Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens: Comic Books and America, 1945-1954

William Savage

Of all the various popular communications media perhaps none has suffered from scholarly disinterest as much as comic books. Historically marginalized as neither art nor literature the comic book has never really been adopted as a legitimate form of cultural expression worthy of academic notice. As a consequence, the few histories and critical investigations that have surfaced to date have tended to fall under the rubric of fan publishing, often featuring little that is of value to the critical reader and promulgating accepted legends as historical fact. The structural basis for the maintenance of this type of fannish scholarship is located in part in the acquisition policies of libraries and archives, which have not historically welcomed collections of comic books. As a result there are only a few libraries in North America that can boast collections of comic books of a size that would be of use to the communications scholar interested in surveying the history of the medium. The primary result of this ongoing archival neglect has been to limit scholarship in the area of comic books to academics who have a long-standing interest in comics as a communicative form, often as current or former fans. The corollary outcome has meant that those few academic books which have been produced to date often bear the markers of fannish interest in the promotion and justification of particular reading practices--whether they are related to costumed superheroes, underground artists, or the medium as a whole. In short, most examples of research into comic books begin from a defensive theoretical or critical position which attempts to justify the scholar's interest in the topic by arguing, as seemingly all books on comics do, that the medium has been unjustly neglected by scholars and the general public and that comic books really do have artistic or communicative merit beyond their status as historical artifacts.

Two recent books bring this issue to the fore in differing ways and to differing degrees by focusing their attention on that era generally regarded by comics fans as having been the turning point for the medium and the industry in the United States (and by implicit extension, Canada): the 1950s. Commies, Cowboys and Jungle Queens: Comic Books and America, 1945-1954 by William W. Savage, Jr. and Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code by Amy Kiste Nyberg each seek to shed some light on the current significance of comic books by approaching the topic from a historical perspective. Savage is, in fact, a historian and Nyberg is a communications professor whose work has been primarily archival. Released almost simultaneously, these two books offer a quick glimpse into the current state of scholarly writing on comic books; in particular, the ongoing fascination with a mythology of the 1950s as a lost moment in which the potentialities of the medium were squandered by public disapprobation and publisher short-sightedness.

Savage's Commies, Cowboys and Jungle Queens is actually a re-release of his 1990 book Comic Books and America, 1945-1954 from a new publisher and with a title more likely to attract the interest of casual browsers in the cultural studies sections of major chain bookstores. The book is quite short, consisting of eight chapters, most of which include a reprint of a sample comic book story from the period. In total there are only about 80 pages of original text in the book to accompany the more than 40 pages of comic book reprints. In some cases the stories are longer than the chapters which they accompany. Savage's sections are broken down primarily along generic lines and he looks in turn at comic books about the bomb, communism, the Korean War, and cowboys before turning briefly to other genres. Savage's choices are strange for a number of reasons. In the first instance, his thesis is that comic books in the immediate postwar era became less concerned with escapist adventure and more interested in contemporary realism, a suggestion that would seem to mitigate against his attention to the western. Moreover, with the exception of the western and--to a lesser degree--the war comics, he has ignored the most popular and most discussed genres from the period. Certainly the most significant genres in the postwar years were real crime, horror, romance, and children's humour, but Savage has grouped all of these together in one chapter (alongside the more marginal genre of jungle comics), devoting a scant 10 pages to them. From its very organization, Savage's book, therefore, comes across as a justification of his own interests in comic books of the period rather than as a serious history of the production and reception of comic books following the war.

Savage's thesis is confusing as well. He begins with the untenable suggestion that the 1930s generally were not an era marked by social criticism in popular culture and suggests that it was only in the 1950s that culture took on a critical voice. He attempts to demonstrate that critical outlook through reference to a series of escapist adventure stories which depicted such things as nuclear grenades from which one could escape unharmed and jungle comics featuring characters with names such as "Nigah," although it remains unclear how either of these comic books could be seriously considered as having addressed serious contemporary concerns. Throughout the volume Savage introduces a handful of stories within a general contextual framework and provides little in the way of substantive analysis. The workings of the industry at the level of production and distribution are completely absent. In their place stand narrow textual readings which do not go so far as to attempt to identify the writers and artists of the stories in question. As a result, Savage's portrait of the comic book industry is a monolithic image wherein no distinctions are made between artists or publishers. To this degree the comic book industry may as well have been the product of a single entity, which is the way that Savage unfortunately presents it. The result, therefore, is a book which is little more than a hodge-podge of anecdotal observations on the topic of comic book stories selected with little discernible rhyme or reason. It is difficult to see how Commies, Cowboys and Jungle Queens could be of any value to anyone seeking a better understanding of comic books or even of media representations of various social concerns following the Second World War.

Nyberg's history of the development and changes to the comics code is superior in every conceivable fashion, despite the fact that it too shares a number of the same problems. The comics code was a self-regulatory code adopted by the majority of American comic book publishers in 1954 in an effort to quash the ongoing negative public image of the industry. Seal of Approval, therefore, deals with the history of anti-comic book sentiment in the United States and industry efforts to combat that sentiment, rather than with the comic books themselves. This narrower focus allows for a far greater attention to historical detail than is evidenced in the Savage book. Indeed, the greatest contribution Nyberg's book makes to the study of comic books is the critical compilation, for the first time, of various commentaries on comics from the 1930s through to the 1950s. Equally important is her research conducted in the archives of the Comic Magazine Association of America (the administrators of the code) and in the archives of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency which investigated comic books in 1954. Throughout the book Nyberg points to the major and minor figures in the comic book controversy of the postwar period and provides a more solid foundation for understanding that particular moral panic than had previously existed. These efforts shed a great deal of light on areas which had previously been illuminated solely by fannish histories and the recollections of various players from the period.

Despite the ground-breaking nature of her archival research Nyberg's book is not as strong when it comes to converting that research into critical analyses. Nyberg's book has two primary theses: that the comics code did not destroy the comic book industry in America and that the most noteworthy critic of the American comic book, Fredric Wertham, has been largely misinterpreted by subsequent readers and historians looking back on the criticisms which he leveled at the industry. Nyberg makes the case for both of these arguments very forcefully and clearly and there can be no doubt that she has erased the possibility of returning to earlier understandings of the period. Nonetheless, she might have strengthened her argument by extending it beyond the discursive battle over comics' presumed effects on their audience and into, for instance, economics. Nyberg argues, for instance, that some publishers were put out of business by the implementation of the code in the fall of 1954 but that others suffered from the distribution crisis that rocked the magazine industry in the 1954 and 1955. Greater attention to this distribution crisis would have greatly enhanced her argument that the code itself was not the proximate cause of the decline of many comics publishers. In the same vein, Nyberg would have been well advised to pay greater attention to the two publishers who refused to adopt the comics code but who continued to publish comic books nonetheless. Neither Dell, the industry's clear sales leader which was known primarily for its humour comics featuring Disney characters, nor Gilberton, the publisher of the highly profitable Classics Illustrated book adaptations (and who is erroneously identified as Gilbertson throughout the book), ever joined the organization. This crucial counterpoint to the history of the code is downplayed insofar as it does not tend to support Nyberg's conclusion that the adoption of the code was the only option open to publishers at the time. Similarly, an international comparison would help to clarify much. Nyberg mentions Canada's 1949 criminalization of crime comic books only in passing despite the fact that the bill's proponent, E. D. Fulton, was an important player in legislative efforts against comic books in the United States. A cross-cultural analysis of the successful campaign against comic books in Canada would certainly have added some insight into the reasons that similar campaigns failed in the United States. Also, although Nyberg addresses the similarities between the comics code and the film production code adopted in the 1930s, she does not make an argument as to why specifically comic books should come to be regarded as a problem in the 1950s (20 years after their origin), at a time when the film production code was being increasingly dismantled.

The one element which these two books share is a fascination with the figure of Fredric Wertham, a liberal psychiatrist and the author of the first book ever addressed solely to the topic of comic books: Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Both Savage and Nyberg dedicate an entire chapter of their respective books to the man and his work, and their differences on this topic say a lot about the relative qualities and shortcomings of their work. Wertham has long been regarded within comics fandom as a bogeyman, the man who had attacked and killed the vibrancy of comic books in the 1950s. Savage's interpretation of the man fits this picture handily. He takes a cynical view of Wertham which suggests that comic books were identified as a causative factor in juvenile delinquency simply because they were an easy target with which Wertham could make a name for himself. Savage describes him as "blatantly opportunistic" and his writings as "pompous, polemical, biased and poorly documented" (p. 96), ending his comments with a celebration of the fact that many of the comic books which Wertham criticized are now more widely read than his writings. To this end, therefore, Savage simply reiterates a long line of fanzine-level writing on Wertham which has fixated on him as the key to the ongoing marginalization of comic books as a cultural force.

Nyberg's interpretation of the man and his work are significantly more nuanced. She departs from fannish images of Wertham when she correctly argues that his work had nothing to do with censorship and little to do with the media effects paradigm as it would come to be constituted in the United States. Instead Nyberg places Seduction of the Innocent into a history of Wertham's writings about society and violence in order to demonstrate many of the nuances in his arguments and the ways in which they have been misunderstood and mischaracterized by his critics. Nyberg's analysis of Wertham ultimately concludes that his work is best understood in relation to the work of the Frankfurt School, a conclusion which she stipulates rather than demonstrates and which is not convincing given Wertham's public feuding in the 1950s with Erich Fromm and other Marxist psychiatrists. Moreover, Nyberg falls prey in a number of instances to the type of fannish tendencies that her book, for the most part, sets aside. In retroactively defending the comic book industry from Wertham's attacks, for example, she mischaracterizes the power dynamic between the two forces, suggesting that the unaffiliated psychiatrist Wertham held greater cultural potency in the United States than the combined powers of the comic book industry, at that time a massive publishing force. Painting this industry (which sold more than one billion comic books per year) as a victim requires considerable misinterpretation of the data. At one point Nyberg rejects Wertham's claim that he had been the object of a smear campaign paid for by the comics industry and then, on the same page, states explicitly that they had indeed launched a campaign against him. Similarly, she argues that the industry lacked credentialed psychiatrists who could have refuted Wertham's arguments despite the fact that she had outlined the writings of more than half a dozen such experts who were actually in the employ of the comics industry earlier in the book. These types of contradictions which depict the large and highly profitable business as hapless and defenseless in the face of a lone-man campaign do serious damage to the history of the industry which Nyberg had gone to such lengths to portray.

If the reactions to Wertham's published commentaries by Savage and Nyberg betray a fannishness in these books it is perhaps not altogether unexpected. Wertham is, after all, the man that most comics fans have come to hate, even the ones who have never or will never read his work. Worries about Wertham are symptomatic, I would suggest, of larger worries about the status of comic books as a cultural form. Throughout these books one encounters a constant undercurrent which suggests that comics, and by extension fans of comics, have been unjustly maligned for decades. Nyberg suggests that by the 1970s the code was a failure because it had failed to challenge the public's perception that comic books were for children, despite the fact that the major publishers of the time were, in fact, only interested in publishing comics targeted at children and despite the fact that some adults continued to read them. Here one finds a touch of fannish anxiety about the cultural valuation of comic books intruding into the discussion, a sense of shame for an adult to be reading this kid's stuff. Which is itself the real shame because as long as scholars concerned with comic books feel a need to apologize for the content of comic books while they study them there appears to be no reason for non-fans to take the medium seriously at all.

References

Savage, William W. Jr. 1990. Comic Books and America, 1945-1954. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Wertham, Fredric. 1954. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Holt & Rinehart.



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