Blast from the past: EC's William Gaines on decency standards

In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began an investigation of the comic book industry and its effects on juvenile delinquency. In the course of its hearings, the subcommittee called upon a number of witnesses, including EC Publisher William Gaines. At the time, EC published a number of crime and horror comics, including The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror and Tales From The Crypt. The WNYC radio archives have posted nearly two hours of the investigative hearing with two key, but contrasting, witnesses: Gaines and psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham.

The audio of the hearing is lengthy, but while listening, it's very indicative of the feeling toward comics at the time -- Wertham goes so far as to say, "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read."

The hearing was also where the following now-famous exchange between U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver and Gaines took place, as Kefauver held up a cover of Crime SuspenStories #22:

Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax 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 the 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 continued to question Gaines on EC's publishing catalog, but the above quote was the one that made it out to the newspapers. The hearings eventually led to the establishment of the now-defunct Comics Code.

Another juicy tidbit from the hearing was Dr. Wertham's summary and description of "Superman" comics, of which the psychiatrist expressed a negative opinion.

"I would like to point out to you one other crime comic book which we have found to be particularly injurious to the ethical development of children and those are the Superman comic books," Wertham said. "They arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again, while you, yourself, remain immune. We call it the Superman complex."

With today's popularity of comics and comic book media and films like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises breaking box-office records, it's hard to believe that committees like this even existed, and the audio certainly comes off today (as WNYC notes) as "a typical 'setup' to provide shocking ammunition for the committee's publicity-hungry senators." Despite the negative publicity of the hearings that eventually closed EC's doors in 1955, Gaines went on to find great success publishing MAD Magazine. He passed away June 3, 1992.

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