Civil Liberties

Corpses, Crimes, and Comic Books

Old Testament justice in the horror comics of the '50s


Rotting corpses. Plotting spouses. A jealous cactus that goes on a murderous rampage. In the early 1950s, Charlie Brown and Howdy Doody weren't the only pop culture phantasms delighting America's children. All across the country, gleefully gruesome crime and horror comics brightened newsstands with vivid tableaux of monsters, mobsters, the walking dead, and other assorted fiends.

It was a good time to be a kid, no doubt, and an even better time to be a protector of public virtue. Crusading newspaper columnist Thomas E. Murphy railed against the "depraved, degenerate bits of scatology" who created crime and horror comics. U.S. senators investigated the comics in a special hearing. Progressive psychiatrist Frederick Wertham penned a best-selling manifesto, Seduction of the Innocent, that accused comics of "mass conditioning" the nation's children to a life of illiterate, criminal, sexually abnormal delinquency. And as 

David Hadju recounts in The Ten Cent Plague, his excellent 2008 history of the mid-century backlash against crime and horror comics, many organizations, including at least one Girl Scout troop, set fire to these graphic monstrosities in psychotic celebrations of literary decency.

One major purveyor of cartoon shocks and mayhem was the iconoclastic EC Comics, which brought forth such classics as Tales From the Crypt and Crime SuspenStories. When public pressure for a crackdown mounted in 1954, EC publisher William Gaines beat the angry mobs to the punch by ripping up copies from his catalog at a New York press conference. The company's crime and horror comics, he announced, were dead. The ghosts of these series have been haunting the halls of American pop culture ever since—as reprints, movie adaptations, HBO programming, and a Saturday morning cartoon. 

But other titles from the era have led much less visible afterlives. In August the comics publisher Fantagraphics exhumed more than three dozen non-EC stories from the period for a new anthology, Four Color Fear.

While EC now stands as the ghoulish face of 1950s crime and horror comics, it accounted for just 7 percent of such comics produced in that era, according to Four Color Fear co-editor John Benson. Atlas, the genre's largest player, would eventually evolve into the company now known as Marvel Comics, and Marvel has been reprinting old Atlas titles such as Strange Tales and Menace over the past few years. But much of the material produced by the 30 or so other crime and horror publishers active during the 1950s has rarely if ever been reprinted. Benson and co-editor Greg Sadowski wanted to showcase the best of the rest.

As entertaining as EC's comics are, as notable as their noir-for-teens cynicism and glib desire to shock must have been in an era when explicit gore and violence were still mostly confined to print, I've always wondered if there was even more lurid fare out there turning Girl Scouts into book-burning vigilantes. If the stories that appear in Four Color Fear are any indication, the answer is no. 

Like the EC titles, they feature plenty of murder, mayhem, creeping swamp things, and decomposing suitors. In one memorable piece, a giant love-struck cactus manages to go on a three-person killing spree even though it's largely immobile, rooted deeply in the front yard of the suburban married woman it tragically pines for. 

But there's a consistent decorum on display as well. In one selection, "The Body Maker," a monstrous doctor is determined to build a perfect mate out of parts from women he kills. It's a story that Wertham featured prominently in Seduction of the Innocent, and in his Barnumesque hands, he made this sexualized take on the Frankenstein myth sound so horrific that De Sade himself might blanch at its explicitness. But if "The Body Maker" is beyond the pale conceptually, its actual depiction is handled with striking restraint. Wertham complained that the mad doctor cuts off one victim's legs, another's hands, and a third's hair, but what he didn't mention is how demurely these crimes are staged. There's not a drop of blood in the entire story. On two occasions, knives are poised to strike, but all the carnage takes place between panels.

As with EC, the most notable aspect of the stories in Four Color Fear isn't the gore, sex, or nudity. It's the sense of uncompromising Old Testament justice that runs through them. While Wertham and other critics characterized crime and horror comics as training manuals for psychopaths and deviants, the villains who perpetrate the evil deeds within them typically got punished in more extreme ways than the state would ever allow.

That is one more reason Wertham found them so objectionable. According to the college textbook Criminal Justice in America, the medicalization of corrections policy, which assumes that criminal behavior is caused by biological or psychological factors, reached its peak in the 1950s. Criminals were to be diagnosed, treated, and rehabilitated rather than punished. Efforts to crack down on crime and horror comics can be seen as an outgrowth of this trend. Indeed, Wertham called comics "a new kind of harm, a new kind of bacillus the present-day child is exposed to." In his mind, they were the true cause of juvenile delinquency and the crimes committed by the children he treated in his medical practice. The perpetrators themselves weren't to blame, and as Wertham insisted in the final chapter of Seduction of the Innocent, neither were their parents.

But horror comics never consider the root causes of crime. If you steal from corpses, as the protagonist of "Custodian of the Dead" does, you eventually get eaten by cemetery rats, who never bother to ask how a troubled home life or coarse popular culture may have shaped your moral development. Justice in horror comics anticipated the reactionary, uncompromising creed of Harry Callahan and Judge Judy. Punishment was swift, and no mercy was shown. That may be why the 10-year-olds reading horror comics in 1954 failed to become the monsters Wertham feared they were destined to be and instead evolved into pacifist hippies. Hyper-violent cartoon ghouls set them on a path of peace, love, and harmony. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.