When the Left requires a distraction for their own bad behavior, they always cite the 1950s, a decade ingrained in even the most uneducated mind as owned by a censorious, hysterical Right. In their estimation, spearheaded by an anti-anti-communist Victor Navasky, the Right burned books, shredded the Constitution, and caused suicides with their fascist behavior.
But even within this decade, there were challenges to this view that it was only the Right who acted undemocratically. Against the very real threat to free speech fostered by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in which books by communist authors were removed from overseas Army libraries (and in some cases burned), there was the Congressional campaign to censor comic books. It bore all the features attached to the Right: playing fast and loose with charges, censorship, books thrown into bonfires, hysteria, and causing mass firings of employees.
In many ways an echo of what the Right was doing in the 1950s and beyond, the anti-comic book campaign also pioneered what we today call political correctness and its moral vanities.
By 1954, comics were the most popular reading material in America. Despite taking off because of a public’s appetite for superheroes in the late 30s and during World War II, by the late 40s and early 50s comics gave the public what they wanted in avoiding superhero tales (with the exception of Batman and Superman) and instead produced works dealing with noir and horror. Returning GIs, having witnessed combat and a juvenile delinquency at home, wanted more realism in their comics. And companies like EC gave it to them in excess. Severed limbs, knives about to pierce eyeballs, and zombies walking around holding their severed heads adorned covers. It is possible that such a matter might have been dealt with less hysterically had it not been for a German professor with his own appetite for leftism.
Dr. Frederic Wertham was a German psychiatrist who worked with children and teenagers. In this capacity, he claimed to come have across comic books and was able to link their reading by his patients to their violent behavior. This thesis was propounded with Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), now celebrating its sixtieth year. But Wertham was no Bible-thumping Southerner, nor a crusading anticommunist seeking to reweave a torn moral fabric in Cold War American. Instead, he had a leftist background. He defended the Rosenbergs and sought to conflate the writings of Marx with Freud.
Seduction abounds with Freudianism in the service of censorship. To make his case for legislating these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores, he argued that comic writers were displaying female nudity in tree bark and muscles. He also sought to tap into the era’s popular conceptions of what constituted homosexuality. In a turn to dirty-mindedness, he argued that Wonder Woman was a lesbian based on such “butch” qualities as strength and independence. Batman and Robin were gay from the surface just by virtue of the fact that a rich adult lived with a kid.
He also betrayed the staples of his political background. Like the American Communist Party, he played fast and loose with the fascist charge. Superman, created by two Jewish kids, with his superior physical strength and the addition of an S on his chest was, in reality, a SS officer. To emphasize this point that comics were promoting fascism, he argued that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.”
Although this book anticipated our own era of speech codes and net neutrality, it was very much a feature of the McCarthyite 50s. Wertham shared with the Senator a mode of playing fast and loose with charges (for polemical purposes, he lumped superhero comics with the more gruesome crime ones); both compared the problem to a “cancer,” and called upon Congress to combat it legislatively. Both were revealed–McCarthy in his time, Wertham fifty years later–to have based their testimonies on falsified and bogus research.
It was in the effects he produced that his kinship with the Senator becomes even more apparent. After testifying before Congress, the heartland began burning comics books in bonfires, with children circling around them and chanting as they tossed more into the flames. Local committees banned them and harassed those who continued to read them. Like McCarthy driving scores of employees out of government service, Wertham’s actions drove scores of comic book writers and artists, many of them Jewish, out of the industry. As with the film industry, the comic industry, in order to survive, had to set up their own localized controls in compliance with the government. With Hollywood, it was the industry-sponsored blacklist; with comics, it was the industry-created Comics Code, a system of wholesome rules that erased the most interesting aspects of Batman–his noirish roots–and turned him into a sunny heterosexual.
Liberals like to point to the early sixties as a movement away from the McCarthy into an era of new freedoms. It certainly occurred that way with Marvel, who now wrote for adult readers with dark, even tragic renderings to superheroes (obviously more fearful, it would take DC, the producers of the much-maligned Superman and Batman, another decade to jettison the Code).
By examining what happened with comics in the 1950s, it becomes possible to locate political correctness not as a new phenomenon in our own times, but a feature of a period usually associated with a censorious right.