Author Says Comics Showed “America Was Racist, Violent & Soaked in Sex”


 

The Nation reviewed Paul S. Hirsch’s history book, “Pulp Empire: the Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism”, which I’d spoken about in the past year, and their review has some eyebrow raising descriptions like this:

 

Vividly illustrated and enjoyably hyperbolic, Pulp Empire tells its tale as a kind of horror comic. Recounting the emergence of comic books during the Depression, Hirsch details how the medium was drafted during World War II to play its own modest part in defeating the Axis, then cues the scary music: Having discharged their patriotic chore and more popular than ever, comic books “showed the world that American society was racist, gruesomely violent, and soaked in sex,” creating what, in 1952, the Daily Worker excoriated as a “Billion Dollar Industry Glorifying Brutality.” That industry would go through many iterations but only truly recovered from the ensuing moral panic and backlash in the 1960s, when Marvel Comics reshaped its product into a more sophisticated form, with a relatively mature readership that was solidified by the dark superhero “graphic novels” of the 1980s to provide the template for the movie blockbusters of the 21st century.

 

Now this is quite odd to read that far-left news sources, which the Nation magazine is themselves, would ostensibly worry USA comics were depicting the country in negative terms. The Daily Worker was a communist publication that ran mainly during 1921-58, and their alleged stance is hardly what today’s leftists actually favor, when you consider how there’s leftists who want to believe America is a “racist” country, rotten to the core, yet they never show the same concern over any such problems and double-standards outside the country, unless they believe Israel qualifies for scapegoating. Or, more troubling, they won’t look at themselves in the mirror properly, and ask if the left itself continues what it was guilty of in the early centuries of the continent’s history, and whether the left is encouraging an Orwellian atmosphere. Many such leftists are more than perfectly willing to vilify all of Stan Lee’s own hard work as scummy too, despite all his efforts to develop stories that could serve as metaphors for what they’re supposedly concerned about, and with the way censorship’s running amok today, don’t be shocked if one day, they’ll do worse than stand idly by while Lee’s work is shut away in the censorious vault; they’ll justify any such moves full force.

 

 

And what do they mean by “relatively mature”? That whoever comprised the audience, child or adult, wasn’t mature enough in their minds? On this, you could argue that, if those who embraced the darkness alluded to here thought that was the only way an “intelligent” tale could be told, that’s where the people in question are sorely mistaken. But they don’t actually get into that, as expected. Other than that, it’s ludicrous if they’re implying comic readers aren’t intelligent enough. The review continues:

 

Hirsch ends his history with the rise of Marvel. The saga has continued into the present day, however, with the superheroes invented by Marvel and its rival, DC Comics, dominating Hollywood, once again offering the world a questionable image of the United States and perhaps the way our culture views itself. Pulp Empire does not elaborate on this latest chapter. Rather, its alternately admiring and adversarial—not to mention obsessive—comic book history documents, with passion and disappointment, one fan’s discovery that his idol has two faces and feet of clay.

 

Hold on a moment here. Seriously, they think these movies give a questionable view of the USA? Presumably, if they’re more favorable to the USA in general, the Nation doesn’t approve this time around. (Of course, this could be changing with Kevin Feige in charge now, let’s recall.) Also interesting is what’s told about the original Golden Age Daredevil’s creator, Lev Gleason:

 

Early comic books resembled B movies focused on the adventures of cowboys and detectives. Those featuring superheroes sought the bigger picture. Even before the United States entered World War II, Superman and Captain America, both invented by young Jewish artists, as well as Daredevil, created by the communist and entrepreneur Lev Gleason, beat up on Hitler. A comic prepared for Look magazine had Superman apprehending both Hitler and Stalin. The cover of the March 1941 issue of Captain America showed the eponymous superhero punching out der Führer; the July 1941 premiere issue of Gleason’s Daredevil featured the story “Daredevil Battles Hitler.”

 

Yes, according to Comics Journal, Mr. Gleason had been associated with communism in the 1930s, and it’s admittedly bizarre that somebody who recognized Germany’s fascism as an evil ideology didn’t view Russia’s communism as the same. And to think we wondered how China’s communism became such a bad omen over the years. The Nation continues:

 

Still, propaganda has its own logic, as does the comic book, and inevitably the WWB came to appreciate the degree to which the medium lent itself to explosive violence and gross caricatures—which is to say, it saw comic books as way to fuel the racial and ethnic hatred of America’s enemies. Initially a distinction was made between Germans and Nazis, but as US casualties mounted, all Germans were identified as irredeemably cruel. The Japanese, who had no analogue to the Good German, were already portrayed as evil subhumans. Indeed, as Hirsch points out, Daredevil’s usual nemesis, the Claw, was a grotesque Asian stereotype well before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even when depicted as helpful, America’s Chinese and Filipino allies were visually indistinguishable from the Japanese enemy. As the US Army was still segregated, African American soldiers were subject to the same demeaning representations as had existed before the war or simply whitewashed out of the picture.

 

Again, of course it was disturbing if that was the approach they took, rather than make a proper distinction based on ideologies, but again, we have here a liberal magazine with no interest in asking whether leftism itself had any influence on these directions.

 

Hirsch argues that, given the progressive politics of their creators, comic books could have gone in a different direction. But the industry acquiesced to the wishes of the WWB, which specifically warned publishers against using members of “minority groups” as protagonists. Hirsch describes a 1944 story in Captain Marvel Jr. that concerns the attempted lynching of an innocent white man (and apparently not in the South). The pilot protagonist of a 1945 Comic Cavalcade story about an all-Black regiment, the 99th Army Air Corps, was also white.

 

Wow, whaddaya know, somebody’s talking about “progressive” here. As though that was actually the case at the time. But today, it alludes to leftists who could be pushing bad ideological influences on the public and school students, like Critical Race Theory that’s harmful to whites. Next:

 

Post-V-J Day, the government withdrew from the comic book business; the industry, however, did not contract. On the contrary: Thanks to the war, the audience for comic books was no longer confined to or even primarily composed of children. Moreover, the world that comic books addressed was less innocent. Superheroes were now passé: “After Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Hirsch notes, “it was no longer so simple to pull readers into a system populated by kind heroes, accommodating police officers, and right-thinking governments.” New sorts of comic books—romance, crime, and horror—began to appear, written for adults. These were grim and “real,’” not to mention cynical, sadistic, and, at times, borderline pornographic.

 

IMHO, if this is what adults found appealing, it is regrettable. Mainly because of all the missed opportunities to develop more comic tales along the lines of fantasy, drawing from authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Warlord of Mars for inspiration in adventure fare, or more precisely, optimistic adventure with fanciful elements that could prove as uplifting as say, some of the comedies and romances seen in movies at the time. Speaking of which, Movie Show Plus, while reviewing the UK-based film Mothering Sunday a month and a half ago, said romance is “no longer commonly found in mainstream cinema.” That’s all you need to know what’s gone horribly wrong with commercialism these days.

 

This contempt for the forces of law and order attracted the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1947, the year the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated the movie industry, the first horror comic, Eerie, and the first issue of Young Romance appeared. The latter carried a cautionary notice that it was specifically intended for adult readers. However, writing an article about responsible parenting for the Los Angeles Times, Hoover linked comic books to juvenile delinquency. His admonitions were followed by those of the socially minded child psychologist Fredric Wertham and the bohemian sexologist Gershon Legman (writing, respectively, in the middlebrow Saturday Review of Literature and the proto-Beat little magazine Neurotica) on the baleful effect of comic books on children. Soon, high school students in some American cities were collecting comics and consigning them to public bonfires.

From what I’ve known until now, it was primarily teachers, parental figures and such who led this awful scenario, but obviously, it’d be foolish, as I realize, to think no children, teens or younger folks could’ve been involved as well. And, how intriguing to learn Hoover also played a part in the moral panic over the content of comicdom. Clearly, Wertham was just part of the problem. And on the topic of progressives, again, it says:

 

Progressives, too, had reason to question some comic book content. Blatantly racist “jungle” comics like Fiction House’s Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and ME’s Thun’da, King of the Congo were mostly ignored at home. But abroad, these exotic adventure stories became the face of the Ugly American. To protest comics was also to protest the arrogance of US military might and economic power. Both the Soviets and the Chinese singled out comics as proof of American depravity. So did the French left. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes published Legman’s “The Psychopathology of the Comics” and excerpts from Wertham’s exposé, Seduction of the Innocent. The British Parliament passed a law restricting comic books that had the backing of both the Communist Party and the Church of England.

In the United States, comic books were still viewed more as objects of a subversive culture. Under government pressure, comic book publishers created a self-censorship organization in late 1954. Bland superheroes made a comeback, and the most successful publisher was Dell, which specialized in Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon characters. However, comic books were still considered to have a propaganda use value. Using Freedom of Information Act requests as well as the Library of Congress, Hirsch uncovered a 19-page document prepared by the CIA for use in the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan reformer Jacobo Árbenz, complete with storyboards illustrating a mode of political assassination—“in essence, a crime comic book.” There were also official titles like If an A-Bomb Falls and The H-Bomb and You, made for government civil defense agencies by Commercial Comics, a firm founded by Malcolm Ater in 1946.

 

Gee, all this coming from far-leftists who aren’t doing much to object to modern censorship and cancel culture, I see. They certainly aren’t protesting when conservatives find their work in jeopardy of the same. And while I don’t think it was good that censorship took hold at the time, I must still object to their terming of “blandness” to describe superheroes, considering I own some of that stuff myself in paperback/hardcover archives, and for its time, all those old DC/Marvel adventures were wonderful stuff, which I’m sure would’ve made waves even if censorship hadn’t occurred. By the way, do they know comics are still serving propaganda goals, far more for left-wing causes than ever before? Always strange they don’t want to discuss it from a modern perspective.

 

Having convincingly established Marvel’s anticommunist bona fides, Pulp Empire rests its case. Hirsch notes that gender roles and authority figures reverted to wartime norms. But he misses the cosmic camp quality and general trippiness of Marvel’s comics and how they were adjusting to the prevailing anti-war, pro-civil-rights sentiments of its student fan base, including an African American superhero with the Black Panther. In a sense, Marvel was scrambling to keep up: The counterculture had begun producing its own outrageous and, in the term of the day, “relevant” comic books. But Marvel was keeping up nonetheless.

 

At that time, anti-war movements or not, nobody denied communism was a concern. But today, it’s a whole different story, and you don’t usually see far-left scribes tackling the issue of communism seriously. And even if the war in ‘Nam was a fiasco, that doesn’t mean the definition of anti-war itself – which basically amounted to opposition to fighting just battles – is something to appreciate, and it wasn’t. As noted, Marvel took an anti-commie stance (and DC did too, even if theirs was more metaphorical), and if they hadn’t, their stories wouldn’t have had the impact they did. Yet today’s leftists simply won’t condemn communism convincingly, as Lee and company did in their time, which’ll prove part of Marvel’s undoing in the end.

 

By the 1970s, comic books had shifted in the pop culture firmament. As their readership declined, old comics became valuable collectibles while new ones (rebranded as graphic novels)—notably Maus and Watchmen—were recognized as a literary form. R. Crumb entered the high-art pantheon; younger artists like Gary Panter and Chris Ware were exhibited in art galleries and museums. Hollywood also began to recognize how comic books might serve its interests, and in the post–Star Wars new order, the movie industry recruited superheroes as blockbuster protagonists. By the late 1990s, in fact, superheroes appeared to be taking over the movies: As in the middle decades of the 20th century, our new superhero spectacles became the mask we wear in front of the mirror, but also in front of the rest of the world.

 

 

 

Hmm, I wonder how they feel now that Maus ran the gauntlet of being shunned by schools, as noted earlier? As for Watchmen, I’m sorry, but considering how pessimist its overall vision was, that’s why I just can’t appreciate it. Especially after DC began turning out needless followups with the cast of characters in the past several years, which actually diminishes whatever impact it had to begin with. As for Hollywood, all they “recognized” was dollar signs, not art that can make you think.

 

However monolithic, the Marvel/DC universe has addressed some of the racism and sexism of the past, with Black Panther and Wonder Woman as well as last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. There is even room for a smidgen of critical thinking: V for Vendetta was almost immediately adapted as an oppositional film; The Joker is a movie that turned superheroism on its head; and far more than the original comic, the TV version of Watchmen demands a new reading of American history. But how meaningful are these exceptions?

 

Here’s the problem: if they’re alluding to more recent publications from Marvel/DC, those brand new items don’t really address these issues well at all, because they go by political correctness and wokeness. Then again, they seem to be alluding to the movies, and WW84, if anything, “addressed” these subjects very poorly. And in hindsight, it’s honestly ludicrous a movie spotlighting a murderous villain like the Joker should be considered a big deal. No matter how much I appreciate Batman, this obsession with darkness has ruined everything. Especially when you consider how the emphasis on Batman comes at the expense of more elaborate science fiction ingredients, like what Superman offered years before. At the end:

 

Hirsch correctly acknowledges that comic books are now “secondary to the products they spawn”—movie franchises, video games, TV, and ancillary merchandise, not to mention fan culture. Another way to put it: The humble comic book is our cultural DNA. Thus, Pulp Empire ends more or less in medias res. Like any self-respecting superhero movie, it deserves a sequel.

 

I think not. Despite the accurate notation comicdom’s become 2nd to all the merchandise, it still sounds pretentious, and it’s better not to waste time on a sequel. Definitely not if the author won’t give a meaty description how Marvel/DC went down the PC drain since the turn of the century, and destroyed only so much coherency as they went along. There’s dozens of writers and artists these days whose work I cannot stand, some of whom came about by the turn of the century themselves, and have proven insufferable ever since. And it’s something would-be historians like Hirsch are unlikely to ever comment on in a future book.

 

Originally published here.


Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

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