[19 November 2010]
On the way to a Halloween party this year our infant son screamed. It began as a shaking, withering yell then deteriorated into a choking, futile rasp. By the time we arrived at the party he was asleep, away from the nightmare of his car seat and the strange costumed adults that had replaced the familiar faces of his parents.
At the party children ran about dressed as princesses and and pirates, and there were two brothers, each dressed as the icons of Harrison Ford’s pop persona. At one point a five-year-old girl, dressed as a princess, sat in her mother’s lap crying, begging to go home. She was afraid of our host, whose face was painted into the black and white visage of a skull and whose body was framed with four additional plastic skulls on a cross. His costume, the cover of Guns ‘N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, was amazing to the adults at the party, but the array of skulls and wigs was too much for the little girl. Our host tried to soothe her, to assure her he was the same guy who had dinner with her parents, but that only made things worse.
My son, a little cranky after waking up from his nap, nevertheless smiled at our host and squealed his approval of the costume.
There’s a huge gulf of experience between that five-year-old and my five-month-old. In her world horror is imagined, built up out of little pieces of memory and activated by unusual outside stimulus, say a man dressed as a hard rock album cover, for instance. My son’s terrors are primal, instinctual—the fear of being bound and isolated and, by extension, buried alive. In time, his nightmares will catch up to hers, and he’ll begin to find new things that frighten him. Thankfully, our house is equipped with tall bookshelves—well out of reach of prying, impressionable young minds.
The amazing collection The Horror! The Horror! is filled with grisly nightmares from a time that many Americans peculiarly view as innocent and preferable to the present, but if the stories and art in this collection are any indication, there were plenty of scary things lurking within the collective unconscious of those who lived during the 50s, many of which found their way into comic books. Editor Jim Trombetta, a Shakespeare scholar and television writer, selected the work in this volume to reflect the spirit of the subtitle: “Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!”. These works date from the pre-Comics Code era in which violence, gore and sexually suggestive material, in the government’s eyes, contributed to the creation of legions of disruptive, belligerent and potentially Communist juvenile delinquents.
The introduction to the volume is written by R.L. Stine, who himself introduced the horror genre to millions of kids. His books look hokey with their rendition of killer puppets and mysterious oozes, but there’s something there, a taste of the good stuff that’s in everything from Nosferatu to Nightmare on Elm Street. Stine describes the mixture of humor and horror that makes many of these stories so effective. It’s not Scary Movie humor, but rather the exquisite glee a reader feels at the unexpected twist at the end of the story. Kids of the ‘50s likely felt this delight at the end of 1954’s “Tag…You’re It!” when the little boy, locked away safe in his room, is revealed at the end to be the vampire that’s terrorizing a small town.
For his part, Stine, notes that neither he or any of his horror-loving friends grew up to be serial killers, as the real fear-mongers of the ‘50s suggested, but, “I did go on to a career of scaring a lot of kids.”
This book is filled with cover art, stories and selected pages from this wonderful period of comic book history, a period in which the content is too often obscured by the real and imagined effect its content had on the industry. The stories are particularly gruesome at times, but often Trombetta’s text outdoes its subject in thrills and chills. He writes of growing up in the late-‘50s and early-‘60s, after the advent of the industry-created Comics Code when the very words “crime”, “terror” and “horror” disappeared from comic book covers and newsstands across the US. The self-censorship response to the Code was a reaction to US Senate hearings on the subject of comic books, which were themselves called in the wake of a book by child psychiatrist Frederic Wertham. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent fanned the flames of anti-comic book mania, suggesting that comics were the source for all types of “abhorrent” behavior in kids, from violence to homosexuality.
Trombetta notes this supposedly innocent time was haunted by the specter of nuclear annihilation, and Cold War paranoia had some people in America suspecting their neighbors of all manner of heinous acts. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that in a country as prosperous and free as the US, there shouldn’t be problems like unhappy teenagers or sexual “abnormality”. Trombetta writes that the Senate inquiries into comics constituted “an attempt at exorcism” of societal ills and that the industry-created Code, which eliminated words deemed too much for young people to handle and proposed that figures in power, like parents or police, never have their authority undermined, was “a genuinely strange, neo-medieval document that puts the witch back into witch hunt.” Trombetta also details the loaded deck of the Senate’s case against comics and their publishers, particularly EC Comics’ William Gaines. It’s riveting stuff, and when the real life terror of government censorship is placed side by side with the imaginary stories of ghouls and monsters, it’s no surprise which is the more terrifying.
Included with the book is a DVD of a 1955 television show called Confidential File. In it, journalist Paul Coates presents an argument against the “sexy, crime-worshipping violence” of comics. His blustery performance anticipates the likes of Glenn Beck and is easily the scariest piece in the whole book. There is wonderful footage of ‘50s kids—all of them boys, most of them white—running around together, playing in the woods. They sit against trees passing comics around to one another, leading Coates to comment that when he was a kid, “we spent time roasting potatoes, writing nasty things about the teacher on the sidewalk, but we never spent an afternoon like this—reading.” He spits the word out, saying it wouldn’t be so bad if they were reading something worthwhile. Then, the result of all that comic book reading on the boys is shown. They tie the littlest boy up and prepare to set him on fire.
Coates virtually incites the public to a book burning. He holds up examples of the comics kids read then flings one down on his desk in disgust. “I think there ought to be a law against them.” Thankfully, there were no laws against comics, but the self-censorship of the Code wasn’t much better. The medium struggled for years until superheroes returned and dominated for decades. Without the Code, perhaps the maturation and wider acceptance of comics in America that we’ve seen over the last 20 years or more may have occurred much earlier.
There are dozens of covers included in this volume, a drop in the bucket compared to the number of comics that were produced in the years leading up to the Code. Some of these covers are complete stories themselves, and Trombetta “reads” them both literally and metaphorically, detailing the images, their symbols and their implications. Flipping through the pages, gazing at the amazing covers, recreates what it must have felt like clutching a dime, riding a bike to the drugstore or newsstand and seeing the stacks of comics, then going home to read them. It’s obviously far too soon to expose my son to titles like Tomb of Terror or Chamber of Chills, but they’ll be here when he gets older, at the top of the bookshelf. Waiting.