Congress and a comic caper

Popular culture and the American way have never been comfortable bedfellows. As a new book reveals, even cartoons were accused of corrupting the nation's youth. David Usborne reports

It was just this month that the US Supreme Court agreed to consider whether broadcasters who air "fleeting" expletives – the case concerns swear words uttered live by Bono and Cher – should be punished. Meanwhile, Howard Stern, the radio shock jock, remains in exile on satellite radio and cigarette smoking in movies is under assault.

There is nothing unfamiliar about the tensions in America between its commitment to freedom of expression (as laid out in the First Amendment) and its succumbing to the temptation nonetheless to censor – usually accompanied by pious proclamations about protecting the innocence of its young.

Britain, about to consider new ratings systems for video games, is not immune either of course, but in the US this is a war between America the Wholesome and America the Creative that occasionally spasms back to life – as when Janet Jackson's breast fell out midway through a performance at the Super Bowl.

This is by no means a phenomenon of the Bush administration and its family values allies. Jackson's wardrobe malfunction caused a stir, but nothing compared to the national tizzy engendered by Tales from the Crypt.

Rewind for a moment to the turn of the decades from the Forties to Fifties, when television was still in its infancy and videos – let alone video games – were yet to be invented, and the same applied for rock and rap. What choices existed for children to indulge rebellious fixations with fantasies of violence – tendencies that some will always harbour, however strenuously the adults disapprove?

The answer: penny comic books such as Tomb of Terror, Chamber of Chills, The Tormented and, yes, Tales from the Crypt.

The popularity of these comics – and the virulence of the backlash against them – is a distant memory now, but a new book by the cultural critic David Hajdu called The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America", published in the US by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, has brought it back to life. It wasn't just that politicians wanted to regulate such comics' distribution, they wanted to render them extinct – and more or less succeeded.

Those old enough may still recall the lure of these comics. Most were benign, at least to the extent that they bought into the dictum that crime and violence don't pay and the good guys always win. They attracted trouble, however, because of their unabashed celebration of all that the criminals wrought, their artists gleefully offering scenes of dismembered bodies and axe-wielding zombies.

By the late Forties, conservative institutions such as the American League and many church groups were already mobilising against the publishers of the comics, organising public burnings of them not unreminiscent of the book burning orgies of the Nazis a few years before.

The conservatives had become afraid partly because of the sheer success of the comics. By 1952, as many as 80 to a 100 million of the publications were being sold in the US every week.

Among the purveyors of the genre – and one of the principle players in Hajdu's book – was William Gaines, who as a young man inherited the publishing business of his father after he died in a boating accident. The output of Educational Comics, based in New York, was more or less as advertised by its name: tame pamphlets focusing on Bible stories and anodyne fare.

Gaines, however, with help from a group of outcast artists – and some cooking of his brain with Dexedrine – transformed it into the most successful comic house in America, EC Comics.

Gaines met his nemesis, however, in the figure of Fredric Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist who had made his name opening a clinic in Harlem and who was the author of a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent.

Wertham's early influences were Sigmund Freud and Emil Kraepelin, often described as the father of modern psychiatry. Like Kraepelin, Wertham believed that environment and social background were crucial to psychological development – but he took this one stage further in identifying the media as an important influence. He used his book to rehearse his theory that the comics of Gaines and others were poisoning America's youth and directly responsible for a spike in juvenile delinquency. Wertham even contended that Batman and Wonder Woman respectively celebrated homoeroticism and sado-masochism.

Wertham was a gift to politicians who saw the same connection and, more importantly, wanted to make political hay at the expense of the comic industry. Thus, just days after Wertham's book was published in April 1954, he was a star witness at a three-day congressional hearing into the evil of the comics. The hearing was the climax of the "scare" that Hajdu is reminding us about.

It might have been slightly less devastating if Gaines had not arrived half blurred by his Dexedrine and apparently completely insensitive to where the panel of indignant congressmen, led by Robert Hendrickson (Republican from New Jersey) was coming from. Asked whether one comic cover showing a woman's head severed from her body met his definition of decent taste, he replied: "Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."

It was clear on day one that Gaines was cooked – he and the entire genre. The hearing triggered the creation of a code of conduct for the comics so strict that even the words "horror" and "terror" were no longer allowable in headlines. The code, in Hajdu's view, was "an unprecedented (and never surpassed) monument of self-imposed repression and prudery". Within two years the comics had more or less disappeared from America's shelves.

Gaines himself refused to subscribe to what he considered to be a hypocritical code, and although he later relented, his obstinacy put his company on the verge of bankruptcy. But at least he got his own back to a degree. Mad, with its unrestrained lampooning of the establishment and the US's "serious" media, was also in his stable and he managed to evade the code for comics by recategorising it as a magazine, even investing his own personal fortune in its future.

Gaines was not, of course, to be the last American to be targeted by the forces of conservatism for his alleged corruption of youthful innocence. The struggle is still playing out today, as it surely will for generations to come. Because the zombies – whether they be drawn on paper or of the animated kind in video games – are never going to go away. (Nor are the occasional naughty words from Bono or Cher.)