1972), Eerie Magazine

My great luck (and in this case it was great) was that at the time comic books took hold of me, I did not live in the suburbs (where, I am guessing, serious comic book collecting began). During my middle school years I lived in a high-rise with my dad in down-town Chicago and went to school on the shadow of Cabrini Green. Neither of these neighborhoods - or any of the neighborhoods in between - supported a comic book shop. But there was a news stand inside the State Street subway station that was run by a pair of elderly identical twins. I don't remember ever seeing the two of them together, but I knew there was two of them because one of them was missing most of the fingers of his right hand. So I not only knew they were a pair, I could tell them apart. The difference was crucial. The guy with the missing digits would sell me 'adult' comics, his brother wouldn't.
It was the injured twin not Rick who turned out to be my opening on to comic books. But instead of the pamphlet sized, X-Men replacing the juvenilia I had know up till then, I got hooked on magazine sized horror comics. The  titles I remember most were Eerie and Creepy. In hindsight, I now understand why they were kept out of the reach of children - they were fantastically gory, violent and sexual (often all at once). Thank goodness the injured twin didn't care, because like Howard the Duck, they were particularly well drawn. I can no longer name a single story or artist but I remember rich, well realized anatomy - usually naked and/or flayed - skillfully rendered with cross sectional contour, richly inked, but in a manor that I could still understand how the drawing was constructed. I learned to draw by copying what I saw in those books.
Because of an accident of history these larger format comics were also no interest to censors who had sprung up a couple decades before (and for reasons I could never figure out the magazine sized comics were never  any interest to Rick and his dealer cohorts - no one collected them or discussed them, they were invisible). Censors were very interested in the pamphlet sized "half-tabloid" standard format comic books however. In his book Men of Tomorrow, Grerard Jones traces the origins of the social and political backlash against comic books back to Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno.
Antony Gormley, Waste Man (2006); The Justice League - looks like a Bob Kane drawing???

Jones writes that America's "anti-comic furor [was] kicked off by by Fredric Wertham in 1948." It wasn't until 1954 however, when Wertham's now infamous book, The Seduction of the Innocent was published and congress held hearings investigating the comic book industry that Americans started whipping themselves into a froth of book burnings and lawsuits. Werther was the star witness for the comic book haters. Here's the bit from Jones' history:
When Fredric Wertham met him, Theodor Adorno was just unleashing his critique of the "cultural industry." Mass-produced art and drama, Adorno said, is designed to excite passions and then provide a false, comforting resolution that leaves the consumer with feelings of well-being inconsistent with the realities of life... Adorno's ideas pointed Wetham's thoughts in directions they had not gone... He began to consider the products of the 'cultural industry' as elements in the lives of the violent criminals he studied; but his understanding of movies and pulp magazines and comic strips was limited by biases of the European culture elite from which he had come and the scientific liberalism at which he excelled.
(I love that critical theory is to blame.) As Jones tells the story the American comic book publishing had gotten huge fast during the 1930s, a Wild West of pornographers, bootleggers, and  Marxists. During the war years the comics publishing had coalesced into a true industry and promptly began to consolidate. In the face of Wertham's attacks and public outcry the biggest publisher (DC) was able to bully the smaller upstart houses via their distribution networks. The industry adopted what I have heard described as the most restrictive regime of self-censorship ever instituted in the United States. If a comic book sized title was going to appear on racks in American stores it now had to have the CCA stamp of approval on the cover. The particulars of the Comic Book Code are worth checking out, but what is key, is that the CCa stamp generally signaled super bland reading.
Life Magazine; Creepy Magazine

The comic code applied to the "half-tabloid" standard format that was created by Charlie Gains, the founder of EC Comics. Charlie was an out of work teacher who found work as a commission-only salesman for a printer. He packaged 32 pages of comic strips to be used as promotional give aways. He sold 30 million pages of comics by 1933. The format almost immediately evolved into the standard of  64 pages with a wrap around cover. Along with a lot of other guys in New York Charlie was now in the comic book business, but unlike most of the others, he wanted to publish enlightening educational comics. He started and ran his own comic book publishing business into the ground with titles like Picture Stories from the Bible. (Wouldn't that suck to find one of those tucked in your Christmas stocking?) Charlie's son Bill took over EC after his father's death, but had no love of comics, his father (sounds like Charlie was a bit of a bully) or his fathers buddies in the business. Bill Gains ended up turning his father's company into exactly the sort of publishing house his father hated. EC published Tales from the Crypt, along with a whole bevy of other horror and crime titles. These were violent, bloody books loaded with sex and perversion, but also pointed social commentary. 
Under Bill's irreverent stewardship EC became a financial success, and was able to attract some of the most talented artist working, but EC came under particular scrutiny from congress and EC comics were held up as the worst offenders by Wertham. Jones explains that when the Code was adopted Gains folded all his titles but one:
He turned MAD into a large-format, black-and-white magazine, sellable on the racks with the rest of the grown up magazines, and shut down his comic book business. 0ad sold better than ever in the new format, and Gains was happy not to fight with the old guys any more.
As it turns out my dubious comic book pedigree, with its Howard the Duck origins, can be traced back to the birth of comics and the disastrous intersection of highbrow and lowbrow that resulted in the restrictive Code. As it turns out EC inspired the young James Warren to start publishing the horror magazines that the maimed twin would later sell to me:
Warren assembled a group of former EC artists and young EC fans to create a group of magazines emulating the old Gaines-Feldstien-Kurtzman horror and war comic: Creepy, Eerie and Blazing Combat. Like MAD, they were placed on magazine racks and ignored the Comics Code; they helped bring former EC fans and other adults into the fandom that was coalescing around Marvel Comics.
Amy Longenecker-Brown, Bedroom Piece (2010); Shock #6

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