The charges that Fredric Wertham made in 1954’s Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth — that a relationship existed between comics reading and “violent forms of juvenile delinquency” — didn’t materialize out of thin air. The oft-vilified German-born American psychiatrist gets a lot of credit for a censorship campaign that had legs long before his articles and book were pinned to it. Critics and clergymen were blasting all kinds of comics as “objectionable” for years, singling out depictions of gun violence, gore, and a broad range of fare they deemed offensive. Church bulletins and hyperbolic magazine features laid the groundwork for a national panic over comics, but the war on the medium gained steam in postwar America, just as some comics became increasingly violent and grim.
“The debate over comic books hopped from the back of the newspaper to the front, section by section — from the book reviews and religious columns to the ‘women’s’ department to the hard-news pages,” writes David Hadju in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. Ordinances criminalized newsstand comics sales in the late 1940s in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and more. “Comic Books Banned in Detroit as ‘Corrupting’” blared a headline in The Washington Post in 1948, when somewhere between 80 and 100 million comics were being sold monthly.
Wertham scored a seat before the Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency in April 1954. When governmental regulation loomed, the self-regulatory Comics Code Authority emerged that fall. A problematic and sweeping set of vanilla rules instituted to police comics’ subject matter and art, the Code sank publishers and killed off the kind of crime and horror books for which readers crowded newsstands. Hadju reports that by the early “pre-Code” 1950s, horror comics in particular had grown “ever more gruesome and lurid.” And they were everywhere.
“By the end of 1952,” he writes, “nearly one-third of all the comics on the newsstands were devoted to the macabre.”
Swamp creatures and animated but still-rotting corpses swarm the 40 stories collected in the new edition of Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, a survey of grisly pre-Code comics that hasn’t been in circulation since 2011. While reprints of the prestigious and oft-imitated EC Comics titles over the years have cemented a sterling reputation for series like Tales from the Crypt, scholars Greg Sadowski and John Benson mine less-well-known ten-cent anthologies like Black Magic, Weird Adventures, and more, heralding a time when cheap four-color printing processes meant that an easily reproducible palette would be manufactured from hand-separated colors. These comics feel like dessert, and they should. Benson, an EC aficionado with his own fanzine to prove it, suggests we make-believe we’re adolescents of the era, “reading these stories slowly to savor every chilling moment.”
Yarns excerpted from Beware Terror Tales and others will read like nonsense to most folk. Their smudgy aesthetic will confound today’s devotees of Marvel’s digitally polished relaunches, too, while racist caricatures like the brown-skinned people and Haitian “voodoo” in 1952’s “Drum of Doom” haven’t aged well, either. But for every predictable zombie plot, there is a hallucinatory murder mystery like “Colorama,” penciled by artist Bob Powell in 1953.
Authored by Harvey Comics editor and admitted EC fan Sid Jacobson (who reportedly directed Chamber of Chills artist Howard Nostrand to just “copy” the work of EC’s illustrators), “Colorama” has Powell playing generously with perspective and color. The direction is clever for a disorienting first-person narrative about a colorblind killer, in which the cosmic swirls representing his protagonist’s blurred vision bump up against Powell’s realist urban backdrops and assured landscape drawing. Elsewhere, MAD cartoonist Basil Wolverton, whose absurdist productions had a clear impact on underground comix artists, crafts nasty bald-headed gargoyles for Weird Tales of the Future, their leathery olive-green skin flecked with innumerable short dashes that lend a convincing illusion of ripples of movement.
Ludicrous storylines aside, Four Color Fear‘s selection and archival research add critical context to a fascinating age for comics in North America. Benson’s insights reveal that the book’s frequent nondescript Iger Studio credit (an outfit founded by Will Eisner and Samuel “Jerry” Iger) likely refers to the sole work of an editorial powerhouse named Ruth Roche, who cranked out horror scripts and lots more for the publisher. Roche’s framework subsequently went to pencilers and inkers like New Jersey–born artist Jay Disbrow.
In an interview with publisher Craig Yoe that prefaces Jay Disbrow’s Monster Invasion, Disbrow connects his comics career to a consumption of Sunday supplements as a kid and remembers tiring of commuting from Asbury Park into Manhattan for inking and penciling gigs at Iger in his 20s. After a year, Disbrow traded up for freelance assignments as a writer, artist, inker, and letterer of horror and romance for Star Publications editor Leonard “L.B.” Cole. Jay Disbrow’s Monster Invasion culls mostly from this pre-Code horror work, specifically the creature-centric stories he did for supernatural- and suspense-themed anthologies Ghostly Weird Stories, Blue Bolt Weird Tales of Terror, and more.
“Cole wanted ghost stories,” explains Disbrow of his Star comics tenure. “I said to him, ‘That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What we oughta be doing is monster stories!’”
There’s no supplementary material aside from the interview here, and unforgivable book design decisions give way to tacky fonts and fake blood splotches in the margins. But Jay Disbrow’s Monster Invasion adds weight to the legacy of an artist best known for “jungle comics,” science fiction such as The Flames of Gyro, and the gorgeous, full-color “syndicate-type” webcomic called Aroc of Zenith that he started in his 70s.
Like a lot of Golden Age creators, Disbrow could’ve used a watchful editor. Loads of copy swallows up word balloons and captions, and lines and lines of the artist’s hand-lettered text are given little room for legibility. His figure drawing needed practice, too. The often wooden movements and overlong, flat-looking limbs rendered his humans even less likely to succeed in battle with the monsters he loved to draw. But the inventive layouts, sinister terror, and wealth of beasts here are things of beauty.
Panels dart inward at strange angles in “A Stony Death,” allowing for worming gutters and the provocative inclusion of an odd center panel. “The Ghoul of the North,” like every creature here, is enormous amid puny mortals. Giant fanged ogres from “the bowels of the earth” terrorize a novelist in “The Insider,” while a red-eyed specter towers over his prey in “The Unknown Presence.” Cinematic shadows blanket caverns and crime scenes, and action bursts out from under audacious type in title-page headers as graphic design and vintage movie posters figure into these pages as frequently as Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon strips do. Disbrow’s action sequences are explosive, with hulking abominations reaching out from the back corner of a panel toward a helpless character in the foreground. All of your pre-Code goods are here: blood and guns and tentacles and stranglings and hell demons.
And then … nothing.
Fredric Wertham took aim at Star’s Spook and more in his book, and the company shuttered shortly after the Senate Subcommittee hearings on comics. In Disbrow’s talk with Yoe, he recalls the “comic book crash of 1954,” owing to the good Christians who gathered around bonfires to torch comics in Wisconsin and New York, and the tarring of publishers as Communists and smut peddlers. Although University of Illinois professor Carol Tilley would find that Wertham’s “research” relied on omissions and manipulated data, the campaign to censor comics took a terrible toll on the industry. Awash in publicity, the hearings and resulting Comics Code effectively crippled then-thriving studios. Publishers killed titles deemed disagreeable and sent their staff home. There were other factors, but suddenly, hundreds of comics professionals in the late 1950s would never work in the medium again.
“Unlike their rough counterparts in the Red Scare, the artists and writers caught up in the comic-book controversy were never charged with espionage, treason, contempt of Congress or court, or obstruction of justice,” writes Hadju in The Ten-Cent Plague. “What they did was tell outrageous stories in cartoon pictures, a fact that makes their struggle and their downfall all the more strange and sad.”
Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s is available from by Fantagraphics Books. Jay Disbrow’s Monster Invasion is available from Yoe Books.