The true motives behind the “War on Comics”

Buzzfeed of all places has a really great article by Saladin Ahmed about the surprising diversity sometimes found in American comics during the Golden Age of the 1940s and early 1950s. The basis for the article is treasure trove of out-of-copyight Golden Age comics from the Digital Comics Museum.

As someone who started reading American comics in the 1980s and gave up in frustration in 2005, i.e. just before widespread digital availability of vintage comics, my knowledge of the Golden Age is comparatively scant. I have never held an original Golden Age comic in my hands*, even though my Dad supposedly owned a stack of Golden Age superhero comics** inherited from an older cousin that he deciphered with the help of a dictionary and cherished, until my grandma threw them away sometime in the early 1960s. I have seen a few reprints – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Submariner, EC horror and Crime Does Not Pay (which I found luridly violent and unbelievably preachy at the same time) and seen bits and covers of other intriguing looking titles.

But reprints of Golden Age comics were not widely available during my prime comic reading days in the late 1980s and 1990s, so I derive most of my knowledge of that era of comics from tomes on comic history. And those books mostly had the same story to tell: American comic books were born from newspaper strips. There were superheroes. Then there were crime and horror comics. The usual busybodies, led by one Frederic Wertham (who it later turned out fudged his research or made it up altogether), got the vapours and intervened. The Comics Code Authority imposed its rules and comics did not quite die, but went into suspended animation, until they were reborn from the ashes during the Silver Age. There were occasional glimpses of intriguing other comics that did not fit into the “Superheroes – Crime – Horror” trinity, such as the romance comics from which Roy Lichtenstein copied much of his work, war comics, western comics and a neverending parade of jungle girl comics, in which unfailingly white and scantily clad women fought wild animals and played goddess to blatantly racist depictions of people of colour. But as for actually reading one of those lesser known entries of the Golden Age… – forget about it.

Hence I find Saladin Ahmed’s alternate story of pre-Code comics full of arsekicking female superheroines, characters and even superheroes of colour and a general diversity no longer found post-1954 quite fascinating. Now the lack of genre diversity in mainstream American comics is quite obvious, particularly if – like me – you started out reading Franco-Belgian-Dutch comics, which had and continue to have a lot more genre diversity than their American counterparts. Indeed, in my prime comic reading days, I read US comics for superheroes and European comics for everything else. And I did know that Golden Age comics had female heroines apart from Wonder Woman – all those jungle girl comics clearly suggested that.

But the existence of characters of colour apart from gross stereotypes was in pre-Code comics a surprise, since I’d always assumed that apart from Mandrake’s pal Lothar in the newspaper strips (reprints of which were easier to come by, at least if you were willing to read them in French or Italian) there were no heroes of colour until Black Panther and the Falcon appeared in the 1960s (and then Luke Cage, Jon Stewart, Sunfire, Storm and War Machine a bit later). There also is the well known anecdote that when Marvel’s Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos included the black soldier Gabe Jones in the team, the printer called up Marvel to check whether he was really supposed to be black. It’s also interesting that both Falcon and Gabe Jones*** have recently appeared in Marvel’s Avengersverse movies (and we’ll probably get Black Panther at some point), while the grandson of Gabe Jones**** makes a welcome (and handsome) addition to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

So if – as Saladin Ahmed believes – the Comics Code was deliberately aimed at removing independent women and heroes of colour from comics, the question is why most histories of the American comic book don’t seem to cover that aspect at all, since the conventional narrative is that comics were getting too edgy and violent and adult, so they had to be cut down to size, and that the code was mainly aimed at crime and horror comics and their perceived and actual excesses.

This also makes me wonder what changed between 1955, when EC Comics was not allowed to reprint a pre-Code SF story featuring a black astronaut under the new Comics Code rules and 1963, when Gabe Jones was allowed to be a black guy doing heroic stuff with Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos with no one but a printer batting an eyelash. As for a ban on racist depictions of people of colour, has anybody ever read the Iron Man origin story from 1963 with its Communist menaces coloured in the same oddly neon yellow hue***** that was used for yellow peril characters from the 1930s to the 1960s and probably beyond? So why did this stuff pass and EC’s Judgment Day didn’t? Was it simply that the Comics Code Authority had it in for EC in particular and simply didn’t much care what Atlas/Marvel did, as has often been argued? Was it because the Marvel stories promoted the “right” kind of politics? Was it the stirrings of the civil rights movement in the 1960s? Had the Comics Code Authority already lost some of its teeth by 1963? Or did they no longer care as much, now they had served their purpose and killed off crime and horror comics and nearly destroyed the comics industry altogether? Or was it because by 1963, television had replaced comic books as the innocent-seducing bogeyman in the minds of busybodies everywhere?

Another thing that’s notable is that while many of the male superheroes of the Golden Age are still with us in some for or other, the superheroines (with the exception of Wonder Woman and Black Canary) are largely forgotten. The tragic saga of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America and Bucky Barnes, two characters who debuted in 1941, is currently breaking box office records and making legions of cinema goers around the globe cry, yet Golden Girl, Captain America’s female partner who succeeded Bucky after his untimely demise (well, he got better), is completely forgotten (though there was a different Golden Girl, a woman of colour at that, in a 1978 miniseries). Interestingly, the real name of the original 1940s Golden Girl was Betty Ross, a name that will be familiar to long term Marvel readers. And indeed, it turns out that Golden Girl is the great-aunt of the Marvel’s other Betty Ross, girlfriend/wife/whatever their current relationship status is of Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk. Now that should make for some uncomfortable conversations around the Avengers’ dinner table, especially if you add in the fact that Steve Rogers also thinks that Tony Stark’s dad used to have a thing for Peggy Carter. Talking of the delightful Peggy Carter, who took the place of the Betty Ross character from the 1960s on all the way to the current Avengersverse movies, she is getting her own TV series, co-starring Howard Stark. Both Peggy Carter and Howard Stark will be portrayed by the same actors who played them in Captain America: The First Avenger, which sounds fabulous, because Peggy is the best thing about that movie and I like 1940s Howard Stark a lot more than the 1970s version from Iron Man 2 who turned out to be such a complete failure as a dad.

There seems to be something in the air regarding comics (or maybe they are more on everybody’s mind, because we are getting so many comic based movies and TV shows right now), because here is a Guardian article about comic books from a British POV, inspired by a comic exhibition at the British Library. What’s striking here are the similarities in the concern about comic books and their impact on children and teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic to the point that the UK had its own version of a moral panic about horror comics in the mid 1950s. To be fair, from what I’ve seen of them, Tales from the Crypt and other EC horror comics really were over-the-top lurid and bloody and I can almost understand that many people were concerned about them. However, this doesn’t excuse the widespread moral panic about comics in general nor does it explain why so many interesting and diverse comics had to be taken down along with a handful of overly lurid horror and crime comics.

*The oldest original comic in my collection is a Doom Patrol issue from the late 1960s.

**My Dad clearly remembers Superman and Wonder Woman and believes Spider-Man was involved as well, which we know is impossible, since Spider-Man didn’t debut until 1962. I guess he must have gotten Spider-Man, whom he knew from the 1970s TV series, of which I was an avid viewer, mixed up with another character. Interestingly, he does not remember Captain America at all – and yes, I asked, in an attempt to see if he would be interested in watching The Winter Soldier.

***It’s also quite interesting that apart from Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones is the only of the original Howling Commandos to make it to the screen (well, there is Nick Fury, but he’s not a Howling Commando in the movies). Not that the Howling Commandos from Captain America: The First Avenger aren’t still “Ethnic Stereotypes R Us”, but they’re mostly different stereotypes than back in 1963.

****It’s never explicitly stated that Agent Tripp is the grandson of Gabe Jones, but it’s certainly the likeliest possibility.

*****The first time I saw that strange neon yellow skin tone in old Flash Gordon reprints, I assumed it was because the inhabitants of Mongo were aliens. I was quite stunned to find the same skin tone no human ever had in clearly human characters in 1960s Marvel comics.

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