"This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?"
"Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic."
In PART I of ANYTHING, I said:
"The high/low prejudices [of elitist critics] can be much more virulent when dealing with works in differing modes that do not have humor as their aim."
Historically, nothing displays this fact better than the above-quoted 1954 exchange between Senator Estes Kefauver and William C. Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, during a congressional committee's investigation of what Senator Robert Hendrickson called "the problem of horror and crime comics," which he defined as "pamphlets illustrating stories depicting crimes or dealing with horror or sadism." Ostensibly such comics were a concern for the committee (and for the legions of offended parents whom the congressmen represented) because comics stood accused of facillitating juvenile delinquency. But given the slanted nature of the committee's inquiries, one could be justified in finding a different motive for the investigation, as does David Hadju in THE TEN CENT PLAGUE:
"The issue at stake... was not really juvenile crime... but the idea of taste-- the proposition that aesthetic values are relative." (p. 272)
But while I agree with Hadju's interpretation as a whole, in one small matter he's not quite correct, for Gaines doesn't argue for the overall relativity of taste. Gaines' argument that a gory comics-cover is perfectly proper to a horror comic book is promptly mitigated in his next response, where Gaines seeks to elevate his personal taste above that of some hypothetical competitor's rendition of the same material:
"A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen to be dripping blood--"
Let it be said that even though I'm going to critique Gaines' argument on my own terms, I acknowledge that nothing Gaines could have said would have made any difference to Kefauver or the rest of the committee. The "someone else's taste is worse" argument certainly did nothing to deter the governmental guardian, for Kefauver simply pointed out that there was blood on the axe and coming from the head's mouth, and stated that most adults would be "shocked" by such explicitness. Given that mindset, Gaines' argument of being less explicit than he could have been counted for nothing.
But the "someone else's taste" argument is also a mistake in terms of anyone seeking to defend a mode of expression, since it comes down to backpedaling. Gaines was correct to assert that there was a defensible aesthetic to a horror comic-- particularly a horror-comic in a particular mode of expression-- but was not correct to backpedal and assert that his taste as to crafting and presenting a good horror-comic was essentially more restrained than that of some hypothetical other editor.
I argued on the differing modes in ANYTHING PART I that two examples of them from the genre of comedy would be the "sophisticated comedy" and the "grossout comedy." Not surprisingly, fans of horror-narratives have also at times divided off different types of horror, sometimes with direct reference as to how viscerally horrible they may be. "Gross horror" is one name for the type/mode that emphasizes viscerality and the violation of the body, while "subtle horror" is one name for horror-works that suggest more than show horrific events. A synoptic view of horror-narratives would have to say that both have the possibility for merit-- but should one judge the virtue of a "gross horror" narrative according to the degree of *restraint* practiced by its creators?
Maybe one could appreciate a display of restraint in a particular instance-- like using a particular cover-illustration to sell a mass medium magazine-- but surely if a mode like "gross horror" has any merit, that merit would have to line up with the mode's tendency to shock and horrify with in-your-face viscerality. Viscerality isn't the only virtue that critics of a later day have found in the same "horror and sadism" magazines Hendrickson disparaged, but that virtue would be likely be among the top three.
Naturally, it was politic for Gaines to have defended himself as a publisher with a degree of restraint. Had he come out defending the virtues of gross horror in the unrepentant tones of a latter-day Marquis de Sade, as logic says he should have, he probably would have been ridden out of town on the proverbial rail.
As it is, there's some irony that Gaines' business survived thanks to the translation of the MAD comic book into MAD magazine-- thus indirectly demonstrating my contention above: that many aspects of narrative reality will get no free pass in "serious" stories, but can squeak by with comparative impunity when shielded by the power of humor.
Number 2092: Vampire under the big top
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