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The Psychiatrist Who Almost Brought Down the Comic Book Industry

Superheroes are used to dealing with mad scientists, lumbering monsters, and would-be dictators on the page, but in the real world of the mid-1950s, their biggest threat came from the words of Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who led a public crusade that almost destroyed the comic book industry.

Born Fredric Wertheimer in Munich, Germany, in 1895, Fredric Wertham came to the United States in the 1920s to work at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University [PDF]. In 1932, he moved to New York City to take a job as the head of the Court of General Sessions psychiatric clinic, which examined every convicted felon in the city. In 1936, Wertham became director of Bellevue’s Mental Hygiene Clinic before moving on to work in smaller clinics. His respected status in the mental health community led to him testifying in a number of high-profile cases, including those of noted serial killer Albert Fish and convicted Soviet spy Ethel Rosenberg (though he did so without ever interviewing her).

Though he spent much of his time running clinics for the city's poor and underprivileged populations, Wertham gained more mainstream notoriety after the publication of his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, a study on how the sex, violence, crimes, and drug use in comics led to criminal and delinquent behavior in children. The book was the result of Wertham’s years of work with troubled youths, many of whom were comic book readers.

Flipping through the pages, Wertham determined that the content of these comics must be to blame for the behavior of these kids. Between the book and magazine articles he wrote, plus lectures he gave, Wertham launched a full campaign against the comic book industry, capturing the attention—and fearful imaginations—of parents and elected officials along the way.

Wertham’s tirades focused on everything from the obvious—such as the violence and crime in comics like EC Comics's Tales From the Crypt—to more outlandish claims, like painting Batman and Robin as lovers (a stereotype that would continue for decades). In Seduction of the Innocent, he wrote:

“Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. As they sit by the fireplace the young boy sometimes worries about his partner: 'Something’s wrong with Bruce. He hasn’t been himself these past few days.' It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Wertham also mused on the “psychologically unmistakable” lesbian subtext of Wonder Woman. His most audacious claim, though, was thrown at Superman, whom he compared to a fascist on the level of Adolf Hitler, saying of the Man of Steel’s iconic “S” shield: “With the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.”

As ridiculous as it all may sound today, Seduction of the Innocent had a cultural moment in 1954. It was named “Book of the Year” by the National Education Association, and it soon created enough noise to prompt the creation of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which held hearings on the dangers of comics on April 21 and 22, and June 4, 1954. Wertham, predictably, jumped at the opportunity to speak.

During the hearing, Wertham again went over his list of grievances with comic books, showcasing one story in particular from EC Comics, where a dismembered head was used for a game of pickup baseball by some neighborhood children. This prompted the surreal moment where Wertham asked the committee chairman, “They play baseball with a dead man's head. Why do they do that?”

Horror comics came under the most scrutiny. At one point, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee asked EC Comics publisher William Gaines if he thought the cover of Crime SuspenStories #22—showing a woman’s severed head held up by the hair—was in good taste. Gaines’s reaction was derisive:

“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."

In the end, the committee didn’t crack down on the comic book industry in the form of government-mandated censorship. But by this time, the damage was done. Sales toppled, publishers went out of business, and comic books went back into hiding under the mattresses of precocious youngsters. The surviving comic book companies—notably DC, Archie, and Atlas, which would later become Marvel—formed a trade association, the Comics Magazine Association of America, to house the newly minted Comics Code Authority. The CMAA was made up of various publishers and industry veterans, led by the association’s president, and Archie Comics publisher, John Goldwater.

The Comics Code was a way to self-censor and regulate comic books in an attempt to clean up their image and win back the public. To earn the Comics Code seal of approval, a book would have to meet certain standards. Words like “Terror” and “Horror” were forbidden to be used in a book’s title [PDF]; there was to be no more gore, pervasive violence, or illicit sex; crime could no longer be glorified; and elected officials and police officers were to be portrayed with respect. There were also rules against showing vampires, werewolves, zombies, and pretty much any other horror staple imaginable. Many distributors would refuse to stock comics without the Code’s seal of approval, so while the Code Authority had no legal power, a book without its support was likely dead on arrival.

Wertham’s words, and the subsequent Senate hearings, would have ripple effects on the industry in the decades to come. EC Comics publisher William Gaines would eventually close up his comic book business and begin a new publication: MAD Magazine. While MAD began life as a comic, as a magazine it didn’t fall under the Code’s jurisdiction. Horror and crime comics were soon replaced with more innocent fare like romance books and the Archie line. There were also unintended oddities, like the character of Batwoman being introduced to form a romance with Batman, dispelling any unsavory innuendo about the Dark Knight's relationship with Robin.

The Code would be revised over the decades, slowly allowing vampires, zombies, and "Terror" back into comics, but throughout the 20th century, that "Seal of Approval" was front and center on every mainstream publication on comic book store shelves.

Though publishers would bypass the Code at points—most famously in Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 in 1971 and in DC’s "Mature Readers" line in the 1980s—it wasn’t until the 2000s that major publishers began to withdraw from the CCA. Marvel did so in 2001, replacing it with their own rating system, and in 2011, both DC and Archie followed. By this time, though, the Comics Code had loosened its demands to such an extent that it had become an afterthought; simply serving to remind everyone of one of the industry’s darkest moments. Still, removing the Code’s “Seal of Approval” for good was the symbolic toppling of Dr. Wertham and his crusade against comics.

Additional source: Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics

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Space Goat Publishing
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These Evil Dead 2 Comics Will Look Groovy on Your Bookshelf
Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Bruce Campbell has been quoted as saying the gallons of fake blood poured into his face during filming of the 1987 cult classic horror film Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn led to a week of red-tinged mucus leaking out of his nostrils. Fortunately, no Campbells were harmed in the making of two new comic collections from Space Goat Productions that are now being funded on Kickstarter. The Evil Dead 2 Omnibus features over 300 pages of stories set in the Necronomicon-plagued universe featured in numerous comic book miniseries; The Art of Evil Dead 2 reveals never-before-seen production art from both the comics and ancillary projects.

The campaign is the latest from Space Goat, the Bellingham, Washington-based company that’s made a cottage (or cabin) industry from products spinning out of the Sam Raimi-directed film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In addition to the new collections, the publisher has also issued an Evil Dead 2 coloring book; a comic where Campbell’s demon-fighting hero, Ash Williams, encounters Adolf Hitler; and a forthcoming board game where players can navigate Deadite threats while shaking their head at Ash’s questionable competency. (No matter the iteration, he seems ill-equipped to deal with the threat of his own possessed and lopped-off hand.)

According to Space Goat publisher Shon Bury, licensing the Evil Dead 2 property from rights holders StudioCanal in 2015 has been a buoy in navigating the difficult waters of comic book publishing. (Even Marvel, which rakes in billions through its film franchises, struggles to sell more than 60,000 to 70,000 copies of its most popular monthly titles.) One day into its Kickstarter launch, the Evil Dead titles had reached 50 percent of their $20,000 funding goal.

“It’s definitely our flagship on the publishing side,” Bury tells Mental Floss. “The board game is our top seller in the Evil Dead category, and the coloring book sells really well. They’re our evergreen products.”

The cover to 'The Art of Evil Dead 2' from Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Exploring Ash’s adventures in other media comes with a few caveats. While Space Goat is free to explore the characters and situations portrayed in Evil Dead 2, incorporating ideas from the rest of the series (including 1993’s Army of Darkness or the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead) is generally off-limits. And while the StudioCanal rights include a likeness of Campbell, the actor has veto power over how he’s depicted on the page. “For some reason, he doesn’t like the dimple on his chin to be drawn,” Bury says. “But he’s very insistent that the scar on his face from the movie is always there.”

Other actors featured in the film—like Richard Domeier, the future home-shopping host who portrayed “Evil Ed”—may not have granted their likeness rights, but his Deadite character design is part of the deal. “You want to inoculate the owner or licensor of the rights,” Bury says. “So we submit drawings and they might say, ‘No, too close to the actor.’”

That development process is part of what makes up The Art of Evil Dead 2, one-half of Space Goat’s current Kickstarter project that follows a successful Evil Dead 2 board game launch in 2016. The campaigns, Bury says, help target Ash fans with material that might not get enough attention if it were released directly to retailers. “Kickstarter is basically social media. It’s direct engagement, our way of saying to fans, ‘Hey, you’re really going to like this.’”

Bury expects fans to be just as enthused about Evil Dead 2: The Doppelganger Wars, a limited series due for release in 2018 that sees Ash and sidekick Annie Knowby enter the mirror dimension glimpsed at in Evil Dead 2 to discover the true origins of both the demon-summoning Necronomicon and the cult surrounding it. A meeting with H.P. Lovecraft may also be on deck, along with other narratives that would carry the license through the end of the publisher’s current agreement with StudioCanal in late 2019.

Still to be decided: whether Ash will ever encounter the werewolves of The Howling, Space Goat’s latest horror license. “Those conversations have occurred,” Bury says. “It would be a natural. But it’s also challenging because the royalties [for the licenses] double.” 

Digital versions of The Art of Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead Omnibus will be available to backers pledging $20 beginning in December. Softcover, hardcover, and Necronomicon slipcase editions ($30 and up) ship in May 2018. The Kickstarter runs through November 25.

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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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