This non-fiction book is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and very entertaining account of a very dark period in the history of comics, when the business was nearly destroyed for good by a wave of hysteria and paranoia about the negative effects of the medium on children and adolescents, brought on by a heady mix of fear for, and fear of, the next generation. The author, David Hajdu, posits that these comics and their destruction essentially created the popular culture of the '60s and beyond. The creators were mostly minorities and outsiders who were given near complete freedom to tell the stories they wanted to tell. They gave birth to tales about violence, sex, racial inequality, law-breaking - tales that in every way attacked authority and the establishment. It's amazing to think now how big comic books were as a form of popular culture at this time: practically every kid in America read comics. It was a huge industry. Even at only 10 cents a pop, comics were pulling in millions of dollars. As always happens with a popular new media, people came out of the woodwork to blame it for as many of society's ills as they could think of. Otherwise wise and intelligent folks like Dr. Frederic Wertham insisted, with a passionate conviction and no evidence, that these "crime comics" were poisoning the minds of young people and driving them to think and to do terrible things. In small towns and cities across America, children were organized to collect thousands of comics together and then publicly destroy them in huge bonfires. A number of kids were deeply affected in completely unintended ways by scenes like this, and inspired to actually take a closer look at comics, and to begin secretly collecting and hording them. Parents and organizations banded together to demand laws to ban the sale of objectionable comic books. The government organized hearings on the effect of comic books on juvenile delinquency. At one of these hearings - the centerpiece of the book, and the ultimate personal clash between the comic book makers and their critics - Dr. Frederic Wertham spoke out against comics. Horror comics publisher Bill Gaines was not required to speak, but asked to say his piece anyway. It turned out to be a disastrous decision; he'd stayed up the entire night working on his speech, and was popping No Doze and dexedrine to stay awake. When he finished reading his fiery and defensive prepared remarks, and the committee started grilling him, he really wasn't thinking straight and was not prepared to intelligently answer their questions. He basically shot himself, and the comics industry, in the foot on live television. This moment is described in great detail in the book. It was fascinating, therefore, to have just read this one afternoon and then to catch on television that night a special called Comic Book Confidential which included the actual video from the hearing of Wertham and Gaines speaking. (Some other great stories from comic book history are featured in the documentary as well, along with some very cool animated cut-out sequences, but it skims over much of the past of comic books and then spends far too much time talking about R. Crumb and the indie comics of his era, a subject I'm not interested in in the least. To be frank, I hate R. Crumb's work, along with a great deal of the work spawned by those who were inspired by him. Once it became clear the rest of the documentary was going to be devoted to Crumb and his followers, I just turned it off.)
Eventually laws began to go into effect in many cities and states that made it a serious crime to sell offensive comic books of all kinds. The industry began to get really scared. Many publishers banded together into an organization called the Comics Magazine Association of America and created the Comics Code Authority, along with a ridiculously strict Comics Code which banned any number of things that were commonplace in comics of the time, including any sympathetic depiction of a criminal and any negative depiction of authority. Now good always had to triumph over evil. There could be no excessive violence or torture, nothing lurid or unsavory. The words "horror" and "terror" couldn't even be included in the title of a comic (which killed a bunch of comics, including many published by Bill Gaines, right off the bat). There could be no vampires, ghouls, zombies, or werewolves. No profanity, no nudity, no sex, no perversion. The Comics Code was enforced to the letter, with no consideration for the story that was trying to be told whatsoever. The Authority demanded that words and objects be erased or redrawn and characters removed or transformed until stories were nonsensical, pointless, or utterly toothless. Despite this, Dr. Wertham and others were unsatisfied with the Code and demanded that even more laws banning comics be put into effect. Many publishers went out of business entirely, or were forced to cancel almost all their books, and hundreds lost their jobs. Many creative people who had seen comics as their only outlet - a medium where they could be free and tell any kind of story they wanted - were devastated and heartbroken. The author includes as an appendix a list of all of the people who left comics at this time, never to return to the business. It's a long list, and a sad one.
Many comic books created then were seriously twisted and certainly shouldn't have been read by children, and there probably needed to be some sort of regulation - perhaps a rating system. But the way the medium was attacked and almost completely destroyed by such fervent, frothing crusades is really astonishing. People have tried the same kinds of things today against video games and other similar media, but thankfully they've been far less successful. This book is a fascinating look back at a part of our history, and the history of comic books, that's rarely discussed, and that's full of incredible stories and fascinating characters. I highly recommend it, not just for fans of comic books, but for anyone interested in history and popular culture.