“It’s a Crime, Batman”: “MAD #516” takes on Censorship’s DNA

The Dark Knight Rises“, the promo for later this month’s MAD Presents: Batman reads, “and MAD sinks to a new low….” It’s a classic MAD wordplay, one that dates back almost to the very beginning, almost to the very first Usual Gang of Idiots; to Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis and Bill Elder and Wally Wood. But the wordplay of a single ad isn’t all that connects this edition of MAD to its illustrious past. When all is said and done, what does offer that enduring connection, ultimately, is a secret cabal of artwork. It’s the art and writing of Ward Sutton in the “Get a Download of This, Dept.”, the art of Peter Tamburino in the Strip Club’s “One Day in the Future…”, and the wonderfully sublime art of Evan Dorkin in “Chilling Thoughts, 2012 Edition”. And of course they’re all neatly tied together around the dual-cores for this issue — the MAD Satire of Breaking Bad (the Desmond Devlin-written, Tom Richmond-drawn “Fading Bad”), and the Marvel superhero movie blockbusters. Or “Summer Superhero Movie Lacklusters”, as I like to think they might have been satired as.

Breaking Bad is a canary in the coal-mine, not just for this summer, but the history of comics that has brought us all the way here, some three generations down the line from 1954. It was in 1954 that the landscape of the comics industry changed, and that the generational theme for the Boomers comics industry became censorship. It’s a popular enough story, skip ahead if you’ve already heard it. Censorship in comics is really self-censorship, and it arises from the collision of two forces.

The first is psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham. From the late ’40s on, Wertham mutated himself into a kind of social crusader against comics. His 1953 book, Seduction of the Innocent, proved inflammatory of public opinion. The charge sheet was clear — comics incited juvenile delinquency. The second force to collide with Wertham, was the Senate. The 1953-54 Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency had the comics industry teetering on the very edge of government regulation. The solution, and perhaps the only way out, was the industry offering self-regulation in the form of the Comics Code Authority, a latter day Hays Code, but without the racial profiling.

I often wonder if comics would have survived if Wertham had risen to the challenge of genuine academic thought. If he’d made an argument based comics as a medium rather than an argument about the genre that has historically become entwined with comics. Would we still have comics today, I wonder, if Wertham were a little more like Scott McCloud? Maybe it’s better Wertham was intellectually impoverished. He set the tone for the Senate hearings. But while Wertham’s study focused on the superhero genre, the Senate hearings seemed to center on the culturally more prevalent (for the late ’40s, at least) crime fiction.

MAD survived those body blows to the industry at that time perhaps because the book readily threw its trademarked “humor in a jugular vein” like a spanner into the works of not only the superhero genre, but of crime fiction. Even today we still point to the ’30s/’40s as the proliferation of crime noir. It was a high time for crime, iconic writers like Raymond Chandler even made the leap to the silver screen by scripting Double Indemnity. But the ’30s/’40s also saw the birth of the superhero genre. Did members of the Wartime Generation see those two genre as segregate cultural phenomena? Perhaps. But ultimately, what those very first MADs gave us was the deep-rooted intuition that the superhero genre and crime noir were indeed connected.

Decades on, when we look at the surface of it, it seems that self-censorship just crumbled under its own weight. That Senate moved on to other battles, drugs, and heavy metal among them, tobacco. And that comics creators began pushing the edges of their self-regulation. Maybe that is true for a few high-flyers and risk-takers. But mostly what happened is that the institutional mechanisms for self-censorship faded just as the idea of self-censorship began to enter into the popular imagination and enter into our everyday practices.

Cable TV has had exactly that kind of negative benefit. While networks like FX and HBO and Showtime are free to offer more adult-themed content, public networks have become an almost sanctified space. There’s a necessary tango between crime noir shows like Breaking Bad outside of the public airwaves, and The Mentalist (a show which moves you to exonerate the protagonist committing an act of murder) within public broadcast domain.

The missing ingredient of course, is the aspirational element of superheroes. Spidey tweeting snarky comments while watching Whedon’s Avengers, then getting arrested while “not avoiding Zuccotti Park” in one of his movie “Outtakes” drives home that deep-rooted intuition. But it also provides a commentary on the increasingly invisible nature of self-surveillance and self-censorship. MAD was never about not having a filter, it was about delivering nuggets of critical comment, in bite-sized chunks of humor.

What really seals the deal however, is that sublime artwork. Evan Dorkin and Ward Sutton and all the rest, who draw in a style that visually evokes the ’30s/’40s crime comics. It’s just a beautiful statement, not only about the legacy of the early MADs, but about the relevance of history, and the use that can be made of it. This is an important issue, buy it, share it, immerse yourself.

RATING 7 / 10