PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

"It's a Crime, Batman": "MAD #516" takes on Censorship's DNA

It's a truly sad story that just as the self-censoring institutions began to crack, the idea of self-censorship entered into the popular imagination. And it's a story MAD #516 retells hauntingly.

MAD #516

Publisher: DC
Length: 22 pages
Writer: The Usual Gang of Idiots
Price: $5.99
Publication Date: 2012-07

"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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.