Frank Miller and the Fairy Tale History of Comics

Posted by on Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 at 02:00:35 PM

This past weekend David Brothers brought up Frank Miller’s big 1994 speech from a Diamond Retailers seminar that got reprinted in the back of Sin City: The Big Fat Kill #5. He wrote something about it too. It’s a powerful speech, and dismaying at how much of the speech could easily be cross-applied to the industry eighteen years later with maybe 5% of the text adjusted. While I still don’t understand Miller’s hardline stance against anything resembling ratings or cover advisories, his message about creative freedom and creators’ rights still ring true. Which makes it all the more frustrating that he pushes what amounts to the Fairy Tale version of the comic book industry in 1954: He even does so in an attempt to “correct” history, saying:

This is how screwy our sense of our own history is. Most people in comics don’t realize that the Senate vindicated us. After due consideration, the United States Senate decided comics books were not a cause of juvenile delinquency. We were vindicated.

Miller is only telling part of the story here. You can read transcripts of the entire set of hearings here, but four our purposes let’s skip to Kefauver’s summary:

Majority opinion seems included to view that it is unlikely that the reading of crime and horror comics would lead to delinquency in a well-adjusted and normally law-abiding child.

Huzzah! Vindication, right?

The subcommittee believes that this Nation cannot afford the calculated risk involved in the continued mass dissemination of crime and horror comic books to children.

Uh oh…

It is the consensus of the subcommittee that the establishment of this new association, the adoption of a code, and the appointment of a code administrator are steps in the right direction. […] The subcommittee intends to watch with great interest the activities of this association and will report at a later date on this effort by the comic book industry to eliminate objectionable comic books. At any rate, the subcommittee is convinced that if this latest effort at industry self-regulation does not succeed, then other ways and means must- and will- be found to prevent our Nation’s young from being harmed by crime and horror comic books.

The Senate Subcommittee may have rejected Wertham’s brand of “BAN THIS SICK FILTH”, but they hardly lionized the comics industry. While there’s a solid argument to be made that the Comics Code was a gross overreaction, it came not after a vindication, as Miller posits, but after a “Get Your House in Order, Or We Will” shot across the bow, much like the film industry’s self-imposed Hays Code. Miller, however, continues to run with the “vindication” argument:

Why then, the Comics Code? Abject cowardice, maybe? Maybe, partly, but not entirely. The answer may just make you all a little sick to your stomachs. You see, comic publishers in the 1950s had a problem. This problem had a name. Its name was William Gaines. William M. Gaines was the rarest of creatures, a brilliant publisher. His EC Comics outsold everybody’s else’s comics by a long shot because they were better than anybody else’s comics. By a long shot. The other publishers couldn’t compete with him. Not fairly, anyway. So they used the free-floating fear of the time to shut him down.”

There is no denying that Gaines gathered an incredible array of talent at EC Comics, gave them unprecedented freedom and visibility, and consequently produced comics people are still talking about sixty years later. But the myth of EC’s martyrdom has reached crazed levels over the decades. Miller points to the Code’s part A10 through A12 that states:

(10) The crime of kidnapping shall never be portrayed in any detail, nor shall any profit accrue to the abductor or kidnaper. The criminal or the kidnaper must be punished in every case.
(11) The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.
(12) Restraint in the use of the word “crime” in titles or subtitles shall be exercised.

Someone might see this as an attack on EC’s Crime SuspenStories, a title that is specifically condemned by Wertham. But Wertham’s image section also singles out All-Famous Crime (Star), Crime & Punishment (Gleason), Crime Detective (Hillman), Crime Reporter (St. John), Crime Smashers (Trojan), Hunted: Crime Never Pays (Fox), and True Crime Comics (Magazine Village). Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay (currently getting reprinted at Dark Horse) predated and largely inspired Crime SuspenStories along with a slew of imitators: all the above-mentioned, plus Crime Must Pay the Penalty, Fight Against Crime, Crime Casebook, Crime Mysteries, Anti-Crime Squad, Crime & Justice, All-True Crime, Famous Crimes, Crimes By Women, Real Clue Crime Stories, and a dozen or so other short-lived books that cashed in on the fad. The elimination of crime comics cut across the board, not just against EC.

Likewise, the ban against titles containing “horror” or “terror” might look like some sort of attack on EC, but while it instantly eliminated Vault of Horror (Crypt of Terror was renamed Tales from the Crypt in 1950) it also took out Adventures into Terror, Beware! Terror Tales, Tomb of Terror, Weird Terror, Startling Terror Tales, Terrors of the Jungle, House of Terror, Tales of Horror, Weird Horrors, and Horror from the Tomb.

The code was absolutely designed to neuter and/or kill off the troublesome attention-getting genres of Crime and Horror, but the perception that EC was the only game in town for those types of comics — or even the most popular ones — is a misconception. Likewise it’s a misconception that EC was outselling everyone else in the game. Though circulation figures for the era are few and far between, a couple of sources I found put the ceiling of EC’s circulation in the neighborhood of 400,000. That’s half of Crime Does Not Pay’s peak according to Matt Fraction, and well below sales of over a million copies that kiddie books like Walt Disney Comics & Stories or even Superman were enjoying at the time. The idea that all of the other publishers conspired to kill EC Comics with the Code is dubious at best, but ascribing it to anger over being outsold by EC seems to be explicitly counterfactual.

People like clean narratives. The narrative of Bill Gaines and his gang of geniuses threatening to dominate the comics industry before being taken down by cowardly crooked publishers, even after the US government vindicated their brilliant comics is a great narrative. And it’s no question that Gaines assembled an incredible group that deserved better. There’s also very little doubt that the majority of publishers in 1954 were far more interested in profit than art, and treated creators accordingly. It’s a sad fact that both these conditions — underappreciated and undercompensated artists, shady publishers — are hardly unique to the time and place that brought about the Comics Code. Miller’s speech is a terrific rallying cry against those conditions in general, but it’s frustrating to see the oversimplified Fairy Tale version of 1954 trotted out for such a noble cause.

On a lighter note, I find it amusing that Miller also trots out a pair of common sentiments in the opening of his speech:

1) Moreso than any of the other talented creators at the company, Jack Kirby was the Primary Creative Force at Marvel Comics (Miller goes so far as to redub “The Marvel Age” “The Kirby Age”
2) The greatest creation of the Marvel/Kirby Age is Spider-Man, the most prominent Marvel character Kirby had no significant input into

There are many reasons to lionize Kirby, even at the expense of his collaborators. A big one in 1994 was Kirby’s recent passing, and the fact that Stan Lee was still Corporate Spokesperson Emeritus for Marvel at the time, so they were doing all the public praising Stan really needed. Kirby also has a wider breadth of contributions — both within the Marvel “Universe” and across the industry in general — than anyone else. I understand why “Kirby is #1” and “Spider-Man is #1” are not inherently contradictory statements. I just think it’s funny when they come two paragraphs apart.

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