Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books The Government Didn’t Want You To Read

EC Reader

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books
The Government Didn’t Want You To Read
by Jim Trombetta
Includes Bonus DVD
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0810955950

The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books The Government Didn’t Want You To Read is a wonderful book for all people interested in the history of censorship (and not just of comics... because the insidious grasp of the censors is felt in all media). It’s also a great look at some of the thematic trends which gave, primarily, the horror and crime comics a certain something which brought down the wrath of authority to the point where the majority of the material was banned. Of course, the terrible backlash against these things also gave rise to the famous Comics Code Authority stamp which any comic book fan reading between 1954 and the early 21st Century would be able to identify.

In terms of the creation of the code and the big scare in comic books at the time, the book is fairly light in terms of having too much detail but, frankly, most comic readers with any sense of history would already know what happened. When the Senate investigated the comics that kids were reading, inspired primarily of the quite questionable testimony of Fredric Wertham and his very skewed book about them, Seduction Of The Innocent, it was very nearly the death of comic books and, certainly, many people found themselves out of work and switching to other material following the consequences of this.

That being said, the writer does cover these issues here... well you’d need to because of the very significance of the event in relation to the subject covered... and well done to him for not painting Wertham in quite such the black hue that he might have. To his credit, along with the usual and fairly easy identification of why Wertham’s ‘testimony’ and ‘body of evidence’ that these things were having a nightmarish effect on the kids who were reading them is not worth the paper or devices it was recorded on, Jim Trombetta has been quite fair to the man, pointing out that all Wertham was really interested in was getting some kind of ratings system in place. Which isn’t a terrible idea actually... some of the covers and content of these things might be hard to get away with today, to be honest. Of course, once the wheels were set in motion, the Government cracked down big time and the comics were banned. The Comics Code was drawn up, to be enforced and adhered to by the industry itself.

Following on from Stan Lee’s request by the Government to do a story detailing the horror of drug addiction in Spider-Man in the late 1960s, and the Comics Code refusal to allow it despite the origins of why the three issue run was there in the first place. Marvel Comics ran it without the code and it certainly didn’t hurt sales. This paved the way for one of many relaxations of the code and I’m pretty sure that the famous, early 1970s run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics, where the two heroes teamed up and went on the road in stories tackling social issues of contemporary America, would never have come to light without Lee and Marvel standing up against the code like they did. I didn’t realise this until very recently but the last comic company to still be using the code dropped it in 2011 as new phrases like “suggested for mature readers” began to creep in over the past few decades. So without me even realising it, that little white stamp in the corner of a comic book which has been with me my whole life, has disappeared forever for all future publications.

However, this book is worth its weight in gold because, although it does cover some of that stuff, what it’s really about is looking at the various ‘unsavoury’ themes and iconic visuals which would crop up time and time again in various Horror, Crime and even Science Fiction comics. So there are lots of mini chapters on, say, the theme of Werewolvery or Eye Injury, for example, and the writer will then talk about occurrences of these things in various issues of the time period and also discuss variations of them. So he might start off the chapter on eye injury with references to people’s eyeballs coming under threat from all manner of horror such as red hot pokers. However, he will also look at situations where the eyes themselves, whether attached to a human or floating around of their own accord, would be the elements causing the threat or injury, such as shooting laser beams out of them and so forth. The gentleman writing has an interesting approach to the material and a writing style which will keep you ploughing through the text.

The really great thing, though, is that each chapter of this book, which is full colour on every page, after containing just one to three pages of standard text, will then have a number of pages devoted to full colour reproductions of some of the covers and also some full reprints of the stories themselves. Now this is outstanding at the best of times but what makes this volume so enticing to collectors, in addition to the casual readers like myself, is that a lot of the stuff in this book is reprinted for the first time since it was originally published... located and restored to the best of the ability of the writer and with as much information about the artists and writers (often unknown) that he could find out.

Although the notorious EC Comics with their famous titles such as Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear are certainly mentioned, the majority of this volume is made up from other competitors’ comic books, which have not been substantially reprinted like the EC material has been over the years. There’s some wonderful stuff in here which I’ve certainly never seen before and the very last story reprinted in the book has a final twist which... I really should have seen coming (because I kept noticing that damned monkey in the early panels) but I didn’t. As far as I’m concerned, that scores big brownie points with me.

Accompanying this excellent book is a 25 minute bonus DVD which is the full episode of the 1950s TV show Confidential Report, which in this one dealt with comic books and helped popularise the alarmist... and frankly absurdist, when you look at the way the material is shot and presented.... notion that comic books were doing people harm. You’ve probably seen excerpts from this TV special many times in documentaries about comic books over the years but this is the full thing and there was a lot of stuff in here I’d not seen before. I loved the way the soundtrack music makes the ‘fly on the wall’ footage of the ‘film within the documentary’ so alarmingly manipulative, pushing the agenda that comics are an evil force and a danger to your kids!

All in all, it’s a very attractive book with some beautiful reproductions of some wonderfully lurid covers and stories which were obviously part of a format that was brimming over with some nice ideas. The icing on the cake is that it’s well written and lovingly restored by Jim Trombetta, a Shakespearian scholar, no less, and he’s someone who obviously loves the material every bit as much as his intended audience. I have to say that this is a tome I’m proud to have on the book shelf and I would urge all fans of those specific 1950s comics to check this one out... especially since a lot of the stuff in this volume has never been reprinted before. Don’t miss out on this one... or it may slither up from whence it came and haunt you in the night.

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