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Bill Maher Draws a Blank on Comic Books

In the middle of November, pop/nerd culture suffered a devastating loss — Stan Lee, co-creator
of every popular Marvel superhero (save Captain America) and the most visible face of the
comics industry for decades, died at the age of 95.
Tributes poured out for the influential creator, and some even used Lee’s absence to proffer
nuanced looks at the more complicated parts of his legacy (namely, sexual harassment suits
and spars with fellow co-creators about credit).

However, in his fashion as one of America’s foremost provocateurs, Bill Maher took an indirect
shot at the legacy of Stan Lee in a short blog post titled “Adulting.”
Maher noted that the nation was in “ Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I
don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” He then quoted a Reddit post that expressed gratitude for
living in a world with Lee, and taking a page out of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s mistaking-pedantry-
for-wisdom book, said:

“Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own.
Now, I have nothing against comic books — I read them now and then when I was a kid and I
was all out of Hardy Boys. But the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the
kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books
without the pictures.”

Maher is right about something here. Comics have, since their inception, suffered from a
presumption that they were strictly kiddie fare — that children read comic books at a young age,
then move on to more, shall we say, respectable pursuits. However, that apparent slight
towards Lee’s legacy was not the part of Maher’s statement that earned him the most ire from
comic book fans and creators. His next paragraph read:

“But then twenty years or so ago, something happened — adults decided they didn’t have to give
up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. And
because America has over 4,500 colleges — which means we need more professors than we
have smart people — some dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like
Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer. And now when adults are forced to do grown-up
things like buy auto insurance, they call it “adulting,” and act like it’s some giant struggle. I’m not
saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he
was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda
musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch
to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are Commented [1]: Wow!
important.”

One side note: I do agree with Maher that the concept of “adulting,” especially among my
generation (millenials), is rather annoying. However, that’s beside the point, and has little to do
with the critique of comic book culture he offers.
It was Maher’s suggestion that comic books contributed to Donald Trump’s election and that
only “dumb people” cared about them that earned him the most ire.
Comics creators lambasted Maher on Twitter. Artist Greg Capullo called Maher a fool, Avengers
writer Kurt Busiek noted that Maher commented out of ignorance (assuming all comics were like
his childhood reading), and writer Gail Simone said:

“Here’s a thing, even if you don’t care about comics. @billmaher saw a mass of people grieving
and thought, ‘Hey, how can I make this about me?’
Probably all anyone needs to know, really.”

Maher’s criticisms of comic books and the individuals who read them aren’t novel, insightful, or
even recent. He’s just the latest in a long line of moralizers and cultural critics who’ve ascribed
various faults in American society to the pedestrian, easily-mockable comic book.

On this point, Maher’s gross ignorance is at least understandable, if not forgivable. He wasn’t
born until 1956, as the most inflammatory criticism of American comic books was dying down.
The comic books Maher would have read as a child in the early 1960s would have been
extremely sanitized by the Comics Code Authority, which came into existence in 1954 as a
result of two massive outcries against comic books during the 1940s and 1950s.

It was this movement to regulate the content of comic books that resulted in the stigmatizing of
comic books as strictly children’s fare. In fact, as late as 1989, a revision of the Comics Code Commented [2]: This seems reminiscent of the
stated that the code’s formation was in the interest of the public, which “…deserved decent and voluntary self policing of film (Hays Code, MPAA
ratings) and TV (the inscrutable codes assigned to
wholesome comic books as entertainment for children. . .that comics carrying the Comics Code shows that almost no one pays attention to) – the
Seal be ones that a parent can purchase with confidence that the contents uphold basic industry preempting regulation by complying with the
dictates of a moral panic
American moral and cultural values.” The comics industry, like the film industry before it and the
music and video game industries after it, self-regulated in response to moral outcries that Commented [3]: Indeed--that's the precise reason all
of those industries self-policed. The film industry was
threatened the advancing of federal legislation. first, followed by comics, then later music and video
games.
Since the direct market (that is, specialty comics stores) did not become prominent until the Commented [4]: ALTHOUGH, the TV rating system is
1970s, the Comics Code was designed with two factors in mind — public viewing (comics were the only one done by a public body (the FCC). All
others are private.
typically sold in drug stores or newsstands), and parental direction of child consumption. To
receive the Comics Code’s famous seal of approval, the book, its stories, and advertisements
had to meet the strict moral guidelines of the Comics Code. No parents would dare touch a
book that did not carry the seal of approval.

The more adult horror and crime comics, typified by Bill Gaines’ EC Comics, were eliminated
entirely by the code as well as a 1955 New York state law that banned the sale of comics
deemed violent to those under 18 that further crippled the already languishing industry.
Therefore, the stories that flourished in the code era were already kid-friendly (Dell, Gold Key
and Harvey Comics all secured comic rights to various cartoon properties--Disney, Hanna-
Barbera and others)), or were established series that drastically altered their editorial content,
becoming what comics scholar Bradford W. Wright termed “inoffensive juvenile fantasy.”
As previously mentioned, Maher’s criticism was just the latest in a long line of commentators
blaming print culture for undesirable changes in the body politic. This train of comic criticism
stretches back to the early 1900s, when poet Ralph Bergengren took to the pages of the August
1909 issue of Atlantic Monthly to complain that Sunday comic strips (known then as comic
supplements) were causing the moral degradation of the nation’s youth. Bergengren lamented
the crass urban violence of comic strips by artists like R.F. Outcault, saying “Respect for
property, respect for parents, for law, for decency, for truth, for beauty, for kindliness, for dignity,
or for honor, are killed, without mercy.” Bergengren also suggested that comics editors “be
given a course in art, literature, common sense, and Christianity.” The first major modern moral
panic concerning print material focused on pulp novels and “penny dreadfuls” during the 1870s.
This campaign was led by famed moral entrepreneur Anthony Comstock (namesake of the
Comstock Act, which Margaret Sanger was prosecuted under for distributing birth control
literature), who warned of the deleterious effects of these pamphlets on children in his book
“Traps for the Young.”

During the Depression, these concerns shifted to movies, resulting in the introduction of the
Hays Code in 1930. Comic books themselves debuted in the mid-1930s withuntil 1940. In May
of that year, children’s author Sterling North (Rascal is his most famous creation) wrote a
vicious editorial in the Chicago Daily News that ignited the first phase of what I refer to in my
research as the anti-comics movement. The first major critique of comic books, which debuted
in the mid-to-late 1930s, North’s article mixed professional frustration with moralizing
vituperation.

“Virtually every child in America,” wrote North, “is reading color “comic” magazines — a
poisonous mushroom growth of the last two years. Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials
are sold every month. One million dollars are taken from the pockets of America’s children in
exchange for graphic insanity.”
Though North’s comments about the makeup of some comic books were not inaccurate in an
abstract sense, the specter of children reading violent, sexual comic books was largely
fabricated.

Nevertheless, North’s article received resounding praise. The Journal of Childhood Education
reprinted North’s article in their January 1941 issue, ensuring that his message reached both
scholarly and popular audiences. North’s article set off waves in the academic community, and
educational journals began publishing articles about children’s interest in comics as well as
more advanced psychological studies of comic reading in the years that followed. The comic
book industry also scrambled to recover its image in the wake of North’s critique, fomenting (the
appearance of) editorial boards and standards for story publication. These guides were, at best,
sparsely implemented, but the industry could now direct their critics to their paid experts.

In the same vein of the earlier criticisms of comics, the early anti-comics movement abated with
the onset of World War II — pushed away further by a scholarly consensus that reading comic
books was not harmful to children, so long as comics supplemented other reading. Comic books
also played a protracted role in World War II, serving as cheap, accessible entertainment at
home, propaganda receptacles for the government, and the favored reading material of
servicemen stationed overseas.
As the war wound down, Americans grew tired of fighting, and by extension superhero comics.
By 1950, any superhero comic that was not the main anthology or solo series (think Batman,
Superman, Wonder Woman) of National Comics (later to become DC) was cancelled. Due to
this downturn in superhero sales, companies began to take a domestic turn in their editorial
content, focusing more on crime, love, and western stories. These stories took on a more
mature and violent tone, and moral critics in the country blinked.

In 1948, Dr. Fredric Wertham, a progressive New York psychiatrist wrote an article in the
Saturday Review of Literature titled “The Comics…Very Funny!” that accused comics of
fostering juvenile delinquency. This would be the chief complaint of the second iteration of the
anti-comics movement, that comic books in general, but crime comic books especially served as
“blueprints for delinquency.” Wertham’s article, which “refuted” in 17 points views held by those
that did not oppose children’s reading of comics, gave a professionally-veneered, articulate, and
coherent explanation for juvenile misbehavior, supplemented by grotesque comic panels and
sensational anecdotes from urban youth that Wertham worked with at his Lafargue Clinic, a
Harlem-based psychiatric hospital that provided African Americans with low-cost psychiatric
services when they were barred from most psychiatric hospitals due to racism.

Commented [5]: Free speech/1a seems like a big


thing looming in the background here – isn’t this the
time when stuff like “Howl” was subject to obscenity
trial and yet porn (like Playboy) was gradually gaining
acceptance? Schlosser’s book Reefer Madness
comes to mind
Commented [6]: Howl's trial came in 1957, after the
close of the anti-comics movement. I argue (in my
research) that the anti-obscenity/anti-porn movement
directly followed this one.

Wertham reproduced the leftmost panel in “The Comics…Very Funny!”, and it became an As far as 1A is concerned, the chief argument by the
infamous representation of the violent turn in comic books. From “Murder, Morphine and Me”, anti-comics campaigners (and some government
officials, although I cannot recall the case) was that the
True Crime Comics #2. Art by Jack Cole. matter concerned public health and was more than a
First Amendment question.
With Wertham’s article in tow, demonstrating an apparent shift in psychiatric consensus, the Although, comics did possess some legal precedent
anti-comics movement slowly began to percolate through the early 1950s. A committee led by where films did not. In 1910, Mutual v. Ohio ruled
reactionary Arkansas House Representative Ezekiel Gathings in 1952 recommended that the unanimously that 1A did not apply to motion pictures,
but a 1948 NY Supreme Court case, Winters v. New
government censor obscene publications like comic books, but vehement internal dissent from York ruled that a statute that forbade the publication of
lewd and violent material violated 1A
members of the committee hampered any serious attempts at regulation. Local ordinances
regarding crime comic books became more prominent in 1948 and 1949, but Gathings’
committee represented the first time government put its rhetorical weight into investigating
comic books. Unlike films before them, comics did possess some legal precedent against
federal regulation where films did not (Mutual v. Industrial Commission of Ohio ruled
unanimously that the First Amendment did not apply to motion pictures), but a 1948 New York
Supreme Court case, Winters v. New York ruled that a statute that forbade the publication of
lewd and violent material violated the First Amendment.

By the mid-1950s, critics of comic books, reflecting the gnawing anxiety of the domestic Cold
War, began to assert that “crime” comic books (which became a catchall for any comic) were
not just turning children into juvenile delinquents, but serving as communist propaganda to
control the nation’s youth by undermining their morals. Groups like the American Legion,
National Organization for Decent Literature, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI especially pushed this
line of thinking.

With this increased attention, the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency
convened in April and June 1954 to assess the question of comic books and juvenile crime. The
committee called dozens of witnesses ranging from child psychiatrists to industry personnel and
writers, and eventually concluded that questions of comics’ exacerbating influence on juvenile
delinquency could not be answered so succinctly. However, the hearings remain known for a
confrontation between Fredric Wertham, publisher Bill Gaines, and Senator Estes Kefauver that
comics historians posit as the impetus for the formation of the Comics Code.

Wertham, in his provocative mode, accused the comics industry of blatantly peddling racial
stereotypes and violence, noting infamously that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic
book industry.” Wertham’s statement, in the typical hyperbolic mode of anti-comics critics,
enraged Bill Gaines, self-described inventor of the horror comic (he published Tales from the
Crypt and other ghastly iterations), and he succeeded Wertham on the witness stand. After chief
counsel Herbert Beaser inquired of Gaines what his boundaries when deciding on cover art
were, and Gaines replying with anything “…within the bounds of [Gaines’ own] good taste”,
Senator Estes Kefauver and Gaines had the following exchange:

KEFAUVER: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a
woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
GAINES: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might
be defined as holding a head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it
and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be
bloody.
KEFAUVER: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
GAINES. A little.
KEFAUVER. Here is blood on the ax. I think most adults are shocked by that.
The infamous cover of Crime Suspenstories #27 that Estes Kefauver interrogated Gaines over.

Industry veterans Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, watching the proceedings live elsewhere in the
city, were flabbergasted. Simon recalled yelling “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” at the monochrome
Gaines, fearing somewhat correctly that Gaines had just sunk the comics industry by appearing
indifferent to the potential for children to see graphic images on comic book covers.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Comics Magazine Association of America formed shortly
after the comic book hearings, with Gaines initially at the helm. He would later recall how the
larger companies in the CMAA forced him out and designed the Comics Code to spite Gaines, Commented [7]: Isn’t it worth noting that this was
banning the words “horror” and “terror,” among others, from comic book covers. The code went happening in a context of a broader concern about
into effect in September 1954, and the furor over comic books (and the moral panic over juvenile delinquency in the 1950s, e.g. Blackboard
Jungle, etc?
juvenile delinquency that underwrote much comic book criticism) faded rapidly, leading to a
Commented [8]: It's interesting to note that the anti-
considerable amount of retroactive scholarship (mostly legal) on the movement during 1956 and comics movement and JD moral panic had extremely
1957. similar timelines. Percolated from 1948 to 1953,
exploded in 1954 and faded rapidly after. James Gilbert
makes that argument (minus references to comics) in
The code remained officially active until 2011, when DC and Bongo Comics abandoned it. his book A Cycle of Outrage.
However, with the rise of underground “comix,” the direct market, “mature reader” imprints, Commented [9]: It seems like the rise of the “graphic
decidedly adult graphic novels like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight novel” as a genre during this time is also significant. As
Returns, and anti-drug PSAs by Stan Lee himself that challenged the power of the Code, the well as Gaiman’s winning of a big sci fi or fantasy
award (Hugo? Can’t remember) that got novelists in a
Comics Code saw itself effectively neutered after the 1970s as the industry retooled old heroes fix
and provided more mature plotlines to appeal to more adult fans. Commented [10]: The works I referred to were graphic
novels, which I have made more clear. I'm not familiar
with any controversy surrounding Gaiman.
More interesting, perhaps, is reporting from comics industry blog Newsarama, which speculated
(and then confirmed) that the CCA truly went defunct in 2009 and comics publishers used the
seal arbitrarily. A staffer at the management firm that owned the CMAA performed the judging
for free, citing an admiration for the CCA’s original mission.

So, here at the end we come back to Bill Maher. As the reader can see, Maher is by no means
the originator of the idea that comic books make people stupid, but Maher’s misguided
engagement with the idea of comic-inhibited American political development fuels the classist
liberal notion that poor ”stupid people” were to blame for Trump’s election (which polls
disprove). As with previous critics of comic books, he assumed that the only consumers of the
medium were children (EC Comics editor Al Feldstein offered a damning quote about Wertham
and Seduction of the Innocent that said EC’s intended audience were age 14 and up), and that
by extension American adults were caught up in childlike escapist fantasy. Maher’s contention
holds that a leisurely pastime associated with the urban poor is to blame for our current station.

Most offensive, perhaps, is his assertion that academic studies of comic books are illegitimate,
and that these people do not deserve their academic credentials. My entire graduate career
predicates itself on a historical analysis of the wildly emotional responses to the pedestrian
comic book. It uses perhaps the most uniquely American facet of print culture to ask penetrating
questions about the power of individuals and groups to decide morality in this country.

Sure, Maher can say that the outrage over his comments proves his point, if only in a 10th-
grade schoolyard manner. Likewise, Maher proves my points correctly — that criticism of cultural
mediums like this isn’t new or refreshing. It’s curmudgeonly, condescending, and wholly
inaccurate.

Evan R. Ash is a second year master’s student in history at Miami University. He


specializes in 20th century United States history with a special interest in the cultural
history of the early domestic Cold War.

His thesis, “Objectionable: The Cincinnati Committee for the Evaluation of Comics and
the American Anti-Comics Movement, 1940–1956” constructs a narrative of how a
Cincinnati comics regulation group decidedly influenced the national discussion over
kids and comics. He can be reached at asher@miamioh.edu and on Twitter
@evanthevoice.