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“Pass them over, I should like to read some horror comics.”—Winston Churchill

In a June 1952 comic strip, Charlie Brown peruses a comic-book rack overflowing with minimalist titles such as “HATE,” “STAB,” “CHOKE,” “GOUGE,” “SLASH,” and “KILL.” Blast Comics features a mushroom cloud on the cover. He flings his arms wide before this drugstore altar, labeled “For the Kiddies,” and exclaims, “What a beautiful gory layout!” Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts newspaper strip was spotlighting a growing national obsession: the influence of violent and titillating comic books on impressionable youth.

Colorful and direct, comic books originated in the mid-1930s as reprints of newspaper strips, then quickly evolved into original adventure and superhero stories that became all the rage with America’s children. Some adults viewed them the way harried parents see video games now—something to keep the kids out of their hair for hours on end, and certainly the Peanuts gang lazed away many an afternoon hunched over comic magazines. Other grownups, however, saw such fantastical characters as Superman, Captain Marvel, the Human Torch, and Wonder Woman as nothing more than salacious trash. As early as 1940 Sterling North, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, was editorializing that comics were “Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed—a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems—the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil the child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.”

"Teen-Age Dope Slaves" from 1952, featuring Rex Morgan, M.D..

Publishers however understood that there was gold in that acidic pulp and those four-color inks. During World War II, comic books sold upwards of a billion copies annually, both on the home front and in military PXs. After the war editors scrambled to continue attracting readers, including returning GIs, who were no longer interested in muscle-bound beings flying around in long underwear. Some publications predictably headed downmarket, featuring women wearing no more than lingerie, often accessorized with tightly cinched ropes. Adults who had deplored superheroes were now doubly outraged by the growing number of crime and horror titles. (A few even organized comic-book burnings—in a 1948 photo, children in Binghamton, New York, can be seen laughing as they pile up comics for a bonfire.) The November 1953 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal included an article by Dr. Fredric Wertham, which asked the question, “Do Comics Create Child Criminals?” A New York City psychiatrist, Wertham (1895–1981) had grown concerned over the effects comics had on children he saw in his practice. In 1954 he gathered his research into a 400-page polemic, Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed the bulk of America’s social ills on comic books. The book is filled with observation of various genres, such as one that Wertham claimed adolescent boys called “headlight comics,” which specialized in “highly accentuated and protruding breasts in practically every illustration.” With such assertions, Wertham’s minor bestseller came close to destroying the comic-book industry.

The November 1953 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, with Dr. Fredric Wertham's article “Do Comics Create Child Criminals?”

Among devoted fans, Seduction can still trigger the incoherent outrage torch-bearing villagers felt toward Frankenstein’s creation, and the book in fact has much in common with Shelley’s monster: clumsy and destructive, but also heartfelt and often misunderstood. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which warned of environmental calamity brought on by the overuse of pesticides, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, exposing the rapacious cruelties of turn-of-the-century meatpacking cartels, Seduction is the rare book that truly unleashed the power of the written word—a force that becomes most manifest in America when it hits business squarely on the bottom line.

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Protruding Breasts! Acidic Pulp! #*@&!$% Senators! McCarthyism! Commies! Crime! And Punishment!
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