Review: 'Comic Books and the Cold War: Essays on the Graphic Treatment of Communism, the Code and Social Concerns 1946 to 1962'

A book review article by: Eric Hoffman

Chris and Rafiel York's volume of essays Comic Books and the Cold War aims to fill a critical gap in scholarly treatment of post-Second World War "containment" (Cold War, anti-Soviet) era comics.  In their preface, the Yorks admit that due to comics "being relatively new in the world of academia," this largely transitional period in North American comics has, aside from general historical overviews – including, most notably, David Hajdu's The Ten Cent Plague, Amy Kiste Nyberg's Seal of Approval and Bradford Wright's Comic Book Nation – been somewhat overlooked.


Indeed, as the Yorks point out in their introduction, much of the product of this era indirectly resulted from a different type of containment: namely, the paranoia-infused spectre of Soviet infiltration and concomitant distrust of American youth. Comics – primarily the horror and crime-themed comics published by EC, but even superhero comics and other genres – were regarded by many 1950s moral gatekeepers as an unwelcome, immoral, pernicious, and destructive force among children and teenagers; just the sort of conspiratorial social engineering one might expect of Communist (read: Jewish) saboteurs. Indeed, many writers, artists and publishers in those days were Jewish (and some of them were Communist). Most prominently among them – Jewish, that is – was EC publisher Bill Gaines, whose sweaty, overly-defensive and self-destructive testimony in front of a Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, heralded the end of widespread comics readership as well as its cultural legitimacy, at least until the 1980s revolution and the subsequent Hollywood exploitation of recent years.

The Yorks effectively argue that psychiatrist Frederic Wertham (whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent instigated the Congressional inquiry), whatever his conclusions about its perfidious influence on children, was both "insightful" and "ahead of its time." (Comic artist Stephen Bissette reaches a similar conclusion in his essential Teen Angels & New Mutants, a fascinating study of the comics medium's exploitation of youth.) Among his numerous insights, Wertham identified "enduring racist stereotypes" in the so-called "jungle stories" of the 1940s and 1950s. Wertham, despite restrictions imposed upon the industry by the Comics Code Authority (established in 1954 and all but abandoned by 2010), continued to cast a jaundiced eye upon the medium, finding ongoing racial stereotyping and an overall lack of education or moral value in comics. (This estimation is somewhat unfair; both Wertham and the Yorks overlook EC's numerous stories critical of racism and other such injustices.) The Yorks maintain that, despite Wertham's criticisms, because of their reflections of certain cultural and political realities of the post-war era – primarily the threat of Communism, issues of sexuality, and the myth of ‘consensus' reality promulgated by the mass media – these comics remain "important cultural documents."

Contributor Douglas Field argues that this era was "characterized by anxiety over boundaries," be they social (i.e. racial or sexual) or political (Cold War-era "containment" of Communism), or be they actual borders (e.g. US infiltration of Korea or Vietnam) or figurative ones. This obsession over boundaries would extend even into outer space, with the space race arriving in the 1950s with the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957, in reams of science fiction comics, a cultural artifact investigated by John Donovan in his essay on outer space containment in 1950s comics. Chris York, who contributes an essay on the comic book Crime Does Not Pay, argues that the very existence of "true crime" comics during this period of "consensus" underlined the unreality of a "moral and enlightened America by showing the discord in our own society." On the other hand, consensus reality remained a threat to creative freedom, as evidenced in Laurence Rodman's essay on MAD, which, during this period, underwent a transition from 6x10 floppy to magazine format, in addition to a change in creative direction with the handing over of editorship from Harvey Kurtzman to Al Feldstein. Feldstein wanted to expand MAD's readership by diluting its satirical edge.

Christopher Field contributes an essay on Kurtzman's unusual (which is to say realistic) portrayal of Asians in his EC war comics Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat. Such depiction is already well established in comics criticism and, as such, Field's essay attempt to add to this discussion by comparing Kurtzman's work with a "contemporary competitor," Atlas' War Comics. Chris York's essay on Turok, Son of Stone explores Anglo perceptions of Native Americans outside of the then-popular depiction of Natives in film and television as the "noble savage or otherwise," effectively arguing that despite the removal of this context, certain stubborn cultural stereotypes remain. Alexander Maxwell explores another brand of stereotype typical of consensus-era America, that of Communists, in particular those depicted in the "Catholic comic" This Godless Communism, a "didactic anti-communist narrative" that seeks to define Communism as an insidious (and altogether Jewish) political ideology that has effectively enslaved a diverse and widespread Russian populace defined by widely-varying geographical, ethnic and cultural boundaries.

The Yorks situate the containment ideology of this era as resulting from Cold War anxieties of Communist infiltration and nuclear annihilation. Nathan Atkinson's essay on the Superman story "Crime Paradise" views that story as representative of propagandistic "endorsement" of the Bikini Island atomic bomb tests, itself an effort on the part of the US government to "demystify" atomic power. This was, after all, an era of considerable experimentation with the use of mass media to "manufacture consent," to borrow a phrase from US foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky. (Essay collections are often a mixed bag and I did not find Atkinson's essay, which, with the following essay by Peter Lee, heads off the book, all that convincing. Lee's essay is essentially a cataloguing of espionage comics; where Atkinson stretches too far to make some of his points Lee does not investigate enough into the socio-cultural underpinnings of the surprisingly vast number of espionage comics published during this period. Which leads me to another point: one of the side benefits to collections such as these, however, as Jason Sacks observed in his review of nurse comics, is the unearthing of some real treasures and the discovery of sub-genres, such as espionage comics, that readers may not have known even existed).

Frederick Wright and Philip Payne and Paul J. Spaeth contribute essays on superhero comics of that era, namely The Flash (Wright) and Challengers of the Unknown (Payne and Spaeth). These authors investigate how superheroes act as social agents in effect, depicting static – and reliable – elements of social cohesion during an era of distinct social anxiety and uncertainty. These are the same anxieties and uncertainties broached by Beat Era writers and artists - concerning a repressive social fabric soon to be torn apart by emerging social movements and the political catastrophes of assassinations, illegal warfare and presidential crimes.  Rafiel York's essay on The Fantastic Four sees the superhero team as reflective of certain Cold War themes, namely "communists, family, gender roles, experts and juvenile delinquency," a topical approach that distinguished early Marvel Comics from its less grounded (and therefore less socially relevant) competitors.

Mixed bag though these essay collections may sometimes be, the essays probing the depiction of sexuality in Cold War comics are consistently insightful and entertaining, in particular Jeanne Gardner's enlightening unpacking of the "pitfalls and problems" facing young women in an era of emerging feminism. This transitional phase in courtship (i.e. "heavy-petting" in parked cars, dating, and other new forms brought about by the advent of the automobile and greater mobility, both physical and social) led to confusing dichotomies of permissible behavior thrust upon women of this era. Gardner upholds Bradford Wright's estimation that romance comics filled a social function of "emphasiz[ing] middle class values and traditional gender roles as a "domestic containment policy" integral to the Cold War "home front." (These restrictions, and the advent of the birth control, would of course help to revolutionize feminine social roles in subsequent decades.) This pressure of conformity would even extend to Amazonian warrior princesses, as Ruth McClelland-Nuget effectively illustrates in her fascinating study of sexual conformity in William Moulton Marston's decidedly non­-traditional comic Wonder Woman. Amazonian warrior princesses may have perverted the social order slightly, yet many comics of this era continued to "encourage" women to pursue traditional social roles, such as nursing. Christopher J. Hayton and Sheila Hayton's essay discusses depictions of women in nursing comics, with a view of women as filling defined stereotypes such as "ministering angels," "battle axes," "doctor's handmaiden" or the "naughty" or "sexy" nurse. It is a skillfully argued and eye-opening discussion, to say the least.

Rounding out the section of sexuality in comics, Rafiel York provides an essay on changing social mores in the mostly static depiction of American youth in Archie Comics. The final essay to address sexuality concerns homophobia as depicted in a number of EC comics, and how this depiction led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority.

It's Starchie!

Comic Books and the Cold War, while not an essential volume on post-war genre comics, does nevertheless shed valuable light on a number of Cold War containment-era themes. Some of the essays included are more interesting than others are, yet most are convincing and eminently readable. The editors are to be commended for producing this much-needed volume on a largely overlooked period in comics history. McFarland's price point on this book, however, will likely prevent it from circulating to the wider comics and pop culture audience it deserves, yet it is still worth a look.

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