Funnybook Babylon

May 6, 2008

FBB Ten Cent Plague Convo Pt. 3: Burnin’ Bright



The accounts of the book burning were easily the most chilling aspect of the book. For me, it really undermined the moral authority claimed by comics critics of the time. Although it’s hard to ignore the legitimacy of some of the arguments, namely that comics of the time weren’t very good, were often made in bad and exploitative working conditions, I wonder why Dr. Wertham, Senator Estevauer and other critics paid so little attention to the actions of some of the people that adopted their cause. This was particularly the case with the extra-governmental wing of the anti-comics movement.

Even if one concedes that children can be negatively influenced by popular culture, to the extent that they will ignore their upbringing and become antisocial monsters, comic book opponents advocated solutions that only exacerbated the problem. If children are that susceptible to the siren call of fascism and violence, whether in the form of crime comics or Superman, why would copying the tactics of fascist governments be an effective means of silencing that call? Wouldn’t encouraging aggressive behavior make the problem worse? I think that aggressive behavior, in and of itself, was not the problem, or at least not for some of the adults that encouraged book burning. The problem was one of control. Remember that people hadnt entirely adjusted to the implications of a mass, national culture, and the idea that children could be influenced by something that seemed so far away and unaccountable was frightening. So, in the end, it didn’t matter whether Superman was a fascist influence or a communist one, or whether your kid really would become a juvenile delinquent after being desensitized by EC Comics. It wasn’t really about whether the influence was a positive or a negative one, it was the fact that they were being influenced, and that no one knew what would happen next.

Viewed through this light, many of the anti-comics figures become tragic in a sense, and the incoherence of their response to comics (should they be banned or regulated? for liberal reasons or conservative ones?) makes a lot more sense. Hadju really captures the confusion of the powerful cultural shifts that were taking place during the forties and fifties. This is why I don’t really understand the mini-furor that’s erupted around Hadju’s portrayal of Dr. Wertham and Mr. Gaines. There were a lot of impressive and well meaning people with respectable backgrounds who were transformed into demagogues when faced with this unfamiliar situation. These were men (and women) of their time. Similarly, it’s hard to accept the argument that the publishers should have been forward-thinking enough to aim at a more mature audience as a partial solution to the problem, especially since there was no evidence that there would be an American audience for more challenging material. I’m not a fan of using a blend of counterfactuals and Monday Morning Quarterbacking to critique these kinds of things.

But back to the burning. One of the elements of the book burning that genuinely surprised me was how much of it was orchestrated by juveniles. I imagined that adults were the secret puppet-masters of the entire enterprise, but I guess that’s just the same kind of bias that the anti-comics people had. Hadju writes of a student named John Farrell who organized anti-comics activities in Binghampton, New York during the late 1940’s. He coerced his fellow students into a boycott of vendors who sold comics, and coordinated the collection of comics from youth in the area for destruction. In some of Hadju’s other accounts of book burnings, adults were clearly the motivating force, but Farrell was a lone operator. He seemed to be more concerned with the most efficient way of eradicating comics than with the rationale for doing so. I write ‘seemed’, because we never get Farrell’s perspective, which would have been really interesting to hear. I’d love to know why he focused so much of his energy on organizing the boycott, and maintaining discipline in the ranks, but not on the content of the books. According to the book, the burnings were pretty indiscriminate, targeting Crime Does Not Pay and Archie alike. So what was behind that?

The other question that lingers after reading the book is one that the book largely elides: Were the comics of that time appropriate for young children? It’s something that lies at the core of every censorship controversy, isn’t it? We usually view these controversies through the prism of free speech, which is understandable since the accused tends to face overly broad civil or criminal sanctions. Unfortunately, we end up ignoring the actual concerns of parents, which are more difficult to dismiss. On Eddie Campbell’s blog, he discusses the case of a mother in Ireland complaining about a ‘rape scene’ in a Batman comic read by her child, and the ensuing discussion (in the comments) illustrates the difficulty of assessing, much less solving the problem. Many of us can wholeheartedly get behind the notion that censorship and book burning are antithetical to our values, but shouldn’t parents have the right to control their child’s access to objectionable material? And aren’t parents entitled to determine just what ‘objectionable’ means? If the answer is yes, how should society act to protect their interests while simultaneously protecting an adult’s right to read that material? In most cases, the answer’s pretty easy, because objectionable material is usually synonymous with something that is generally disfavored, like pornography. But what about when we’re talking about Brubaker’s Captain America?

I obtained the above image from this website , which briefly addresses book burning in the context of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

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