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Say Goodbye to MAD, But Remember the Fight for Free Expression

The Los Angeles Timesand other media outlets recently announced that MAD magazine was going to cease publishing a hard copy or newsstand edition and will only be available through subscription and in comic-book stores.  More troubling, at year’s end it will cease being published.  Say goodbye to the ever-subversive freckled-faced of Alfred E. Neuman.

Comedian “Weird Al” Yankovic was MAD’s first guest editor and moaned the announcement, tweeting: “I am profoundly sad to hear that after 67 years, MAD Magazine is ceasing publication. I can’t begin to describe the impact it had on me as a young kid — it’s pretty much the reason I turned out weird.  Goodbye to one of the all-time greatest American institutions.”

MAD was introduced in 1952 as a comic book, the first issue written by its editor, Harvey Kurtzman.  In ’55, Bill Gaines, head of Educational Comics (EC), a small New York publisher at 225 Lafayette Street, launched it as a magazine.  It was billed as “Tales calculated to drive you MAD?  Humor in a Jugular Vein.”  It initially adhered to the 32-page comic-book convention, offering four stories that parodied other EC comics and sold for 10¢.

Its readership peaked in 1974 at more than 2 million but in recent years it seems no longer relevant.  MAD joins a growing number of satirical publications that have disappeared.  Spy, founded and edited by Graydon Carter and Kurt Anderson, closed in 1998 and The Onion ceased as a print publication in 2013, though it continues online.

***

The sad state of American journalism is reflected in the fact that none of the innumerable media reports about the impending closing of MAD mentioned the battle Gains fought with the post-WW-II culture-war censors.

Looking back in 1983, Gaines recalled, “In the ’50s I was an extreme liberal.”  He admitted, “I’m not against abortion, I’m not against pornography, I’m not against living together without getting married because I’ve been doing it with my dear young lady here for 10 years, and the last thing in the world I would do is get married because I’m convinced that will wreck it.”  Gaines was a classic Brooklyn liberal who had backed Pres. Roosevelt and fought in the war.

When the war ended, comics were a mass-market phenomenon.  In 1945, the Market Research Company of America estimated that 70 million Americans (about half the nation’s population) read comic books.  The greatest number of these readers was young people between 6 and 11 years; it reported that 95 percent of boys and 91 percent of girls read them.  It also found that adults between 18 to 30 years were avid comic consumers; 41 percent of men and 28 percent of women reported regularly reading comics. One study estimated that in 1946 nearly 540 million comics were published and, by the mid-‘50s, monthly sales had skyrocketed to an estimated 90 million.

No one knew what comic book would find an audience, so innovation was encouraged – and knockoffs were an accepted feature of the business.  People from all ethnic backgrounds and walks of life, including precocious youths, African-Americans and even women, got their start working in comics, including such popular authors as Patricia Highsmith, Stanley Kauffmann and Mickey Spillane.  The media “establishment” — consisting of “serious” writers, artists and critics — looked down on comics, dismissing them as an unsophisticated kids medium.

Comics were part of an insurgent youth-oriented culture, a consumerism complemented by movies, music, fashion and cigarette smoking. It was a subversive culture rooted in rebellion, challenging parental authority and sexual standards.  It was a culture threatening established order; juvenile delinquency represented stepping over the line.  The battle over delinquency would remake the nation’s moral order.

Between 1941 and 1957, the FBI found in its 1959 Uniform Crime Reports, juvenile court cases increased 220 percent.  While predominately an urban phenomenon, it reported that in 1957 youth crime increased7 percent increase in the suburbs and 15 percent increase in rural areas.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover joined the chorus of those exhorting Americans to “stop mollycoddling juvenile criminals. It is against the instincts of most Americans to get tough with children.”  He added, “But the time has come when we must impose sterner penalties and restrictions on young lawbreakers for the protection of the law abiding.”

In late-1953, the U.S. Senate established a special subcommittee to investigate juvenile delinquency.  As part of its efforts, it held public and private hearings in Washington, DC, Boston, Denver and Philadelphia that culminating, in April ’54, in New York.  Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN), an ambitious politician, was a member of the subcommittee. He believed “obscene” media came in all forms and contributed to the rise of youth crime.  However, he singled out comic books, especially those labeled crime and horror, for promoting violence.

Kefauver was not alone in assailing comic books.  In 1954, the Book-of-the-Month Club assailed Batman: “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”  The media decried Superman, some wondering if he was not a fascist; Wonder Woman was condemned as “a morbid ideal. … Her followers are the gay girls.”  And Cat-woman was attacked because she was “… vicious and uses a whip.”  Popular comics like The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror were denounced as “sex horror serials” and “pulp paper nightmares” that created “ethical confusion.”

The Senate’s hearings on juvenile delinquency and comics was held in New York on April 21, 1954, and continued the next day, the 22nd, and concluded on June 4th.  Kefauver made a short introductory comment, adding the FBI’s authority to his remarks: “I think it is also important to point out that Mr. J. Edgar Hoover’s report of yesterday shows … juveniles … comprise 53.6 percent of those arrested for stealing automobiles.”

Fredric Wertham, a noted psychiatrist and author of Seduction of the Innocent (1954), testified as an expert witness on the effects of comic books.  He insisted that comic-book advertisements promoted unhealthy products, including rifles, knives, daggers and even whips.  He argued that comics perpetuate racial stereotypes; heroes were nearly always white, while the villains were often portrayed as ethnic minorities whether foreign born, Orientals, Italian or of dark-skinned races.  And he claimed, “all comic books have a very bad effect on teaching the youngest children the proper reading technique, to learn to read from left to right.”

Wertham concluded his testimony with these memorable lines: “Well, I hate to say that, Senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read.”

After a lunch break, Gains took the witness stand.  He was alone among comic book publishersto voluntarily appear before the committee.  A WW-II veteran, he took the proverbial bull by the horn and challenged the committee’s underlying premise. “I was the first publisher in these United States to publish horror comics.  I am responsible, I started them,” he proclaimed.

Gains then directly challenged 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.”  Going further, he insisted, “Pleasure is what we sell, entertainment, reading enjoyment.   Entertaining reading has never harmed anyone.” He invoked Judge John M. Woolsey’s 1934 decision, U.S. v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce, lifting the ban on the legendary novel to legitimize horror as a form of free speech.

Following his opening remarks, committee members took up the battle with Gaines over horror comics.  Kefauver challenged Gains:

Kefauver:  Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?

Gaines:   Yes sir, I do – for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

Kefauver: You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth.

Gaines:  A little.

The afternoon’s sessions ended with brief appearances three creative industry representatives.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” Gaines later admitted I was so nervous when I was up there that I barely knew what I was doing,”. “First of all, I’d been up all night writing my introductory speech, which I wrote with Lyle Stuart [EC’s business manager].”  He had been up every night during the preceding week, dropping Dexedrine tablets and drinking coffee nonstop to keep going.  “And when I got into the Senate Subcommittee hearings my Dexedrine wore off,” he lamented.  “A wet sponge, that’s how I felt.  And I didn’t know what I was doing.  I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”  The committee faced him like a “prosecuting attorney” and he felt shamed, guilty.  “… It was rough answering all these questions.  Everybody looking at you like you’re a freak and a criminal and so on and so forth.”

It its final report, Kefauver’s subcommittee warned: “This country cannot afford the calculated risk involved in feeding its children, through comic books, a concentrated diet of crime, horror and violence …. Rather, the aim should be to eliminate all materials that potentially exert detrimental effects. To achieve this end, it will require continuing vigilance on the part of parents, publishers and citizens’ groups.”

***

During the postwar period, comic books were subject to repeated waves of censorship campaigns, including comic-book burnings.  During the period of 1947 to ’49, more than one hundred cities across the country, big and small, passed laws or ordinances to ban the display or sale of comic books. These campaigns took place in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles; in Baltimore, Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Sacramento as well as Ann Arbor (MI), Coral Gables (FL), Falls Church (VA), Hillsdale (MI), Mt. Prospect (IL) and Nashua (NH).

The anti-comics climate heated up in ’54 and ’55 with more than a dozen states either considering or enacting legislature to regulate or suppress comic books.  Among those states were California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

The most contentious efforts to censor comics took place in New York State because a good number of the publishers operated out of Gotham.  In 1948, the U.S.Supreme Court, in Winters vs. New York, struck down as unconstitutional a state law prohibiting the publication and/or distribution of material “principally made up of criminal news, police reports, or accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures, or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime.” However, in ’49,NYS assemblyman James Fitzpatrick organized the Joint LegislativeCommittee to Study the Publication of Comics to fashion legislature to circumvent the Court’s ruling.  In ‘54, the state legislators passed a number of bills to restrict comic books, but Governor Thomas Dewey vetoed them on constitutional grounds.  However, in ’55, the new governor, Averill Harriman, approved what was dubbed the “Fitzpatrick Act” restricting comics.

Ray Bradbury published his sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451, in 1953.  The title signifies the temperature at which book-paper burns.  It’s a dystopian novel about postmodern “firemen” who censor threatening texts by burning them and the small, isolated communities of people committed to keeping the written word — as a memorized, spoken text — alive.  Bradbury wrote his classic tale against a background of book burnings taking place in communities around the country.

In 1945, students of Saints Peter and Paul School, in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, participated in a school-sponsored comic-book collection drive and then burned the comics.  Other book burnings took place in West Virginia, Illinois and New York.  In Cape Girardeau, MO, the Girl Scouts led the charge.  They collected comics and brought them to St. Mary’s, a local Catholic high school, where students held a mock trial as to whether comics were “leading young people astray and building up false conceptions in the minds of youth.” The student jury found the comics guilt and the students burned them.

MAD was radical not in an ideological or conventional leftist sense, but subversive in that nothing was above critical exposure and mockery.  It mocked Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Superman and even Sen. McCarthy.  In a 1954 piece entitled, “What’s My Shine!,” it linked the popular game show, “What’s My Line,” to the Army-McCarthy hearings, punning one of McCarthy’s closest aides, David Schine.  For some, MAD was more radical than contemporary “progressive” publications like DissentCommentaryPartisan Review and The New Leader.

One can well image Bill Gaines roaring in his grave, gleeful over how he ultimately got his sweet revenge.  The moralists who so persecuted him, most notably Kefauver and Wertham, have long been relegated to the dustbin of history.  And the comic business that he spent more than three-decades of nurturing – soon to pass into the magazine graveyard – is today a multi-billion-dollar, international industry.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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