This is the part I’ve been dreading as a creator. His constant comments about comic art being bad (trust me, sequential art shouldn’t look like museum pieces and every time it’s tried, no matter how good the artist, it never looks right) and complaints about the stories (which gets to me as a writer) as well as his obvious biased made me think this whole section was going to be one bit slam against the actual creators of the comics. Nope, it’s still a strike against the publishers, trying to take blame away from the writers and artists.
Don’t get me wrong. I know why he’s doing it. I’m not going to say what that is just yet. See if you figure it out before we’re done with this section. Based on previous statements I’m not convinced he’s doing it for the right reason.
The writers of comic books rarely want to be professional crime comic book writers. I have had letters from them and have spoken with a number of them. One firm may employ as many as twenty or thirty such writers. Their ambition is to write a “Profile” for the New Yorker, or articles or stories for national magazines, or to write the great American novel. The scripts or scenarios they write for comic books are not anything which they wish to express or anything they wish to convey to their child public. They want to get their ten dollars a page and pay the rent. They do not write comic book stories for artistic or emotional self-expression. On the contrary, they write them in the hope of finding eventually the chance for self-expression somewhere else.
You’d have to wait until the rise of independent publishing, and for that model to itself be more accepting of self-expression. We’ve reached that by today in 2017 but not so much back then. It was still a new medium, and yes I do feel the need to keep nothing that since Wertham and his compatriots don’t keep that in mind. Publishers, like media studios and publishers today (including the mainline comics publishers who aren’t Image, Dark Horse, or IDW) don’t want to deviate from a certain formula because they know they’re getting money from that and are afraid to try anything new. That’s why so many movies feel similar to each other.
The ideas for their stories they get from anywhere, from other comic books, from newspapers, movies, radio, even jokes. Believe it or not, some comic book writers are good writers.
Yeah, that shocked me when he admitted comic writers are good writers. Pity he won’t say the same for comic artists. As for where they get stories from, even back then they went to myths and legends if not as a direct influence then as inspiration. Writers today do the same thing, as well as the influences Dr. Wertham mentioned.
And the paradox or the tragedy is that when you read a comic book story that is a little better it does not mean that a bad writer has improved, but that a man who was a good writer had to debase himself. Crime comic book writers should not be blamed for comic books. They are not free men. They are told what to do and they do it – or else. They often are, I have found, very critical of comics. They are the ones who really know what goes into them. They know the degenerate talk that goes on in some editorial offices. But of course, like comic book vendors, they have to be afraid of the ruthless economic power of the comic book industry. In every letter I have received from a writer, stress is laid on requests to keep his identity secret. I have one letter from a man, evidently a very intelligent writer, who mentions this three times in one letter!
While I wouldn’t be surprised, part of me thinks he’s laying it on a bit. Especially that “secret identity” stuff. True, Stan Lee changed his last name hoping to keep identity separate from comics while he had other writing goals, and now he’s still the face of Marvel Comics even if Marvel isn’t exactly following his lead. However, by that point comics were considered kids fare thanks to the aftermath of this book and the Comics Code. But forcing writers to tell the kinds of stories they’d rather not? Editorial and Publisher mandates are still happening today so why not back then? Then again, given that Wertham is putting Blue Beetle in the same group as the Cryptkeeper (which he somehow still calls a crime comic) I have to remain at least partially skeptical.
You know why he did this though? As we’ve seen in the last two parts this is about making the publishers of comics look as bad as possible, and if he can get more writers over to “his side” he has a chance to make the publishers and editors look even worse. Plus the writers are very important in comic creation since they write the stories. (Lately I hear a lot about the visual side of comics but not as much about the writing side of it. It still comes up enough that I don’t think it’s intentional, but not nearly as often.) So if Wertham makes it look like the writers are being forced to work on Superman instead of the kinds of reading material he (and he presumes the reader of this book) prefers he makes the publishers look worse, like they’re actively trying to corrupt your children, while making his position look better.
There has been a great critical outburst about the ex-comic book writer Mickey Spillane and his fictional hero. Spillane has sold some twenty million pocket-book copies. The critics object to his artless cynicism, his bloody sadism, his debasement of women. To me this criticism seems to be sheer hypocrisy. Mickey Spillane writes for adults and mostly for young adults who have been brought up on crime comic books. Why is Spillane with his paltry twenty million copies for adults more important than exactly the same thing – with colored illustrations – in hundreds of millions of comic books for children?
The reverse is also true. Why is Wertham noting that Spillane’s books are intended for adults but acting like “crime comics” are only for kids? Look, most of the people reading this article may only know Mike Hammer from the TV show with Stacy Keach or attempts to revive it with other actors. (I think they tried one of the cops from Silk Stalkings but I only watched a few episodes of that show out of “nothing else on” curiosity. It’s like a less intense Law & Order: SVU.)
Malcolm Cowley has written an excellent analysis of Mickey Spillane. “Mike Hammer,” he says,” takes a particular delight in shooting women in the abdomen”; “the characters have no emotions except hatred, lust and fear”; “sometimes in the story the fierce joys of sadism give way to the subtler delights of masochism”; “soon he is back in the high-powered car, ready to visit another incredibly seductive woman and start and new episode”; “he has strong homosexual tendencies.” But all this is old stuff to American children. The abdomen is where you shoot a woman – if you don’t shoot her in the back. You kick a man in the face, or shoot him in the eye. And there is always a new episode coming up. This is the freedom of speech that the industry invokes when parents try to protect their children from crime comics.
I want to be disgusted by this but knowing what these critics have said earlier versus what I know about comics as a whole makes me, once again, skeptical about their depictions. Maybe if they didn’t lump Superman and Mr. Peepers?
If I were asked to express in a single sentence what has happened mentally to many American children during the last decade I would know no better formula than to say that they were conquered by Superman. And if I were further asked what is the real moral of the Superman story, I would know no better answer than the fate of the creator of Superman himself.
I wonder what role foresight plays in this one?
John Kobler has written one of his magazine articles about the rise of Superman. It has a photograph of Jerry Siegal [sic], inventor of Superman, lying on an oversized, luxuriously accoutred bed with silken covers, in a room adorned with draperies. Here indeed is success. Kobler describes how Superman knocks out an endless procession of evildoers. “When a gangster rams Superman on the skull with a crowbar, the crowbar rebounds and shatters his own noggin.” Kobler does not fail to point out that Superman comes to children highly recommended. A child psychiatrist declared that Superman provides an inexpensive form of therapy for unhappy children.” So Superman and his inventor were well launched.
Since then, in the course of our studies, we have often seen troubled children, children in trouble and children crushed by society’s punishments, with Superman and Superboy comic books sticking out of their pockets.
How did the Superman formula work for his creator? The success formula he developed did not work for him. Superman flies high in comic books and on TV; but his creator has long since been left behind.
Jerry Siegel is mentioned but not co-creator Joe Shuster. By the way both are Jewish, which is why I keep bringing up Wertham calling Superman a Nazi figure. And he was forced to do “fetish art” just to earn a living after he and Siegel failed to win Superman back. This article has part of the story I haven’t heard before. It’s rather tragic. This is why I wouldn’t be surprised if anything in this section is right. And we know Siegel and Shuster fell on hard times thanks to losing that lawsuit but knowing they were talked into it by a shyster lawyer (if the article is accurate…this is the first I’ve hard this part) makes me sad.
I am told that if I were to visit the National Cartoonists Society my reception there would lack chumminess. In fact, collectively they consider me to be a devil with two horns. Actually, when we extended our studies to include artists who make drawings for crime comic books, far from blaming them we found that they are victims too. I doubt whether there are any artists doing this work whose life ambition was to draw for crime comic books.
I find it fascinating that he has spent so much of this book putting down comic artists for their work being bad (he must feel the same about the more serious comic strips like The Phantom or Rex Morgan since it was the same kind of art style) but now he’s going to try to say “they don’t want to make this, either”. From what he says onward it sounds like they were forced to make it as graphic as possible, which I wouldn’t be surprised to discover is the truth, but assuming that none of the cartoonists wanted to make comics is a stretch. But this is a man who thinks comics should only be comedy stories.
Quite a few of the members of the National Cartoonists Society draw for comic books. By and large it pays well, but it is not their artistic ambition. As a rule they are highly critical of what is drawn, by themselves and by their colleagues, for crime comics. One famous comics artist told me, “Of course you have to keep my name confidential – but if I were you there are four hundred comic books I’d like to have taken off the stands.” Bay Abel, an illustrator of children’s books, is quoted by the Wilson Library Bulletin: “As for the comic book illustrator, I can speak for him, too, as I have done a few comic books in my time. There creative ability and imagination, the things that make an art form interesting, are completely blocked. The artist is a machine and his only aim is to attain a mechanical competence that will make him completely undistinguishable from the other ‘machines’ in the business. No, I can’t say anything in favor of comic books.”
Nowadays we see comics, even adventure comics (or “crime” if you prefer, since he lump those together, too), can be drawn with different styles, from the photorealistic down to the cartoonish. There isn’t a lot of artistic variety back then, but the publishers are probably too “gun shy” to break out of what they see works. They were afraid to take chances. Hollywood has had experimental periods only when someone found a way to break out of the system, which ironically is how Hollywood formed to begin with.; for creative and financial freedom. There’s a video I saw recently about the history of movie intros that goes into that in part. We also saw it in more recent comics as editorial mandate was messing up DC and angering writers into quitting titles or the whole company.
I do understand having a “house style” for a shared universe but a little creative freedom can only improve the industry and the medium. We have that now, but by bypassing the system, which is hard to do when the medium is still new. Activision didn’t split from Atari for years.
The industry and defenders of comics like to mix up comic books and newspaper comic strips in the mind of the public. There are of course financial relationships. Some comic strips are made into comic books.
And vice versa. There was a Superman comic at the time and there’s one of Spider-Man today. Meanwhile that anti-drug comic was featuring a comic strip character and we’ve been going over Phantom comics the past month or so.
Comic-book artists know that, as Stanley Baer (“The Toodles“) expressed it in a radio forum at Northwestern University, “the syndicates as well as the feature editors of the various newspapers watch the strips very carefully. And it isn’t the newspaper strips that are the ones that are severely criticized.” E. Bushmiller (“Nancy”) told the San Diego County Women’s Clubs, “I wish you would differentiate between the newspaper comics and the comic books. Most newspaper comics are wholesome, but a large percentage of the comic books are cheap junk and just turned out for a quick sale.”
Or they’re not to your tastes. Look, I prefer wholesome stories and most of the comics I’ve created fall under that banner, but these are people who don’t think any crimefighting story is wholesome. Only sitcoms and wacky hi-jink stories seem to fall into that. And how many classic books fall into either of those categories?
It is in an artistic sense that these artists are victims. I know that quite a number of them are highly gifted; but they have to turn out an inartistic assembly-line product.
That doesn’t make it bad art. Maybe you’re just an art snob. Oh, want to read the official dumbest line in this whole chapter?
That is what is essentially wrong with comic books: There are too many pictures.
The mass effect of these stereotyped, standardized images is something totally different from and much inferior to the well-spaced illustrations in a good children’s book. Instead of helping a child to develop his artistic imagination, they stifle it. Even if the drawings were good, which they are not, their numbers would kill their artistic effect.
You’re comparing comic art to art in a children’s book? Dr. Seuss isn’t using the pictures to tell the story but to enhance the text. And I’ve seen comics done in artbook style. One of the other Art Soundoff contributors from last year, Becca Hilburn, makes a watercolor comic called 7 Inch Kara, which admittedly isn’t a crimefighting story but something closer to Secret World Of Arrietty, but it has nothing to do with how many panels there are in a comic. And there are plenty of comic artists today who do amazing things with those panels to move the reader along. And I think the drawings back then were quite good. You really are an art snob, aren’t you doctor?
Text and drawings of crime comics are concocted, not created. And there is no freedom of concoction. One comic-book artist told me: “I feel very much like you do about the crime stuff. I did most of my work on assignment. They tell me: ‘We want blood.’ I used to get very much disturbed about it. They criticized my drawings because they were not sexy enough. My instructions were to make these drawings as sexy as possible. They told me to show as much as possible. For example, I had to draw two women fighting showing as much of the thighs as possible, seductive poses, cruel faces, and one or both flailing the air with a long blunt club. Or two men wrestling, or a man and a gorilla. Thigh muscles must be emphasized and emphasis on all body proportions – you know what I mean.”
Okay, I admit that sucks. Some of those publishers have issues.
He added that after these drawings were used in crime-comic books they were printed and catalogued according to sex and action and then sold to private customers who had strange erotic desires, for very personal reasons. Some wanted men, some wanted women, some wanted thighs, etc.
And that’s just disturbing. Let’s end this chapter with the tale of the fictional Mrs. Jones as she tries to read a comic to her son. I’m going over the limit but it’s the last thing I want to comment on. The rest is the usual “comics kill your dreams” stuff.
Her son is seven years old, so she selects a comic book which is obviously for children: it has full-page advertisements showing forty-four smiling and happy children’s faces. This, she thinks, must be just the thing to read aloud to her child.
Because of the advertisements. I’ve seen clean advertisements in magazines that want to talk about the latest sexual position and it’s not even a porn mag!
So she starts with the cover, The Battle of the Monsters! She describes the cover to her son. It shows an enormous bestial colored human being who is brandishing a club and carrying off a scared blonde little boy in knee pants.
This should have been your first hint to find a different comic.
Then she goes on to the first story:
“LOOK!! Their bodies are CRUMBLING AWAY!!”
Mamma has some difficulty in pronouncing these speeches. But her difficulties increase when in the course of the story a man encounters a big serpent: “WH-AWWGG-HH-H!.! YAAGH-H-H-H!”
She goes on, however, and comes to a picture where a yellow-haired man mugs the dark-hued monster from behind: “AARGH-H-H!!!”
Mrs. Jones does not know how to read sound effects. Maybe it’s me but I can figure this out easily.
Mrs. Jones thinks perhaps she had better switch to another story. So she turns a few pages and begins “Whip of Death!”
This should have been your second clue! How many kids stories have the title “Whip Of Death”?
“AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!! [note to self: How many’s E’s was that?]
There is a picture of a boy tied to a mast with the captain lashing him so furiously that his bare body is criss-crossed with marks. The boy dies of this beating.
Mrs. Jones gives up. She realizes that she will never comprehend the new psychology which defends comic books and she decides that if the child-psychiatry and child-guidance experts say Bobby needs this to get rid of his “aggressions” he has to go through with it alone. She can’t take it.
Just because a story isn’t written for a seven-year-old doesn’t mean the entire medium is bad. You don’t let Bobby read mommy’s romance novels, either! Like I said, the rest is the usual stuff, but that’s why I link to postings of these chapters. My commentaries are wordy enough as it is. Look, since we’re out of chapter but not out of days tomorrow I’m going to look at another of Wertham’s punching bags. Maybe this one will be more convincing than the last one we tried.
Next Time: Murder In Dawson Creek