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Monday, June 9, 2008


On one of my listserves I recently wrote the following re: David Hadju's TEN CENT PLAGUE and Bart Beaty's comments thereon, cached at the Comics Reporter:

"My feeling toward Hadju's book is still largely positive even after Beaty pointed out some inaccuracies. Some of the things Beaty lists, though, aren't necessarily bad omissions. While the responses of Caniff and Kelly at the hearings makes for a good sidebar, it's not, strictly speaking, necessary to the book's theme, nor does the absence of those testimonies compromise the theme. I also didn't care about the factors that allowed Dell to steer clear of the Code, in part because I've read about them before. I was much more interested about Hadju's mini-history of St. John Publishing and its romance titles, since I thought that was an aspect of the history that hadn't been covered much, to my knowledge.

I think Beaty's utterly wrong about Hadju making the struggle between Gaines and Wertham a hero/villain battle. I think Gaines comes across as entirely human, as someone who had his own demons and foibles, but who in the end did believe that what he created was good essentially- innocent entertainment. Wertham's motivations are not delved into as much, but I don't think Hadju goes over the line in criticizing what the good doctor did as repressive and prudish. I've read all of Wertham's justifications for his crusade and while I believe that he believed them, I think W. was a very educated fellow who nevertheless "knew himself but slenderly." Since Gaines' position is the more morally defensible to me, and since Hadju pretty well elucidates that defense in a more-or-less Bettleheimish way, I don't have any problem with seeing Wertham come off as, if not a villain, the more morally questionable of the two."

A listserver then asked me why I found Gaines' position to be more morally defensible, and this got me thinking about government's overall role in society.

We're very used to thinking of government as, first and foremost, an organ that serves to police and control all the other organs in the "body" of the State. There can be no denying that this is a principal role, and in some societies (Stalinist Russia, the early Calvinist colonies spawned by Oliver Cromwell) it arguably became the only role.

Still, even before the New World was more than a vague concept bandied about by European intellectuals (see Fiedler's RETURN OF THE VANISHING AMERICA for details), medieval societies included a role for the government not just as a rule-maker, but a rule-breaker. One may speak of public displays of license like the Saturnalia and All Fools' Day as societal customs that imposed themselves on the government simply because the people wanted them, but once the government did interact to "structure the chaos," as it were, this too became one of its important functions.

Now, within the "free speech" ideals promulgated in the United States of America, all literature was deemed worthy of protection under the law, even if the concept we now call "trash literature" had probably never given pause to the framers of the First Amendment. Obscenity laws did exist at the state level, such as the notorious Comstock Act of 1873, but it appears that prior to the 20th century custom more than law kept the United States from spawning the American equivalent of novels like JUSTINE or THE MONK. When trash literature did begin to grow to industrial-strength proportions in the 20th century, it seems to have done through a condition of largely-benign neglect. (Hadju does assert that certain guardians of society had as many problems with the dime novels of the late 1800s as their later kindred did with comic books.) The anti-comics panic of the late 40s and early 50s stands as symptomatic of the U.S. culture's belated realization that a particular species of trash-literature might prove threatening to the culture as such, in being uniquely targeted toward the youth of that culture-- that it was, in essence, a chaos that could not be structured, only eliminated.

Almost thirty years later, Bruno Bettleheim would stress the need of young readers for dark fantasies within the context of fairy tales, as a process of making one's own sense of meaning, but though Hadju recounts a few instances where individuals during the "plague" made similar arguments, it would seem none of them were taken seriously, and only the institution of the Code, despite not being immediately palliative, quieted the fears of parents.

It can be argued that many of the publishers of the trashier comics were just in it for the money; that few if any had any notion of changing hearts or minds with their tales of horror or crime or romance. But the publisher's motives for me are irrelevant. All that matters to me is the motives of the readers, and what I consider their fundamental right to make meaning wherever they please, even out of trash.

And this is why I find Frederic Wertham less morally defensible than Charles Biro or William Gaines or any other publisher of junk. Wertham had inflated, overly-idealistic notions of child development, comparing them throughout SEDUCTION to plants in a garden. This idea may have grown from a sincere concern for children's welfare, but the idea means nothing in that it does not address the way real children grow and form their own values-- very unlike garden plants, in my opinion.

I regard the role of the various state governments as being shameful as well, since Hadju's book makes clear that a good portion of the anti-comics panic arose without any input from Wertham. I suspect that most politicians, including the formidable Estes Kefauver, simply latched on to the anti-comics crusade with no great thought as to what if any function, if any, trash literature should have in a liberal modern society. What quotes Hadju provides seem to indicate that they had no tolerance whatsoever, damning the excellent along with the mediocre just as Wertham did.

Still, as disproportionate as the entire tsuami of public opinion seems to us now, it's fortunate that the public's anti-comics obsession apparently burned itself out after the most egregious examples of rule-breaking were off the stands. (This is one failing of Hadju's book: having told readers that the Code did not immediately soothe all concerns, he never says why the anti-comics bandwagon finally ground to a halt.) Though the government may not have made the society better able to stand short bouts of "structured chaos," at least it didn't enforce a more draconian version of the Code that might have been much harder to shake than the one the comics-industry itself formulated.

A small favor indeed, but one for which I suppose we must be thankful.

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