Chester Riley, Al Capp, and Dr. Wertham: The Great Comics Crisis of…1948?

Conventional wisdom holds that the infamous moral panic around crime and horror comics bloomed in 1953 with the popularization of Frederic Wertham’s dubious “research” in general magazines and the formation of Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. But the proliferation of Wertham’s landmark Seduction of the Innocent (1954) diatribe against comics, and the haranguing of Senators Kefauver and Hendrickson was just the culmination of a controversy that had accompanied the rise of more adult and violent comic books throughout the 1940s. Parents worried about the bullets and blood that flew across the color pages of blockbuster titles like Crime Does Not Pay and its many imitators long before the EC titles and their followers horrified parents and legislators even more.

In fact, an underreported part of the anti-comics crusade began during WWII when the American Catholic Church charged the emerging trend in costumed superheroes with emphasizing sexuality in their spare, skin-tight attire and encouraging vigilantism. A 1944 pamphlet called “Parents Must Control the Comics” called superheroism “dictator propaganda” that was aligned with Hitler’s ideology. As bad, the barely-clad heroes were tacitly promoting sexual urges. By the way, anyone interested in getting a fully documented, critically acute history of the comic book controversies of the 1950s should run not walk to read David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague (2008). Well-researched as scholarship but tightly-argued as historical interpretation and well-written as criticism, the book is a must for any historian of comic strips or books.

By the later 1940s’ however, the crime comics were dominating newsstands. I came upon one unconventional artifact of that simmering concern about that genre in 1948, an episode of the radio series, Life of Riley. This was among the most popular comedies of the era, a conventional domestic sitcom centered around another hapless dad, blue-collar aircraft riveter Chester A. Riley. Curiously, the sitcom formula itself germinated earlier in the century in the newspaper comic strips, a sidebar we explored a while ago here. And Life of Riley itself would run on radio from 1944 to 1951, have a brief run as a TV sitcom, and later in the 1950s became a comic book.

In this episode, Riley’s wife Peg is concerned that son Junior is mimicking the violence of the many crime comics he and the neighborhood kids have been devouring. What is interesting about the episode to me is how this light satire of parenting and pop culture offers more insight and nuance on the controversy than much of the later political and sociological controversy of 1953-1954. Comedically, the show puts these comics into the context of other pop culture like the comic strips, adventure pulps and film, and eventually finds comic relief in the sheer hypocrisy of parents, themselves hooked on pop culture, demonizing their kids’ taste. When Riley becomes a minor celeb by opposing these comics, the show pokes at the performative outrage that would typify similar parent-driven controversies around everything from rock lyrics to school library books. The final irony, of course, is that the controversy only fuels the attraction to the comics themselves, mostly among the parents.

The Bob Hope Show with Special Guest, Jane Russell Classic Comedy of Old Time Radio

Bob Hope welcomes special guest, Jane Russell.Episode 549 of The Bob Hope Show. The program originally aired on March 4, 1953.Please email questions and comments to host@classiccomedyotr.com. Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/classiccomedyotr.Please share this podcast with your friends and family. You can also subscribe to our podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and Google podcasts.
  1. The Bob Hope Show with Special Guest, Jane Russell
  2. The Aldrich Family – "Legal Trouble"
  3. The Life of Riley: "Father-in-Law Trouble"
  4. The Bob Hope Show with Special Guest, Jane Wyman
  5. The Aldrich Family – "Henry's Love Note Goes to his Teacher"

Even more fascinating is this 1948 radio exchange between Dr. Wertham and Al Capp. In Part 1, the good doctor, whose early anti-comics arguments had just appeared in readers Digest, takes on of all things, Capp’s lovable Schmoo. But in Part 2, the arguments turn to the crime comics. Interestingly, Capp agrees with Wertham that there are “bad comics” available, but he insists these represent only a fraction of the industry. Capp is on shaky ground in some of this in denying the popularity of crime comics as well as conflating the restrictions on newspaper comic strips with comic books. But it is fun to watch a satirist trade jabs with the relatively humorless and literally-minded Wertham.

Frederic Wertham vs. the Schmoo
Capp vs. Wertham

2 thoughts on “Chester Riley, Al Capp, and Dr. Wertham: The Great Comics Crisis of…1948?

  1. The Life Of Riley series often poked holes in serious society. Witness their recurring character, Digby “Digger” O’Dell “The Friendly Undertaker” who never seemed to be at a loss to insert some gallows humor into the proceedings with a surfeit of horrible puns about burial and death. No other show, not even Bob Hope or Jack Benny would have had such a weird and potentially offensive long running gag. It was a well-written and perceptive sit-com that just loved bursting pretensions and expectations.
    In the Capp interview you can hear just creeping out the later hard conservatism that decended upon him in the late 50s to 60s. The fact that he is willing to admit that there are bad comics, not ‘badly drawn” or “badly written” but just a blanket “bad” shows that he was beginning to drink the flavor aide of “Won’t someone think of the children!” that supposedly fueled the crusade against comics. It couldn’t possibly be that so many of the most successful comic book publishers, writers, and artists were Jewish and often foreign-born jews? No that had NOTHING to do with it!By the time Batman was on the air in 1966, Capp had transitioned into a rightwing ideologue every bit as exaggerated and pompous as some of the very characters he (or increasingly, his ghosts) churned out every day. Look up his encounter with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He was as offensive as possible and it seems hardly credible that this same mind could create something as revolutionary and psychologically impactful as Joe Bifstick (spelling). Knowing what’s ahead, hearing this interview was just painful.
    Thank you for your excellent and scholarly work

  2. Interesting how Wertham dispalys a certain amount of humor. I don’t suppose he was putting on a act in some way, was he? I’d need to research him. Anyway, the long descent to the hard right for Capp is sad.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s