Last week, The Beat posted some links to audio of the 1954 Senate hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency, and they’re FANTASTIC. I listened to them this weekend, and while I’ve read the transcripts several times and seen all of the major quotes over and over again, actually hearing them is a whole new experience.
If you’re not familiar with the Senate hearings, in the early 1950s the United States got itself in a bit of a panic over the rising rates of juvenile delinquency. In response, the Senate organized a sub-committee to look into the matter, focusing on comic books. Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, had just been released, and Wertham argued that comic books were a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency, particularly crime and horror comics. In response to the hearings, comics publishers created the Comics Code Authority and basically forced any crime or horror publishers out of business. The result was the rebirth of superheroes, who had been fading out after their initial success in World War Two, and the dawn of the Silver Age of comics, with DC and soon Marvel leading a superhero renaissance.
The big find here is the afternoon session from April 21, 1954, with testimony from Dr. Fredric Wertham and Bill Gaines of EC Comics. This was one of the most important days in the history of comics, and it’s unbelievably cool to be able to actually listen to it. You have to go listen to it for yourself if you are any sort of comic book history nerd. It’s all just fascinating.
Dr. Wertham’s testimony came across as very odd to me. He definitely had a flair for the dramatic and was passionate about comic books, and it was almost like he was putting on a show with his prepared statements. He’d build things up until we were sure that comic books with the scourge of the nation, and end each point with some sort of rhetorical flourish, but when pressed about it I thought that he backed down very quickly. He repeatedly went out of his way to point out that comic books were only a contributing factor in juvenile delinquency, and perhaps even a minor one at that, and did so in a tone that was very different than when he was delivering his prepared statement. It’s almost as if the big stage got the better of him at times and he became grandiose and declarative, and then felt like he needed to walk it back a bit.
Bill Gaines was even more interesting. This is the testimony that supposedly doomed the comic book industry, and there have been stories about him being on various sorts of pills (some say diet pills but others say stronger painkillers), but I thought he did okay. I had very low expectations, I suppose, but he was focused and on point and made some decent arguments in his opening statement. When it got to the point when Gaines said everything he printed was in “good taste” and Senator Kefauver held up this cover:
And asked Gaines if he thought the severed head and bloody ax were in “good taste”, I was cringing anticipating his response and how awkward it would be. I was very surprised how quickly Gaines responded, and how unfazed he seemed. Kefauver clearly won the point, and there were some laughs from the audience, but Gaines wasn’t cowed or ashamed or hesitant in any way. This was THE moment from the hearings, and there wasn’t the wind letting out of the sails that I expected. While Gaines didn’t blow anyone away with his testimony, it’s not the trainwreck you’d expect it to be from the quotes we always hear and the way people tend to talk about it. He missed a few decent opportunities and ultimately didn’t change any minds, but I came away more impressed with his testimony than I’d ever been before reading it.
Finally, Senator Estes Kefauver had one heck of a smooth, crooner sort of voice. That Tennessee accent is really pleasant to listen to. It’s a bummer his presidential bids never worked out for him, because his speeches would have been fun to listen to. They’d have been all mellow and soothing. Thanks a lot, Adlai Stevenson!!
Anyway, this is an amazing find. Listening to the testimony is so much better than just reading it, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of it. Most of the folks who write comic book history probably weren’t even born during the hearings, and now they can hear them in real time. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got some new interpretations of how it all went down now.