Monday, January 25, 2016

Censorship: The Great Comic Book Crisis

ComicCover01History can be entertaining, educating, and eye-opening. For example, read the next two paragraphs, and insert the same term (singular or plural as appropriate) to fill in every blank, choosing one of two options: video game or computer.

“Give a child a ________ and he will sit with his nose in it instead of getting out and playing with other children, or entertaining himself by tinkering, building, or joining the family group at whatever they are doing. You can’t even make a dent on the consciousness of a child engrossed in a ________. He may hear the sound of your voice, but the words don’t sink in. He’s off in a dream world, where he isn’t learning anything or doing anything. And you can’t get at him.

“Sure, he’s quiet—and that seems to be enough for a lot of parents. But what is a boy or girl going to be like when he is grown if the greater part of his formative years is spent in a ________ dream world? The experts seem to differ on whether or not ________ are bad for children. But this much any parent knows. Give a child all the ________ he wants and he won’t be much interested in anything else. Like the satisfaction of any other appetite, overindulgence can lead to ill effects.”

If you’ve raised children or been around them much, the entire quote holds up pretty well regardless of the topic you chose. Faced with such issues, parents are often alarmed to the point of frenzy, desperate to find solutions from so-called experts. Not that parents shouldn’t be watchful and involved, but history reveals that the very same quotation fits, no matter what the era.

In my own lifetime, there have been numerous culprits that neatly filled in the blanks: besides computers and video games, they include MTV (videos), cable television, and Dungeons & Dragons. Going further back to the ’60s and ’70s, there was rock music, and television … even when we had only three channels to choose from!

At one time or another, all have been accused of being the work of the devil, causing otherwise angelic children to become criminals and delinquents. A good example is the relatively recent national debate over video games, which was virtually identical to a battle waged from the late 1940s into the 1960s—but instead of video games, the subject was comic books.

The quotation above is actually from 1950, and yes, the blanks were originally filled with the words “comic book,” a subject of great controversy. Leading the fight in New York’s legislature over the detrimental effects of horror comics were two North Country men, Senate Majority Leader Benjamin Feinberg and Assemblyman James Fitzpatrick, both from Clinton County.

Feinberg, one of New York’s top lawmakers, charged that horror comics and other genres “unquestionably had been a contributing factor to the rising wave of juvenile delinquency. Not all comic books are bad … but there are books that have contributed to juvenile delinquency and crime.” Many of the publications, he said, were “lewd, lascivious, indecent literature” that came into the hands of minors, and, “our youths are entitled to this protection” (provided by his proposed law). Ignored was the fact that other modern countries with equal or worse levels of delinquency had no comic books on their shelves.

Feinberg was a powerful man, but when his law was finally passed in 1949 by both chambers, it was vetoed by Governor Thomas Dewey, who said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has condemned as vague and indefinite the words ‘bloodshed, lust, or crime’ contained in the provision of the penal law making it a crime to publish ‘criminal deeds or pictures or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust, or crime.’ ”

The fight was joined in the 1950s by Fitzpatrick, who, like Feinberg, battled fiercely for the cause. Bills were proposed, passed, and vetoed because legislating morality required defining certain terms, and the various terms used—obscene, indecent, immoral—meant different things to different people. Various parties, including those with the strictest interpretation of those adjectives, wanted their version imposed on the entire state.

Politicians in the house and senate dared not anger voters by resisting the law, so they took the easy way out, passing it with near unanimity (49–6 in the senate and 144–1 in the house), and leaving the governor to take the heat for vetoing a bill they knew wouldn’t survive court scrutiny.

During testimony in 1954, some psychiatrists said most well-adjusted youths wouldn’t be affected by crime and horror comics, but disturbed children were at great risk. Dr. Frederic Wertham, senior psychiatrist of the New York City Department of Hospitals, claimed otherwise: “It is the good child who is tempted and seduced by the comic books. As long as these books exist, there are no secure homes.” He further described them as “an important contributing factor to juvenile delinquency.”

Historical perspective is interesting. The subject changed from decade to decade—comic books to rock music to video games—but the charge was always the same … that our children were being corrupted and criminalized by outside influences. This led some to argue that parents were looking for scapegoats to explain their own children’s undesirable behaviors.

In a country where one person or group doesn’t get to choose what everyone else is allowed to read, view, or hear, the great comic book controversy was hardly original. It was preceded by (and coincided with) the same battle over radio and television. As so often happens, people somehow felt compelled to impose on others their own version of what was “right”—which meant “right” as they knew it from upbringing, religion, common sense, or some other source.

But in a society espousing and cherishing freedom, self-censorship works best. If you don’t approve, don’t partake … and allow others the same choice.

That sentiment was succinctly expressed by Will Rogers back in the 1930s, when self-appointed moral guardians sought to restrict the content of radio broadcasts. Rogers offered a reply beautiful in its simplicity: “I have no sympathy for anyone who is too lazy to turn a dial.”

Photo: Horror comic cover, 1953, from Internet Archive.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Mary Gerdt says:

    Great history of comic books and political correctness.

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