Thanksgiving Is Ruined
August 22, 2007
"Golden Age Comics: The Hidden Communist Agenda"
The above is the phantom subtitle I suspected
Which page? The page on which was printed the first few paragraphs of a new article by Paul Buhle, entitled, "The Left in American Comics: Rethinking the Visual Vernacular."
Here is an attention-grabbing bit from within the first few paragraphs:
[A] few generations ago, the Popular Front not only coincided with most of the Golden Age of comics; it also influenced some of the field's finest minds and pens. . . .
Then, this bit leapt off the page:
[B]y the middle 1950s, [comic book artists] faced Congressional investigations with an unmistakable similarity to the political witchhunts of the day. . . .
1950's USA government investigation of Communists.
1950's USA government investigation of comic books.
Why had I never before seen anyone attempt to connect these two narrative threads?
-To attempt it in a rigorous way, that went below the surface of both projects, beyond a glib, safe, lazy, jaded explanation of, "Oh, everybody simply was repressed back then" or "Oh, 'paranoia' explains it all. Duh. Yawn. Next topic, please."
[For, even if so, what, then, explains the paranoia?
When one (i.e., Buhle) investigates the connection, what is to be found?
Did the Congressional investigators think that comic books of the era had something "Communist" about them? Or that comics are somehow a politically dangerous medium in general?
Moreover, after reading Buhle's first few paragraphs, part of my brain asked a different part of my brain:
Did the history of American comics through mid-20th century contain a politically subversive tradition, one detected by government officials of that time but now lost and forgotten, that Buhle's article will try to exavate and reclaim?
This post will inflict on the reader none of its proposed answers to those questions. But it will report that Buhle's article includes, along its way, some fun and interesting facts about the history of comics.
Harvey Kurtzman told me that during his own teen years, he did backgrounds for the "Daily Worker"'s "Little Lefty."
In its prewar beginnings, the iconic Superman was depicted as caped crusader against war-makers and swindling capitalists.
Through good and bad years, "Classics [Illustrated]" soldiered on. A talented and progressive editor, Roberta Strauss, took over in 1960, meanwhile publishing under her married name, Roberta Feuerlicht, scholarly works on the Palmer Raids, the McCarthy Era, Sacco and Vanzetti, and finally, "The Fate of the Jews: A People Torn Between Israeli Power and Jewish Ethics."
UPA . . . planned (with Yip Harburg) a version of the anti-racist stage hit, "Finian's Rainbow."
Someone might better have me ask:Why should anyone care about any of this?
But to get back to those 50s-era "political witchhunts" in the USA: Why did they encompass both comic books and alleged Communists?
I have no idea. Buhle doesn't exactly explain it.
However, I do know that to wonder about these questions provides a flimsy excuse to look at various webpages. Nothing matters more in the TiR worldview.
For some reason, many of the webpages thereby dredged up seem to connect to:
themes that, some might say, reflect a possibly slavish, insufficiently critical adherence to the propaganda model of media operations;
For example, let's suppose that you start in a natural place, with the March 1955 "Kefauver report" of the Congressional subcommittee that investigated comics. A copy of the report is here.
The report solemnly recites the industry's previous attempts at "self regulation," via the Code of the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. The very first principle in the ACMP's 1948 Code mandated:
Police-men, judges, Government officials, and respected institutions should not be portrayed as stupid or ineffective, or represented in such a way as to weaken respect for established authority.
Guess that kinda would have yanked the page from Action Comics # 1, linked to above, huh?
So, Congressional discomfort about the political content of comics seems to have been somehow lurking around in there, from the get-go.
But why might Congress have thought that comics needed to be cleaned up, as a broader political matter?
Some nice sources that set the historical context and explain the supposed need for the subcommittee's hearings and report are here (about the "crusade against comics") and here (about the the comics code).
However, you don't nose around the topic too long before you get an inkling of the great extent to which the subcommittee relied on social science data to make its anti-comics case. Congress claimed to be afraid of a coming generation populated not by political leftists, but by juvenile delinquents.
Chiefly, you run into the name of psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham. He wrote Seduction of the Innocent (1954). The subcommittee report praises him as the "leading crusader against comics." A good profile of Wertham's career, with emphasis on his anti-comics campaign, is here. A transcript of his April 1954 hearing testimony is here.
["Interestingly"?!Wertham played a part also in the saga of the 1954 US Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. One of his articles was taken as evidence pertaining to social sciences and psychology-related factual issues.
An eventual result of Wertham's Brown input, I suppose, was the "famous" footnote 11, that the Supreme Court used to help support the correctness and bolster the legitimacy of its decision. The footnote, or at least the social science arguments it contained, would later be attacked by Justice Clarence Thomas.
One could imagine that Wertham's Brown-related contributions did a lot more for the overall social well-being and mental advancement of the USA's children then did his anti-comics crusade. But who am I to say?
So to return to the supposed, overarching topic here:
While the subcommittee's anti-comics report shows Congress to have found the field of government-approved, Cold War-era social science quite useful in condemning such dangerous comics titles as "Dead End Kids of Space" (on-line here) and "Backlashes? Try Educating Your Thumb" (about the evils of baitcasting?) what connects such a methodology with anti-Communism?
One way to answer this question, I imagine, would be to close the loop of pointless pedantry and link to a couple sources that allude to the "annexation" of the social sciences field for the crusade against Communism, sources like this (.pdf) and this one. Insertion of these links would intend to show how the emerging social sciences were being used by the state to interrogate new villains before the court of public opinion, scare the masses, and strengthen state "Power."
But, man, that would be boring.
Here, then, is another possible answer from a different, maybe less boring, more entertaining angle.
Perhaps what both sets of hearings had in common was government concern for the correct use of propaganda. Maybe the Congress's assumption was that, in the modern era of mass communications, because it was inevitable that propaganda will always be coming from somewhere, the government had the job of controlling it, to ensure that it came only from the Good Guys.
So, while, on the one side, Hoover ominously schooled HUAC in 1947 about the "communist propaganda technique," on the other side, maybe somebody in Congress fully had realized, within the first several years of the Cold War, the darn good propaganda vehicle that is the modern American comic book.
How "darn good"?
Lots of entertaining websites exist, to explore the entertaining brilliance of propaganda comics. Ethan Persoff's is probably the best. A nice survey of CIA propaganda comics is here. A fun, general article on the social influence of comics throughout the 20th century is here. And who can forget the awesome product of this guy?
Next, here's yet another, more roundabout approach that could connect the Congressional attacks on comics and commies.
Consider the career of the subcommittee's chairperson, Estes Kefauver. To do so opens up an opportunity to wonder about ("wonder about" means, as always at TiR, nothing more than "surf webpages related to") Cold War-era USA politicians' increasing skill at using television to try to shape public opinion.
A nice capsule bio of Kefauver is here. Discussion of his role and savvy in injecting the exploitation of TV technology into the political discourse of the McCarthy era is here. A look at the smashing televisual success of his March, 1951 organized crime hearings is here (.pdf). Hearing transcripts are here and here. Kefauver's hearings won two Emmy awards in 1952.
Kefauver appears to have let loose on the USA's public the phenomena of the televised political hearing.
Roll the tape forward a couple years, to spring 1954, and you get to the Army-McCarthy hearings. By then, we can see the form of the televised, American political hearing as we know it today start to settle into shape.
So the connection is that "Congressional hearings" equaled "good TV ratings"? Cute. Maybe. But, if that's the connection, it continues to feel too glib, pat and simplistic.
So, here's the same connection looked at after the shift to another, different, more abstract (thus perhaps "stupider") mental angle:
Maybe the link that connected the crusades against comic books and Communism was that both sprang from the same subterranean root: an increasing theatricalization of American politics.
Maybe both sets of hearings exemplify the formation of a national habit to think of social or political problems in terms absorbed from Hollywood (through which the paranoia about Commies of course had already swept)(Buhle has looked into that territory already) or from modern melodrama (with its caricaturized cinematic cartoon villain prerequisite).
We're tempted to take a quick side glance at some of the career of Arkansas Representative Oren Harris. During the 1950s, Harris led various Congressional hearings about aspects of mass media. His handiwork included hearings about violence on television (1952); TV quiz shows (1959); and radio payola (1959-60).
In other words, during the first fifteen years or so after WWII, the American public, stoked by various Congresscritters who sought to distinguish themselves from the pack, participated in a collective freakout about just about every form of mass media, including movies, TV, comic books, phonograph records, radio and newspapers.
On some level, was the paranoia about mass media? Or about how corporate, mass communications media were evolving? Or rooted in an obsession with mass media's increasing influence? An obsession pursued through --and dependent upon -- vehicles that extended that same media's reach and influence?
Gee, in some ways that sounds pretty nebulous and non-reality based. Like everybody's anxieties in the mid-century USA went no deeper than concern about media analysis, public relations and managing perceptions? I don't think so.
So, to shift registers again and attempt to view the question from only one possible, related but different and hopefully more concrete angle:
Prof. Steven F. Lawson wrote a fascinating 2002 paper (readable here (.pdf)), in which he sketches how another pervasive, post-war American anxiety recurred, never more than a degree or two of separation away, from the campaigns waged in the 50s by Kefauver, McCarthy, Harris, Eastland and even a young JFK: race. The title is "Race, Rock and Roll, and the Rigged Society: The Payola Scandal and the Political Culture of the 1950s."
However, none of the various hearings had, as their stated subject matter any one topic, e.g., "race relations." The purported areas of substantive concern were different. What, then, connected Congress's seemingly divergent projects?
A similarity appears if we refocus the emphasis on form and process rather than "content" (i.e., the "how" of the hearings rather than the "what," as if those are ever cleanly separable):
Here's Philip Roth's take:
McCarthyism [was] the beginning not just of serious politics but of serious everything as entertainment to amuse the mass audience. . . .
Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications goes so far as to describe the McCarthy hearings in terms appropriate for a newly emerging type of theatrical drama created for broadcast, as the "genre prototype for sheer theatricality and narrative unity."
In other words, the various Congressional hearings' lack of connective substance -- indeed, their possible lack of any substance, below the dramatic, telegenic surface -- might be just what connects them, somehow. But how?
Thus, a final, possible connective theme: the "show trial."
Roth, above, mentions the "show-trial aspect" of McCarthy's crusade. The show trial aspect of the Kefauver hearings has been flagged by Prof. David Park, in his 2002 paper, "The Kefauver Comic Book Hearings as Show Trial." Park seems to describes Kefauver's hearing/crusade as a "show trial" because it was one of those proceedings with "an almost predetermined outcome. . . [that] follow a script that has certain circumscribed roles for each part in the drama."
But what makes something a "show trial"?
"Show trial" is a pretty popular term, these days especially. For example, Saddam Hussein's trial was called by many (including his legal team) a "show trial." A recent article by Jeremy Peterson does an exhaustive analysis of Saddam's trial from the "show" angle, here. Saddam's "show trial" came a couple decades after the show trials he apparently presided over himself.
The American White House, meanwhile, seems lately often to feel that it is the helpless, powerless victim of "show trials" perpetrated by one of its coequal branches of government (see examples of use of such language by the White House here, here and here).
What, then, exactly is a "show trial"? Can the question be answered by an attempt to go back to its genesis and figure out the historical origin of the show trial? Yes and no.
Unfortunately, the OED does not give us its opinion of when the phrase "show trial" first appeared.
As for the phenomenon itself, its date of birth gets earlier every time you look at or think about it.
Many agree that it was invented in 1937, under Stalin.
Or did Lenin invent it, in 1922?
Or was it invented in 1825, and used on the Decembrists?
Or invented by Catherine II, around 1790?
Or Peter the Great, in 1718?
Well, at least everyone can agree that the "show trial" was invented in Russia, right?
Not exactly. One source that claims such trials happened during the French Revolution (in late 1793) is here.
But were these French revolutionary "show trials" or merely public trials? One point of them seemed to have been to establish a sharp break with the practice of the secret trial, which got reimposed after Thermidor.
A definitional problem could be that a juridical event that some people (usually the accused?) perceive as a "show trial" is perceived as others as being simple "democracy." Indeed, some professedly democratic legal systems apparently consider the right to public trial to be a thing not to be sneezed at. It goes back quite a long way in the Western tradition.
Maybe we could even trace some central aspects of the practice and rituals of the public trial back to the Illiad. Some passages there sound like they could be interpreted to reduce the "judge" to the role of mere applause meter. The judge was the guy who determined whom of the litigants had more support in the public crowd or mob before which the dispute was aired.
But the modern era's agora happens on television, or maybe the internet. The very concept of the "applause meter" comes to us through the TV game show.
So where's the line between a public trial and a show trial -- or its modern variant, the media spectacle?
Abner Mikva has some thoughts on that, here. He writes as if he has clear answers on where the line exists. But this blog is not so sure. Such certainty would remove opportunities aimlessly to surf the internet.
Or does this pointless, overlong blog post's coy hesitancy to act like it knows how to distinguish anymore between
democracy and demagoguery;merely reflect that TiR lives in an age when rhetoric seeks to gobble up both logic and grammar, its two neighbors in the trivium, in a way that bears "an unmistakable similarity" (in Buhle's phrase) to behavior that one might expect to see from a voracious, out-of-control Unitary Executive in a government system that also, theoretically, has three branches?
The last words here on Buhle & comics will come from a review by him of a Harvey Pekar book, here, and interviews with him, here and here.
In the latter interview, he says:
I think my heart belongs now to comics.