The glory and gore of 1950s horror comics
Posted in: Comics
Halloween 2010 is upon us and here at the Hero Complex we’re marking the weekend with a special three-part excerpt from the “The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!” which was edited by Jim Trombetta and features his commentary throughout (as well as an introduction by R.L. Stine). The 304-page book from Abrams ComicArts hits shelves Monday. There’s a trailer for the book as well, below…
Horror comics offer a privileged glimpse into the Age of Nuclear Terror, from 1947 to 1955. The prominence of horror comics exactly parallels the emergence of the United States as a military and economic superpower nonpareil: The nation had defeated two evil empires, and its productive capacities were intact; it possessed not only ultimate weapons (for a while, exclusively) but also the moral high ground over its potential enemies.
At the same time, however, American citizens still carried scars from the Great Depression and World War II, which had gone nuclear. Pretty soon the threat of destruction hung over the entire planet like an eternal winter. Vast armies swept back and forth across Korea, waging tremendous technological and personal violence in what was then not even called a war but rather a “conflict” or a “police action.” In that era, unlike in the current post-9/11 one, the concept of “terror” was not reiterated to the point of crying wolf; instead, the ’50s establishment wanted to suppress terror, or at least control it. U.S. authorities tried to placate war-weary citizens by distributing the “sacrifice” and the draft unevenly and, in a vain hope of ending the fighting quickly, drew up plans that could have changed the shape of Asia.
That terror reasserted itself in the “junk” medium of the horror comic, giving it an especially uncanny quality all its own (a quality our current media, for all its liberties, has yet to rediscover). This quality had nothing to do with permissiveness and everything to do with repression. Outrageous as they were, horror comics were in no way progressive or, in our term, “correct.”
They were oblique, symbolic and loaded with subconscious affect. As in Basil Wolverton’s “Nightmare World” (Weird Tales of the Future No. 3, September 1952), they showed the inner self as the most dangerous place of all and reality becoming too responsive to dreams. These comics conveyed the unspeakable, and maybe even unthinkable, trauma of a whole society, but in a streetwise, urban-legend way. On one hand, they could be more reactionary, racist and brutal than the surrounding culture, as if to rub the reader’s nose in a deliberate caricature. On the other hand, their radicalism could be startling. They kicked over the biggest triumph in history just to see what might crawl out.
As David Hajdu’s “Ten-Cent Plague“ demonstrates, the history of the comics medium is also the history of attempts to suppress it; these campaigns started when “funny pages” first appeared in newspapers in the early 20th century. However, it was not until the Age of Nuclear Terror that the conflict came to a head with a huge victory for censorship. Horror comics were so successful, and so troubling, that in April 1954 they became the only commercial artworks to be essentially banned across America through the influence of the Senate. Mere popularity — what today we would call the “verdict of the market” — couldn’t save them. They became a lacuna in pop-culture history, a missing link in ’50s nostalgia.
For a long time these comics were like certain gnostic theologies that are known only through the versions related by their opponents. Fossils of the banned comics — 10 pages of panels cherry-picked by Fredric Wertham — could be found in the picture section of “Seduction of the Innocent.” However, these pages were often razored out of library copies of the book. What type of person had been wielding that razor? A comics fanatic? A serial killer? A librarian who was both?
READ PART TWO THIS WEEEKEND
— Jim Trombetta
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