COMIC BOOKS OF VIRTUE
The Moral World of the Caped Crusaders
Oct 12, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 05 • By MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE
In a recent interview in Rolling Stone -- part of the pre-publication hoopla for the much-anticipated A Man in Full, his first novel since the 1988 Bonfire of the Vanities -- Tom Wolfe bemoaned the state of contemporary American fiction. With only a few exceptions, he declared, fiction writers are still sunk in the liberal, touchy-feely, every-protagonist an-abuse-survivor quagmire they fell into during the 1980s. Hardly anyone, Wolfe griped, is getting his hands dirty these days with the Big Questions: love, death, redemption, religion, morality, and truth.
He's right, of course, that much American literature remains myopic and self-referential. But there are some people who are trying to explore big questions. And they're doing it in books openly hostile to the moral relativism of modern liberalism that Wolfe has so often exposed in his own writing. The only problem -- and the reason Tom Wolfe may not have noticed them -- is that their books are comic books: The new generation of draftsmen and authors writing the latest installments of Superman, Batman, and their modern successors form the first sizable group of American storytellers to try once again to present moral tales in a smart, compelling, and literate way.
Comic books derived from the marriage of newspaper comic strips and the cheap adolescent adventure magazines known as "pulps." The first popular newspaper strip was Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid," a clever satire of urban life, which debuted in 1896 in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The success of "The Yellow Kid" quickly led to the appearance of other strips, aimed far more at adults than children. George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," an almost Dadaist strip that first appeared in 1911, was a favorite of Woodrow Wilson's. Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland," which ran from 1905 to 1911, was a series of art nouveau fantasy sketches relating the adventures of a boy lost in a world of dreamscapes.
The same year that "The Yellow Kid" appeared, the publisher Frank Munsey began to print his new magazine, Argosy, on cheap, "wood-pulp" paper. Combining adventure and action stories for a young audience, Munsey and his rival publishers discovered such classic pulp authors as Max Brand, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan.
The pulps and the comic strips came together in 1933, when two Eastern Color Printing salesmen, Harry Wildenberg and M. C. Gaines, formed the notion of printing comic strips in the pulp-magazine format. The new comic books of the 1930s were aimed almost entirely at adolescents -- offering the derring-do of such stock characters as Dick Tracy, Tarzan, and Flash Gordon. By the onset of World War II, comic books had become what most people still think of them as: the superheroic adventures of such morally spotless, lantern-jawed protagonists as Batman, Superman, and Captain America (who all arrived around the same time as the war), waging a never-ending battle against urban crime.
In the first decade after the war, however, the tales of the superheroes were joined by a darker breed of "funny books" as a new company, EC Comics, began publishing risque horror and crime stories -- featuring, under titles like Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror, zombies and mad scientists holding voluptuous women hostage in ruined castles. (EC Comics also published a tiny, start-up humor magazine called Mad.)
These new comics were considered dangerous enough to warrant the hearings begun in 1954 by the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The hearings were prompted primarily by the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a book by New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham that claimed a direct link between comics and juvenile delinquency. Wertham went after not only the EC Comics sludge but the mainstream heroes, claiming that Batman's relation with Robin was homosexual: "If Batman were in the State Department he would be dismissed." Comics, Wertham concluded, "arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex."
Nothing much came of the Senate's hearings, and historians tend to dismiss Wertham as a crank and a right-wing nut. But the source of his fire was in fact leftist rather than conservative. Influenced by the Frankfurt School of social theory -- a mix of Marxist and Freudian theory -- he was one of a long line of social critics denouncing popular American culture from the left.