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
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.