I've been following the controversies around David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America (2008) with interest. I've always liked EC Comics, and I grew up accepting in toto the canonical fan narrative about the demise of EC: that a mid-'50s witch hunt headed by Dr. Fredric Wertham and senator Estes Kefauver drove EC out of the comics business. The Ten-Cent Plague is a detailed chronicle of these events, and the book sticks close to fan orthodoxy, characterizing Wertham as a priggish censor and Bill Gaines, the iconoclastic EC publisher brave (and foolhardy) enough to take on Kefauver's Senate Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, as a fallen hero.
I first started questioning this version of events in 2005, when Dr. Bart Beaty, an accomplished comics scholar and a good friend, asked if I would participate in a discussion on the Comics Reporter website about his book Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. (For anyone interested in our discussion, here you go; at the bottom of this first post are links to our later exchanges.)
Bart argues that Wertham was a liberal, moral man who make salient points about the trashiness of mid-'50s comics (EC and otherwise) and the comics' effects on their young readers. In Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture, Bart challenged the demonization of Wertham common among fans, and I found Bart's rehabilitation of Wertham pretty persuasive (as you can see by how much Bart and I agree during the Comics Reporter back-and-forth).
Dr. Fredric Wertham.
When The Ten-Cent Plague came out earlier this year, I was disturbed by the fact that although Bart's Mass Culture was in Hajdu's bibliography, I saw no evidence that Hajdu had tried to engage with Bart's evidence or arguments. Bart himself criticized Ten-Cent Plague in a series of posts carried on The Comics Reporter (one, two, three). There's also a good summary of the controversy by Jeet Heer on Slate, and a links-laden debate titled "Wertham: For and Against" on the Comics Journal message board.
One particular passage in Bart's third post on Ten-Cent Plague caught my attention. Bart claims that the EC staff, beset by censorship and economic pressures after the Senate hearings, turned to Wertham for help. Bart specifically invokes Al Feldstein, EC editor and writer, in this context, writing that "in January 1955, Al Feldstein spoke with Wertham's wife on the phone and then sent him some comic books. According to Wertham's notes, Feldstein and EC wished for Wertham to use his influence on behalf of the company. To do what is, unfortunately, not recorded for posterity, but the timeline coincides with the period where EC was having trouble with the Code administrators."
I wanted to learn more about this memo, so I contacted Al Feldstein directly. I'd been in touch with Feldstein for other reasons--I'm co-chairing a panel on his career(s) at this year's Heroes Con--so I sent him an e-mail asking him to respond to Bart's contention that EC turned to Wertham in its hour of need. Feldstein graciously (and copiously) replied, and gave me permission to post the reply on Thought Balloonists. I've kept the reply in e-mail format, so quotes from Beaty are followed by responses from Feldstein. The names of the participants are in red; quotes from Bart's Comics Reporter post are in blue; and Feldstein's replies are indented and in black. I've also added links where appropriate.
Beaty: "Ten-Cent Plague frames the anti-comics crusade largely as an effort to wipe out EC, with Hajdu dedicating a tremendous percentage of his text to that single publisher. The anti-EC crusade was a view long promulgated by [Bill] Gaines in interviews and in pro-EC fanzines, of which there were many, in the decades that followed the creation of the Comics Code. It is funny, therefore, not that Kurtzman and Wertham might agree on many points (and by no means all), but that EC was so aggressive in courting Wertham's aid."
Feldstein: "The fact that EC aggressively courted Wertham's aid is news to me. I was totally unaware of it...if it is true.
"Lyle Stuart was Bill Gaines' questionable choice for his Business Manager following the retirement of Frank D. Lee. Lyle and I never really got along. Lyle was a controlling, conniving person and from day one set about driving a wedge into Bill's and my close relationship and setting himself up between us, much to my regret.
"When the Kefauver Committee announced that it would be conducting hearings in New York City, I was subpoenaed to appear in closed session with members of its legal staff, and I did so. However, I was totally, almost violently, against, at Lyle's prodding, Bill Gaines's demand to publicly appear before the Committee in one of its televised sessions. I felt that it would be sheer suicide, walking into the lions' den with a half-baked defense of his freedom to publish horror and crime comics. And his subsequent crucifixion by Kefauver and the other members of the Committee bore me out."
[Photo of Lyle Stuart from Squa Tront #12.]
Beaty: "In May 1954, after the first two days of Senate hearings, Gaines' crony, Lyle Stuart, viciously smeared Wertham in the pages of Expose, only to recant four 'breaches of fact in a single sentence' in the next issue. Surely, Wertham threatened to sue? No, quite the contrary, he didn't even complain, seemingly dismissing Stuart's paper as a scurrilous rag."
Feldstein: "I was never responsible, nor did I approve of, most of the muck that Lyle Stuart published in his Expose newspaper."
Beaty: "Indeed, it was Stuart himself who apologized in June, and then, in August, contacted Wertham on behalf of a comic magazine publisher with an offer that would add to his income and prestige--as head of the Comics Code Authority. Of course, Wertham turned the offer down."
Feldstein: "This sounds absolutely ludicrous to me. In the first place, the Comics Code Authority was set up as an alternative to what Bill and I were proposing: the establishment of a Publishers' Association that would fund research and publicize alternate studies on the true effects of reading comic books and its contribution to the growing phenomenon of Juvenile Delinquency--by hiring respected authorities on the subject, such as the Gluecks of Harvard.
"When Bill Gaines called for the meeting of the Publishers to propose such an Association, he was soundly rebuffed and, instead, a proposal for a Comic Book Code Authority and a self-censoring, self-castrating Code was proposed and adopted, the contents of which literally forced EC out of business.
"Remember! There were many so-called 'respected' comic book publishers who had embarrassing skeletons in their closets, and wanted the public's attention to go away...and EC with them.
Beaty: "But this was not the end of the EC-Wertham connection. In November 1954, Stuart again contacted Wertham, this time leaking him comic book covers with the new Code seal and criticizing Code administrator Charles Murphy. Finally, in January 1955, Al Feldstein spoke with Wertham's wife on the phone and then sent him some comic books. According to Wertham's notes, Feldstein and EC wished for Wertham to use his influence on behalf of the company. To do what is, unfortunately, lost to posterity, but the timeline coincides with the period where EC was having trouble with the Code administrators."
Feldstein: "Here is where Mr. Beaty and I part company. I do not remember EVER phoning Mrs. Wertham. I did not, until today, even know that Dr. Wertham was married. I do not remember EVER sending her any comic books. I do not remember EVER requesting that Dr. Wertham intercede on EC's behalf concerning the outrageous scrutiny and intense censorship that we were suffering, attempting to get our New Direction line of comics titles through the Code.
"I have no personal version of the phone call I supposedly made to Mrs. Wertham, because I am certain that there never was one."
Beaty: "The story that Hajdu tells is EC vs. Wertham, but the reality is much murkier. EC saw in Wertham someone from whom they could at least seek aid (although he seemingly wanted nothing to do with them), and they continually sought his assistance. It's hardly the epic battle that latter day fans have made it out to be."
Feldstein: "As far as I am concerned, with the knowledge that I personally have, this is entirely untrue. I was NEVER aware of any continuing attempt on the part of EC to seek Dr. Wertham's assistance. Of course, I cannot attest to what Lyle and Bill might have been playing at behind my back while I was busy producing my New Direction titles, but I was certainly not made privy to it.
"My memory chips, at 82, are indeed rotting...so if there is any evidence of Mr. Beaty's claims, I would love to see it."
I want to thank Bart and Mr. Feldstein for their willingness to participate in this post, and if either of them (or any readers) have more to say about EC and Wertham, I'll be glad to feature the commentary on Thought Balloonists.