Bill Maher Draws a Blank on Comic Books

mimesis and metonymy in namor

In the middle of November, pop culture suffered a devastating loss — Stan Lee, co-creator of every popular Marvel superhero (save Captain America) and the most visible face of the comics industry for decades, died at the age of 95.

Tributes poured out for the influential creator, and some even used Lee’s absence to proffer nuanced looks at the more complicated parts of his legacy (namely, sexual harassment suits and spars with fellow co-creators about credit).

However, in his fashion as one of America’s foremost provocateurs, Bill Maher took an indirect shot at the legacy of Stan Lee in a short blog post titled “Adulting.”

Maher noted that the nation was in “Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” He then quoted a Reddit post that expressed gratitude for living in a world with Lee, and taking a page out of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s mistaking-pedantry-for-wisdom book, said:

Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own. Now, I have nothing against comic books — I read them now and then when I was a kid and I was all out of Hardy Boys. But the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.

Maher is right about something here. Comics have, since their inception, suffered from a presumption that they were strictly kiddie fare — that children read comic books at a young age, then move on to more, shall we say, respectable pursuits. However, that apparent slight towards Lee’s legacy was not the part of Maher’s statement that earned him the most ire from comic book fans and creators. His next paragraph read:

But then twenty years or so ago, something happened — adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. And because America has over 4,500 colleges — which means we need more professors than we have smart people — some dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer. And now when adults are forced to do grown-up things like buy auto insurance, they call it “adulting,” and act like it’s some giant struggle. I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.

One side note: I do agree with Maher that the concept of “adulting,” especially among my generation (millenials), is rather annoying. However, that’s beside the point, and has little to do with the critique of comic book culture he offers.

It was Maher’s suggestion that comic books contributed to Donald Trump’s election and that only “dumb people” cared about them that earned him the most ire.

Comics creators lambasted Maher on Twitter. Artist Greg Capullo called Maher a fool, Avengers writer Kurt Busiek noted that Maher commented out of ignorance (assuming all comics were like his childhood reading), and writer Gail Simone said:

Here’s a thing, even if you don’t care about comics. @billmaher saw a mass of people grieving and thought, ‘Hey, how can I make this about me?’

Probably all anyone needs to know, really.

Maher’s criticisms of comic books and the individuals who read them aren’t novel, insightful, or even recent. He’s just the latest in a long line of moralizers and cultural critics who’ve ascribed various faults in American society to the pedestrian, easily-mockable comic book.

On this point, Maher’s gross ignorance is at least understandable, if not forgivable. He wasn’t born until 1956, as the most inflammatory criticism of American comic books was dying down. The comic books Maher would have read as a child in the early 1960s would have been extremely sanitized by the Comics Code Authority, which came into existence in 1954 as a result of two massive outcries against comic books during the 1940s and 1950s.

It was this movement to regulate the content of comic books that resulted in the stigmatizing of comic books as strictly children’s fare. In fact, as late as 1989, a revision of the Comics Code stated that the code’s formation was in the interest of the public, which “…deserved decent and wholesome comic books as entertainment for children. . .that comics carrying the Comics Code Seal be ones that a parent can purchase with confidence that the contents uphold basic American moral and cultural values.” The comics industry, like the film industry before it and the music and video game industries after it, self-regulated in response to moral outcries that threatened the advancing of federal legislation.

Since the direct market (that is, specialty comics stores) did not become prominent until the 1970s, the Comics Code was designed with two factors in mind — public viewing (comics were typically sold in drug stores or newsstands), and parental direction of child consumption. To receive the Comics Code’s famous seal of approval, the book, its stories, and its advertisements had to meet the strict moral guidelines of the Comics Code. No parents would dare touch a book that did not carry the seal of approval.

The more adult horror and crime comics, typified by Bill Gaines’ EC Comics, were eliminated entirely by the code as well as a 1955 New York state law (the FitzPatrick Act) that more strictly regulated content and banned the sale of comics deemed violent to those under 18, further crippling the already languishing industry. Therefore, the stories that flourished in the code era were already kid-friendly (Dell, Gold Key and Harvey Comics all secured comic rights to various cartoon properties–Disney, Hanna-Barbera and others), or were established series whose publishers (largely National and Atlas Comics, the companies that later became DC and Marvel) drastically altered their editorial content, becoming what comics scholar Bradford W. Wright termed “inoffensive juvenile fantasy.” It was this change in editorial content, coming right in Maher’s youth, that stigmatized comics for years as kiddie fare.

Maher’s criticisms are the latest from a long line of commentators blaming print culture for undesirable changes in the body politic. The first major modern moral panic concerning print material focused on pulp novels and “penny dreadfuls” during the 1870s. This campaign was led by famed moral entrepreneur Anthony Comstock (namesake of the Comstock Act, which Margaret Sanger was prosecuted under for distributing birth control literature), who warned of the deleterious effects of these pamphlets on children in his book Traps for the Young.

The train of comic criticism, however, stretches back to the early 1900s, when poet Ralph Bergengren took to the pages of the August 1909 issue of Atlantic Monthly to complain that Sunday comic strips (known then as comic supplements) were causing the moral degradation of the nation’s youth. Bergengren lamented the crass urban violence of comic strips by artists like R.F. Outcault, noting that the characters never died (because they would cease to be funny), but that:

Respect for property, respect for parents, for law, for decency, for truth, for beauty, for kindliness, for dignity, or for honor, are killed, without mercy.

Respect for property, respect for parents, for law, for decency, for truth, for beauty, for kindliness, for dignity, or for honor, are killed, without mercy.

During the Depression, these concerns shifted to movies, resulting in the introduction of the Hays Code in 1930. Comic books themselves debuted in the mid-1930s withuntil 1940. In May of that year, children’s author Sterling North (Rascal is his most famous creation) wrote a vicious editorial in the Chicago Daily News that ignited the first phase of what I refer to in my research as the anti-comics movement. The first major critique of comic books, which debuted in the mid-to-late 1930s, North’s article mixed professional frustration with moralizing vituperation.

“Virtually every child in America,” wrote North, “is reading color “comic” magazines — a poisonous mushroom growth of the last two years. Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month. One million dollars are taken from the pockets of America’s children in exchange for graphic insanity.”

Though North’s comments about the makeup of some comic books were not inaccurate in an abstract sense, the specter of children reading violent, sexual comic books was largely fabricated.

Nevertheless, North’s article received resounding praise. The Journal of Childhood Education reprinted North’s article in their January 1941 issue, ensuring that his message reached both scholarly and popular audiences. North’s article set off waves in the academic community, and educational journals began publishing articles about children’s interest in comics as well as more advanced psychological studies of comic reading in the years that followed. The comic book industry also scrambled to recover its image in the wake of North’s critique, fomenting (the appearance of) editorial boards and standards for story publication. These guides were, at best, sparsely implemented, but the industry could now direct their critics to their paid experts.

In the same vein of the earlier criticisms of comics, the early anti-comics movement abated with the onset of World War II — pushed away further by a scholarly consensus that reading comic books was not harmful to children, so long as comics supplemented other reading. Comic books also played a protracted role in World War II, serving as cheap, accessible entertainment at home, propaganda receptacles for the government, and the favored reading material of servicemen stationed overseas.

As the war wound down, Americans grew tired of fighting, and by extension superhero comics. By 1950, any superhero comic that was not the main anthology or solo series (think Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) of National Comics (later to become DC) was cancelled. Due to this downturn in superhero sales, companies began to take a domestic turn in their editorial content, focusing more on crime, love, and western stories. These stories took on a more mature and violent tone, and moral critics in the country blinked.

In 1948, Dr. Fredric Wertham, a progressive New York psychiatrist wrote an article in the Saturday Review of Literature titled “The Comics…Very Funny!” that accused comics of fostering juvenile delinquency. This would be the chief complaint of the second iteration of the anti-comics movement, that comic books in general, but crime comic books especially served as “blueprints for delinquency.”

Wertham’s article, which “refuted” in 17 points views held by those who did not oppose children’s reading of comics, gave a professionally-veneered, articulate, and coherent explanation for juvenile misbehavior, supplemented by grotesque comic panels and sensational anecdotes from urban youth that Wertham worked with at his Lafargue Clinic, a Harlem-based psychiatric hospital that provided African Americans with low-cost psychiatric services when they were barred from most mental health clinics due to racist medical practice.

Wertham panel
Wertham reproduced the leftmost panel in “The Comics…Very Funny!”, and it became an infamous representation of the violent turn in comic books. From “Murder, Morphine and Me”, True Crime Comics #2. Art by Jack Cole.

With Wertham’s article in tow, demonstrating an apparent shift in psychiatric consensus, the anti-comics movement slowly began to percolate through the early 1950s. A committee led by reactionary Arkansas House Representative Ezekiel Gathings in 1952 recommended that the government censor obscene publications such as comic books, but vehement internal dissent from members of the committee hampered any serious attempts at regulation.

Local ordinances regarding crime comic books became more prominent in 1948 and 1949, but Gathings’s committee represented the first time government put its rhetorical weight into investigating comic books. Comics did possess some legal precedent against federal regulation where films did not (Mutual v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruled unanimously that the First Amendment did not apply to motion pictures), but a 1948 New York Supreme Court case, Winters v. New York ruled that a statute forbidding the publication of lewd and violent material violated the First Amendment.

By the mid-1950s, critics of comic books, reflecting the gnawing anxiety of the domestic Cold War, began to assert that “crime” comic books (which became a catchall for any comic) were not just turning children into juvenile delinquents, but serving as communist propaganda to control the nation’s youth by undermining their morals. Groups like the American Legion, National Organization for Decent Literature, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI especially pushed this line of thinking.

With this increased attention, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency convened in April and June 1954 to assess the question of comic books and juvenile crime. The committee called dozens of witnesses ranging from child psychiatrists to industry personnel and writers, and eventually concluded that questions of comics’ exacerbating influence on juvenile delinquency could not be answered so succinctly. However, the hearings remain known for a confrontation between Fredric Wertham, publisher Bill Gaines, and Senator Estes Kefauver that comics historians posit as the impetus for the formation of the Comics Code.

Wertham, in his provocative mode, accused the comics industry of blatantly peddling racial stereotypes and violence, noting infamously that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.” Wertham’s statement, in the typical hyperbolic mode of anti-comics critics,  enraged Bill Gaines, self-described inventor of the horror comic (he published Tales from the Crypt and other ghastly iterations), and he succeeded Wertham on the witness stand. After chief counsel Herbert Beaser inquired of Gaines what his boundaries when deciding on cover art were, and Gaines replying with anything “…within the bounds of [Gaines’ own] good taste”, Senator Estes Kefauver and Gaines had the following exchange:

KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is 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 a head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.

KEFAUVER: You have blood coming out of her mouth.

GAINES. A little.

KEFAUVER. Here is blood on the ax. I think most adults are shocked by that.

Industry veterans Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, watching the proceedings live elsewhere in the city, were flabbergasted. Simon recalled yelling “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” at the monochrome Gaines, fearing somewhat correctly that Gaines had just sunk the comics industry by appearing indifferent to the potential for children to see graphic images on comic book covers.

infamous cover of crime stories
The infamous cover of Crime Suspenstories #27 that Estes Kefauver interrogated Gaines over.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Comics Magazine Association of America formed shortly after the comic book hearings, with Gaines initially at the helm. He would later recall how the larger companies in the CMAA forced him out and designed the Comics Code to spite Gaines, banning the words “horror” and “terror,” among others, from comic book covers. The code went into effect in September 1954, and the furor over comic books (and the moral panic over juvenile delinquency that underwrote much comic book criticism) faded rapidly, leading to a considerable amount of retroactive scholarship (mostly legal) on the movement during 1956 and 1957.

The code remained officially active until 2011, when DC and Bongo Comics abandoned it. However, with the rise of underground “comix,” the direct market, “mature reader” imprints, decidedly adult graphic novels like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and anti-drug PSAs by Stan Lee himself that challenged the power of the Code, the Comics Code saw itself effectively neutered after the 1970s as the industry retooled old heroes and provided more mature plotlines to appeal to more adult fans.

More interesting, perhaps, is reporting from comics industry blog Newsarama, which speculated (and then confirmed) that the CCA truly went defunct in 2009 and comics publishers used the seal arbitrarily. A staffer at the management firm that owned the CMAA performed the judging for free, citing an admiration for the CCA’s original mission.

So, here at the end we come back to Bill Maher. As the reader can see, Maher is by no means the originator of the idea that comic books make people stupid, but Maher’s misguided engagement with the idea of comic-inhibited American political development fuels the classist liberal notion that poor ”stupid people” were to blame for Trump’s election (which polls disprove). As with previous critics of comic books, he assumed that the only consumers of the medium were children (EC Comics editor Al Feldstein offered a damning quote about Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent that said EC’s intended audience were age 14 and up), and that by extension American adults were caught up in childlike escapist fantasy. Maher’s contention holds that a leisurely pastime associated with the urban poor is to blame for our current station.

Most offensive, perhaps, is his assertion that academic studies of comic books are illegitimate, and that these people do not deserve their academic credentials. My entire graduate career predicates itself on a historical analysis of the wildly emotional responses to the pedestrian comic book. It uses perhaps the most uniquely American facet of print culture to ask penetrating questions about the power of individuals and groups to decide morality in this country.

Sure, Maher can say that the outrage over his comments proves his point, if only in a 10th-grade schoolyard manner. Likewise, Maher proves my points correctly — that criticism of cultural mediums like this isn’t new or refreshing. It’s curmudgeonly, condescending, and wholly inaccurate.

Evan R. Ash is a second year master’s student in history at Miami University. He specializes in 20th century United States history with a special interest in the cultural history of the early domestic Cold War. His thesis, “Objectionable: The Cincinnati Committee for the Evaluation of Comics and the American Anti-Comics Movement, 1940–1956” constructs a narrative of how a Cincinnati comics regulation group decidedly influenced the national discussion over kids and comics. He can be reached at asher@miamioh.edu and on Twitter @evanthevoice.

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