Reduction of the Innocent

The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!, edited and commentary by Jim Trombetta (2010): Once upon a time, in the early 1950’s, comic books created the sort of hysteria in the United States now only reserved for violent videogames and sexual innuendo on Gossip Girl. Horror, crime and war comics ruled the newsstands in the early 1950’s, with superheroes gradually fading away.

Then, psychologist Frederick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent came out, with its condemnation of comic books as causing everything from illiteracy to homosexuality to, well, lesbianism and probably more homosexuality. Wertham really had a bee in his bonnet about homosexuality, bondage and the then-popular ‘Injury to Eye’ motif. A sensational murder case in Dawson involving kids and comic books gradually came into the public eye in the U.S. (it also spawned the “crime comics” section of the Canadian criminal code). Government hearings were held. And American publishers caved, instituting their own censorship body, the Comics Code Authority (blessedly defunct since 2008).

Comics would never be the same again, as their immense post-war, non-superheroic popularity began waning, and continues to wane to this day as anything other than a provider of ideas to Hollywood.The reign of the comic book as the preeminent form of children’s entertainment had ended.

Here, Trombetta focuses on the war, crime and horror comic books from 1946 to 1954 that weren’t from the illustrious and much-loved EC line, delving instead into comic book stories and covers that in most cases haven’t ever been reprinted. Historically, this is valuable; as reading material, this is astonishing. It’s not just the violence, implied and otherwise, that amazes — it’s the nightmarish quality of the best of these stories, some of which seem to have come gushing out of some primal, nightmare-filled reservoir of the collective unconscious, some of which are firmly rooted in the terrors of the time.

Trombetta’s contextual essays, though occasionally a bit thin in convincingly connecting certain historical events with certain horror tropes, are nonetheless valuable and fascinating overall. His contextualization of the rise of the idea of the menacing zombie horde within certain new and horrifying Chinese combat tactics during the Korean War is quite convincing.

What a dandy, entertaining, enlightening book this is both as a cultural study and as a collection of great covers and stories from a truncated period of comic-book hyperrelevance. Kudos to Trombetta! I want more! Highly recommended.

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