Kings of Comics – Part 1

Part I: The Golden Age (1933-1955)


Four-Color Forebears

“My father conceived the idea of taking the Sunday pages, folding them over, and folding them once again, and ending up with something roughly the size of today’s comic book.”
                                                        –William M. Gaines

1933. FDR was inaugurated, Hitler became chancellor of Germany, television was patented, and an unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Max Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) was pondering how on earth he would be able to feed his wife Jessie and their two young children, who were living with him at his mother’s house in the Bronx. To lift his spirits, he began reading some Sunday funnies stored in his mother’s attic. Suddenly the idea hit him: if he enjoyed reading old comic strips like “Joe Palooka,” “Mutt and Jeff,” and “Hairbreadth Harry,” maybe the rest of America would, too!

Gaines shared his brainstorm with his good friend Harry L. Wildenberg, who worked at Eastern Color Printing. For years, Eastern had been toying with the idea of reprinting Sunday comic strips as tabloid-size giveaways. Gaines proposed a different approach–reducing the comic-strip reprints to half tabloid-size and selling them. Persuaded to take a chance on the concept, in February 1934 Eastern published Famous Funnies #1, Series 1, the first American comic book to be sold to the public. The 35 thousand copies shipped to department stores throughout the country quickly disappeared from the shelves. ECP followed in May with Famous Funnies #1, Series 2, the first monthly comic book to be sold on newsstands. Issue #8 turned a profit (earning $2,664.25), and an industry was born. By 1941 thirty comic-book publishers were producing 150 different titles monthly, with combined sales of 15 million copies and a youth readership of 60 million, making the emerging comic-book industry one of the few commercial bright spots of the Great Depression.

Things were not going as well for Max Gaines. Though he had helped to reverse ECP’s fortunes, one day late in 1934, for reasons unknown, he was unceremoniously sacked. But hearing that the McClure Newspaper Syndicate had a pair of idle two-color presses, the ever-resourceful innovator struck a deal: if McClure would let him use its presses to print a new comic-book title, he’d split the proceeds 50-50. McClure agreed, and Popular Comics was born. Like Famous Funnies, Popular Comics material consisted of reprinted color newspaper strips–old favorites like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, and Gasoline Alley–but Gaines made sure his reprints were brighter. Thanks to its vivid colors and the inclusion of “Scribbly”–a token original strip about a boy cartoonist, modeled on its Jewish creator Sheldon Mayer–Popular Comics outshone the competition, but the heyday of reprint comics was fast coming to a close.

Anticipating that the novelty, and thus the appeal, of recycled newspaper comics would be short-lived, Gaines was ever on the lookout for something new, and he wasn’t alone. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the publisher of National Allied Publications (soon to be known as National Periodicals, then Detective Comics Inc., then DC Comics), had already begun scouting for original strips with new characters and new ideas, which, not insignificantly, would also reduce his reprint royalty payments to newspaper syndicates.

DC’s first title, New Fun Comics, appeared in February 1935. Imitating Sunday humor and adventure comics, the new title was by all accounts mediocre–that is, until the appearance in New Fun #6 (October 1935) of Doctor Occult, the brash supernatural “ghost detective” who battled vampires, ghosts, and sorcerers. The brainchild of two prolific, innovative Jews from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist), Doctor Occult captured the imagination of young readers with his supernatural exploits. Then, for three issues (starting with issue #14 in October 1936 of what was now More Fun Comics), Siegel and Shuster dressed their usually trenchcoat-and-fedora-clad Doctor Occult in blue tights and a red cape, endowing him with temporary superpowers, such as super strength and flight. They were trying out ideas they’d developed for another character which, for the past three years, they’d unsuccessfully shopped around to various newspaper syndicates and comic-book companies. That character was “Superman.”

In 1937 McClure employee Sheldon Mayer told his boss Max Gaines about this caped, muscled “Superman” in red-and-blue tights who could lift an automobile above his head, causing criminals to scatter like frightened rats. The strip had been rejected by every New York newspaper as being too fantastic even for juvenile audiences, but Mayer assured Gaines (now DC Comics’ print broker) that this “Man of Tomorrow” would be “the next big thing” in comic books. Gaines agreed, and within days he, Mayer, Siegel, and Shuster were hastily cutting and pasting “Superman” strips into comic-book format. Gaines then sent the boards on to his friend Harry Donenfeld, who with Jack Liebowitz had recently become publishers of DC Comics, taking over the company from the financially strapped Wheeler-Nicholson. Donenfeld was skeptical, yet he placed great stock in Gaines’ impeccable marketing instincts. And then there was Siegel and Shuster’s impressive track record–not only had they created Doctor Occult, but the even more successful brawling private-eye Slam Bradley. Donenfeld decided to take the risk. In June 1938 he published the first Superman strip as the flagship feature of his new imprint Action Comics. Sure enough, “Superman” took off like a rocket–or a bird, a plane….

The Golem and Superman

“The Golem was very much the precursor of the super-hero in that in every society there’s a need for mythological characters, wish fulfillment. And the wish fulfillment in the Jewish case of the hero would be someone who could protect us. This kind of storytelling seems to dominate in Jewish culture.”
                                                                                                    –Will Eisner

Conceived by Siegel and Shuster while they were still in high school, Superman became the first comic-book character to cross over to virtually every medium–novels (George Lowther’s The Adventures of Superman, illustrated by Joe Shuster and published in 1942, featured the first comic-book hero to appear in a novel), radio plays, television programs (including the current WB hit drama Smallville, a postmodern look at Superman’s early life in quintessential small-town America), theater (Harold Prince’s 1966 Broadway musicalIt’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman), feature films, movie serials, animated short subjects, newspaper comic strips, Internet comics, even popular music (in the rapper Eminem’s 2002 song entitled “Superman,” he compares himself to the Man of Steel).

The idea of Superman occurred to Jerry Siegel one hot summer night in 1933. The teenager had trouble falling asleep. While lying in bed, he thought, “if only I could fly…” and began to envision a character who could fly–a character who was stronger, more courageous, more invincible than he could ever be. Excited, Jerry hurried to his desk and wrote out in comic strip form the first Superman story; then early the next morning he rushed over to the home of his artist friend Joe Shuster to share his idea. Equally inspired, Joe immediately began to draw a prototype of the character. Thus was a hero born.

Superman actualized the adolescent power fantasies of its creators–two Jewish Depression kids craving a muscle-bound redeemer to liberate them from the social and economic impoverishment of their lives. And, as Michael Chabon (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, about two Siegel and Shuster-style cartoonists) notes, there’s a parallel between Kavalier and Clay‘s superhero creations and the Golem–the legendary creature magically conceived by the rabbi of medieval Prague to defend the community from an invasion by its antisemitic enemies. Cartoonist, writer, and comic-book historian Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) also views Superman as a mythic descendant of the Golem and thus a link in the chain of Jewish tradition. “[Jews needed] a hero who could protect us against an almost invincible force,” Eisner says. “So [Siegel and Shuster] created an invincible hero.”

The Superman narrative is also rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, “All that is God”) from the planet Krypton, whose population, a race of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports–the evacuation to safety of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain.

Angst-ridden adolescent fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster’s feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior–a fact that was not lost on the comic-book publishers, who responded with a succession of new superhero creations, among them Wonder Man (created in May 1939 by Will Eisner) and Captain Marvel (created in February 1940 by writer Otto Binder and artist C. C. Beck). In the pre-Superman era, brash, hard-boiled detectives (Ace King, Detective Dan, the aforementioned Slam Bradley) and humorous slapstick features (Curly and the Kids, Sheldon Mayer’s “Scribbly”) had dominated the genre. After Superman, notes former Marvel Comics publisher and Spider Man co-creator Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber), “if artists wanted to be successful, they thought, ‘I guess we better give our characters costumes and double identities.'” Thus, for example, Batman secretly doubled as rich playboy Bruce Wayne, The Flash as police scientist Jay Garrick, The Ray as reporter Happy Terrill, Wonder Woman as U.S. army major Diana Prince, and Captain America as police officer Steve Rogers.

Instinct for Storytelling

“I am a fan of anybody who can make a living in his underwear.”
                                                                 –David Mamet, reflecting on Superman

In 1939, in the wake of the tremendous success of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman, Max Gaines joined forces with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz in a new publishing venture called All-American Comics (the AA Group). The new group would expand the DC universe of characters with titles such as Flash Comics and All-American Comics–featuring, among others, the adventures of Hawkman, aka millionaire antiques collector (and reincarnated Egyptian prince) Carter Hall; and Green Lantern, secretly radio announcer Alan Scott (aided by a magic ring).

Other comic-book companies, like Timely Comics, Archie Comics, Whiz Comics, and Quality Comics, were now competing with the AA Group, hiring a great many Jewish artists, writers, and editors to create the next big superhero hit. Publishers who could not afford in-house staffs contracted with the Eisner-Iger Studio, founded in 1937 by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, which “packaged” comics–in other words, maintained a crew of artists who would write, draw, letter, color, edit, and design comic-book stories. In so doing, Eisner and Iger helped launch the careers of future X-Men and Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), Batman co-creator Bob Kane (Bob Kahn), and Al Jaffee and Dave Berg of MAD magazine fame.

Jewish illustrators and writers entered the comic-book field because other areas of commercial illustration were virtually closed to them. “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” explains Al Jaffee. “One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

“Also,” adds Will Eisner, “this business was brand new. It was the bottom of the social ladder, and it was wide open to anybody. Consequently, the Jewish boys who were trying to get into the field of illustration found it very easy to come aboard.” For talented Jewish kids who had no gift for athletics (like, say, heavyweight boxer Max Baer), music (like Benny Goodman), or acting (like John Garfield and the Marx Brothers), creating comic books appeared to be a way out of poverty and into a legitimate, hopefully lucrative, artistic career. For the same reason, the field was also wide open for comics publishers–most of them marketing mavens who began with a few investment dollars in their pockets. And it was a perfect fit, given the centrality of storytelling in Jewish culture. “We are people of the Book; we are storytellers essentially,” says Eisner, “and anyone who’s exposed to Jewish culture, I think, walks away for the rest of his life with an instinct for telling stories.”

The Golden Age?

“I have no idea when the Golden Age was [supposed to have been], but as far as I’m concerned, wherever I am is the Golden Age!”
                                                                                                         –Stan Lee

The period roughly from 1933 to 1955 is regarded by comics historians as the “Golden Age” because it was the “first wave” of new talent, an era when classic comic-book characters such as Superman, Batman, and Captain America were created, as was the graphic language of contemporary comics. “Today you call it the Golden Age,” laughs Eisner. “Well, for those of us that were in the Golden Age, we didn’t know it. It was the Leaden Age as far as we were concerned!” Indeed, most of the comic-book artists and writers of this era never emerged from poverty. They were underpaid wage slaves with no rights or royalties; the characters they created were owned and trademarked by the comic-book publishers. Even Siegel and Shuster, creators of the world’s first comic-book superhero, were bilked, earning a paltry $130 from Harry Donenfeld for the first thirteen-page Superman story and having to negotiate for meager financial and creative participation in subsequent Superman strips and spin-offs (all Superman licensing fees were paid to Donenfeld’s corporation, “Superman, Inc.”).

The turning point for Superman’s creators came in 1978–exactly forty years after Superman’s first release. During a TV talk-show promotion of the first Superman movie, an elderly gentleman rose from the audience and said in a soft voice: “My name is Jerry Siegel. I co-created the character Superman on which they’re making this movie, and I work at a supermarket bagging groceries.” The studio audience gasped. So did Jerry Robinson (a cartoonist, comic-book historian, and at that time the head of the National Cartoonists Society), who was watching the show from home.

Robinson decided to launch a campaign aimed at Warner Brothers, which, as the parent company of DC Comics, owned the Superman copyright. He wanted the media giant to compensate Siegel and Shuster for having created one of the most widely recognized characters on earth. It would take many players, hundreds of arts organizations, and considerable legal maneuvering before the studio bowed to the pressure. The inventors of Superman received a “created by” credit in the movie, and an annual stipend which continued for the rest of their lives. Today, when a movie or TV series (not to mention comic book) is released featuring Superman, it bears the credit line: “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,” ensuring that future generations will know the genesis of the Man of Steel.

Batman & The Joker

“Bill Finger co-created the character of Batman. He was there from day one!”
                                                                                                    –Jerry Robinson

In 1939 comic-book artist Bob Kane bid farewell to his short-lived stint at the Eisner-Iger Studio to create adventure features for DC Comics. DC wanted a follow-up character to their golden boy, Superman, and Harry Donenfeld offered Kane eight instead of five dollars a page. Recalls Eisner: “I said to Bob, ‘You can’t do adventure, you can’t draw that well!’ And Bob said, ‘No, I can do it, and I got a guy who can write it!’ That guy was Bill Finger, a Jew from Denver, Colorado.”

Kane and Finger got together and brainstormed the new character DC wanted. Kane suggested a pair of bat-style wings, which he’d doodled in sketchbooks for years. Finger proposed the wings be turned into a more practical, yet uniquely scalloped cape, then added a triangular motif to the costume, including triangular “fins” protruding from Batman’s gloves, and pointy bat ears. In formulating the basic story line, the two drew upon favorite films (such as The Bat Whispers, in which a detective prowls the night as a killer wearing an ungainly bat-mask); novels (such as Johnston McCulley’s All-Story Weekly, in which the rich playboy Zorro becomes an avenger by night, and the various books featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who utilized deductive reasoning to solve crimes); and radio programs (such as The Shadow, in which wealthy playboy Lamont Cranston used his mastery of disguise to strike fear in the hearts of criminals). It was Finger who invented the “Dark Knight’s” origin story (in which a young Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed by a criminal, leaving the child obsessed with fighting crime), and the menacing urban setting of Gotham City. “[Finger] was the best writer in comic books,” asserts former Batman ghost artist Jerry Robinson (the newspaper stripLife With Robinson). Yet despite Batman’s success–second only to Superman in DC’s rapidly expanding superhero pantheon–Finger died impoverished, never recognized for his role in creating Batman. “Bob Kane had made a deal with DC that he [Kane] would write and draw Batman,” Robinson explains, “so he kept Bill’s involvement quiet.” In addition, Kane made extensive use of uncredited “assistants,” or ghost artists, such as Robinson, Sheldon Moldoff, and Dick Sprang, all of whom were Jewish, and would sign Bob Kane’s name to their work. “I think I signed Bob Kane’s name more than he did,” Robinson notes.

Robinson also takes credit for having created, in 1940, the most famous super-villian in comic-book history–the clown prince of crime known as the Joker–for which Kane took official credit. “Kane stated for years that he created the Joker and that he based him on the Conrad Veidt film The Man Who Laughs,” Robinson says. “But the true story is that I’d created the Joker based an autobiographical incident. Everyone in my family was a championship bridge player, and so we always had decks of cards lying around the house. At the time I had a creative writing assignment due at Columbia University, where I was studying when I wasn’t working on Batman. I figured I’d write a story about a villain, but I liked humor, I liked comedy. So I thought, I’ll combine the two, and make a murderer who looks like the Joker in a deck of cards. I brought it in and showed it to Bob Kane and Bill Finger. And the first design for the Joker that I drew looks just like the one in the deck of cards in my bedroom.”

Nailing the Nazis

“I found a way to help the war effort by portraying the times in the form of comic characters. I was saying what was on my mind, and I was extremely patriotic!”
                                                                                                         –Jack Kirby

With America’s entry into World War II, Superman, Batman, and other comic-book superheroes were pressed into action. “As comics writers,” Stan Lee says, “we had to have villains in our stories. And once World War II started, the Nazis gave us the greatest villains in the world to fight against. It was a slam dunk.” Captain Marvel fought Captain Nazi, the Aryan assassin and super-soldier. Captain America, created in 1941 by Jewish cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, took on the Nazi agent Red Skull. “Two Jews created this weak little guy named Steve Rogers who gets shot in the arm [by scientist Dr. Reinstein, a reference to Albert Einstein] and, by way of a ‘secret serum,’ becomes this super-strong hero who starts destroying Nazis,” explains political cartoonist Peter Kuper (World War Three Illustrated, The New Yorker, MAD magazine’s “Spy Vs. Spy”). “What a distinctly empowering image.” Simon and Kirby also created the Boy Commandos, a strip about an international group of patriotic children from Allied countries who aided in the war effort; the stories’ final panels often depicted caricatures of Hitler being foiled by the children’s covert operations. The lesson: even children–like those who read comics–could play a heroic role in the battle against evil.

To demonstrate their patriotism, Jewish comics creators were careful to fashion superheroes they perceived as super American. The all-powerful Steve Rogers, for example, was blond and blue-eyed. “When you’re sitting down to write about an American hero within an American culture, you begin to devise those characters or characteristics that you regard as gentile,” Eisner explains.

By 1943 comic-book publishing had become a multimillion-dollar industry, with monthly sales reaching a record 25 million copies. The AA and DC groups claimed approximately one-third of the comic-book market, and second-tier companies, such as Quality and Timely, were showing solid profits as well. In another two years DC would absorb the AA Group and form a “DC Universe,” making it possible for one DC hero, such as Green Lantern, to “guest-star” in Batman, another DC comic book, with a continuing and consistent story line.

All was going great–that is, until….

Cleaning Up the Comics

“The real question is this: Are comic books good, or are they not good? If you want to raise a generation that is half storm-troopers and half cannon-fodder with a dash of illiteracy, then comic books are good! In fact, they are perfect!”
                                                                                        –Dr. Frederick Wertham

“It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid….”
                                                                                               –William M. Gaines

Confronted with the growing popularity of comic books, in 1941 the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and other organizations concerned with preserving “the innocence” of America’s youth launched a campaign against the increasingly popular genre of “true crime” comics, which featured titles like “Boston’s Bloody Gang War” and “Murder, Morphine and Me.” Anticipating the coming storm, AA Group chief Max Gaines invited a number of prominent educators and psychologists to serve on his board of advisers. One of them, psychologist William Moulton Marston, invented a comic-book character he believed would set a positive example for America’s children.

His creation, Wonder Woman–a crime-fighting, whimsical Amazon princess renowned for her highly ethical character–became the industry’s first major female superhero. (Sheldon Mayer’s Red Tornado, a feisty, female crimefighter not to be confused with the later, more popular male superhero of the same name, was the first ever female comic-book superhero, but never gained a large following.) Other female superheroes read by both boys and girls would follow–Black Canary, Liberty Belle, Phantom Lady.

After having served as midwife to the first comic book, the first superhero, the first superhero group, and the first major female crime-fighter, Gaines decided it was time to move the genre in a new direction–ethical education. His new imprint, Educational Comics (EC), published such didactic titles as Picture Stories From the Bible, Picture Stories from World History, and Picture Stories from Science. He issued strict guidelines to the EC creative staff–never show anyone being stabbed or shot; never show a scene of torture; never show a hypodermic needle; never show a coffin, especially with anyone in it–and he enlisted a group of rabbis, priests, and other clergy to consult on the Picture Stories series. Yet the ever cost-conscious publisher often rejected their scholarly advice. “I don’t give a damn how long it took Moses,” he once screamed. “I want it [the story] in two panels!”

In 1945 Gaines sold out his one-third stake in the AA Group to his partners Liebowitz and Donenfeld for a half-million dollars. He retained only a handful of EC titles: Tiny Tot Comics, Animal Fables, and the Picture Stories line. Working independently for the next two years, Gaines concentrated all his effort on the remaining titles, but EC consistently lost money. Gaines’ comics may have been morally sound, but children preferred tales of superheroes fighting heinous villains.

On August 20, 1947, Gaines was boating on Lake Placid, New York when suddenly another vessel came speeding toward him. There was no way to avoid the impending crash. In a heroic last act, Gaines threw the child of his friend Sam Irwin into the back of the boat just seconds before the collision, saving the boy’s life. Absorbing the full impact of the crash, Gaines died instantly.

Max’s son, Bill Gaines, a 25-year-old NYU student, took charge of EC comics, at the urging of his mother. Trying to get the company out of the red, he issued a line of teen romance comics with sappy titles like Modern Love, A Moon, A Girl…Romance andSaddle Romances; they failed, miserably. Then, with the help of writer/artist/editor Al Feldstein, who shared Bill’s passion for radio horror programs, Gaines dropped EC’s line of detective comics (Crime Patrol, Against Crime) in favor of lurid science- fiction comic titles such as Weird Science and Weird Fantasy as well as horror comics such as The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, which featured such gory tales as “Coffin Spell” and “Ooze in the Cellar.” Educational Comics was renamed Entertaining Comics, and EC began making money. Writer/artist/editor Harvey Kurtzman joined the staff, creating two antiwar comics destined to become classics: Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. A strong advocate of social justice, Kurtzman refused to portray minorities as racist caricatures, a common practice at the time. In his Korean War tales, he sometimes told the story from the point of view of an enemy combatant, something that had never been done before in a comic book. “The comic-book companies tended to make war glamorous,” Kurtzman said. “That offended me–so I turned my stories to antiwar.”

What set EC apart from its competitors was a commitment to moral themes. Story lines often dealt with the evils of abusive relationships, misguided patriotism, and racism. In writer Al Feldstein’s “Judgment Day” (from Weird Fantasy #18, March / April 1953), for example, an Earth astronaut named Tarlton is sent to the planet Cybrinia to judge whether its robot inhabitants are socially and technologically advanced enough to join the Earth’s Galactic Republic. Determining that Cybrinia is a segregated society (the orange robots consign the blue robots to economic discrimination and ghettos), Tarlton decides that Cybrinia cannot be part of the Republic until its people, like those on Earth, have learned to live together without discrimination. When Tarlton returns to his space-ship, he removes his helmet, and we see that he is a handsome Black man, “…the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkling like distant stars….” This O. Henry-style twist ending, typical of EC’s horror and sci-fi stories, presaged the morality tales of later TV shows such asTwilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Star Trek.

Gaines’ successful turnaround of his father’s failing company led to scores of imitators that produced horror, crime, and science-fiction comics with no redeeming social qualities. Alarmed parents who vehemently objected to the “filth” their children were reading found an ally in psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent, a study on the negative effects of comic books. Wertham condemned most of the genre–especially crime and horror comics–for contributing to juvenile delinquency and cited dozens of cases of children who had committed murders, injuries, and suicides after reading comics. He also portrayed Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman as closeted gay and lesbian superheroes, a damning accusation in those deeply homophobic times, and ironic, given the fact that Wonder Woman had been created as a positive role model by a fellow psychologist.

Much of the slander directed against Gaines and his fellow comic-book publishers was motivated by antisemitism. A Hartford Courant editorial, for instance, referred to comics as “the filthy stream that flows from the gold-plated sewers of New York”–a code phrase for “Jewish businesses.” Comic-book burnings became a familiar sight across the country, and some of the so-called “disgusting” literature was seized by police. The attorney general of Massachusetts called for the banning of Gaines’ humor comic Panicafter it ran a spoof of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly known by its opening line, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), charging that it was actually stirring up a bona fidepanic by “desecrating Christmas.” New York police seized and quarantined issues ofPanic until Gaines went to court and won their release.

As the outcry following the publication of Seduction of the Innocent grew, so did the call for government intervention. On April 21, 1954, the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary opened in Manhattan federal court. Gaines was the only comic-book publisher willing to testify, but due to the effects of a strong cold medicine, his performance on the witness stand was less than stellar. The more Senator Estes Kefauver and his committee grilled the groggy Gaines, the more his speech slurred. “The media jumped on that,” says MAD cartoonist Drew Friedman of the televised hearings. “It was so unfair. They portrayed him as some slovenly Jewish pornographer.”

Reeling from this debacle, Gaines called an emergency meeting of his fellow comic-book publishers, who agreed with him that immediate action was necessary–but instead of fighting back, they decided to form a self-censoring comics authority. They also voted to ban the words “crime, horror, terror, and weird” from comic books, effectively casting EC as the scapegoat for the entire industry. As most of Gaines’ titles contained at least one of these words, he had no choice but to suspend publication of his horror and suspense comics.

Established on September 16, 1954, the Comics Code Authority, headed by former judge Charles F. Murphy, transformed the genre. Ninety percent of the industry adopted the CCA’s code, which prohibited the depiction of vampires, zombies, werewolves, and ghouls. Policemen, government employees, and other authority figures had to be portrayed in a respectful manner; evil characters could be depicted only for the purpose of illuminating a moral issue; and all “lurid, unsavory, and gruesome” illustrations were disallowed. To be sold on newsstands or in drugstores, comic books had to carry the “Approved” Comics Code Authority seal.

Kurtzman’s MAD World

“I don’t think it’s going too far to say that for my generation, the generation that protested the Vietnam War, growing up with Harvey’s MAD and Harvey’s war comics shaped the situation to allow our generation to protest that war. It was comics about media that made you question how you get your information, and that’s a necessary component toward taking any kind of political action.”
                                                                                                    –Art Spiegelman

By 1955 the only EC publication still in print was MAD, which had dodged the axe through a clever maneuver–Gaines had transformed the comic book into a magazine (issue #24, 25 cents), exempting it from CCA regulations.

MAD had been created as a comic book three years earlier by the socially crusading Harvey Kurtzman, who’d written, edited, and helped illustrate the first several issues. Subtitled “Humor in a Jugular Vein” and designed to appeal to both teens and adults, it was the first satirical comic book to address the nation’s social ills and challenge its sacred cows. In 1954, for example, MAD #17 attacked Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s televised hearings on Communist infiltration of the U.S. Army with “What’s My Shine?,” a parody of the TV game show What’s My Line?, which had been preempted by the hearings; Kurtzman was deriding the hearings as having as much validity as a Hollywood game show. MAD also gave a wink to Jewish readers with the constant use of Yiddishisms, such as “fershlugginer,” “schmaltz,” “oy,” and “feh” –Kurtzman’s way of tossing matzah balls at the white-bread WASPy veneer of his competitors’ comics. Explains Al Jaffee: “MAD made fun of pretentiousness; they made fun of the nobleman. Because none of them were noblemen. It’s basic irreverence.”

MAD‘s conversion from a comic book to a bimonthly magazine marked the end the Golden Age of comic books, which, for its creators, was like a drama in two acts. In act one, Jews seeking to escape poverty invented a new genre that melded popular art and storytelling, and projected Jewish (and adolescent) power fantasies onto their “all-American” superhero creations. During the shorter second act, the five-year reign of EC Comics was marked by an overriding concern about morality, sometimes emanating from a Jewish sensibility. In the words of The X-Men creator Stan Lee: “To me you can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, ‘Do not do unto others…’ All I tried to do in my stories was show that there’s some innate goodness in the human condition. And there’s always going to be evil; we should always be fighting evil.”

Kings of Comics – Part II

Arie Kaplan is a freelance writer who has written for MAD magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Bop, and Teen Beat, among other publications.


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