You’ve heard it all, or some version of it, before. In the year Donald Trump was elected president, fewer than a quarter of Republicans believed the fact of human-driven climate change, while a majority still believed the disproven racist lie that the first president of color was an illegitimate foreigner.
And yet the sheer breadth of these false beliefs — so widespread that you cannot accurately call them “unbelievable” — suggests a phenomenon not solely attributable to stupidity or partisanship. Too mainstream to be conspiracy theory, climate denial and birtherism are just the latest Americana fictions — deeply ingrained untruths people have been conditioned to believe.
Late last year Kevin Young — director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and, since November, poetry editor of The New Yorker — released a book that used the current “post-truth” era as its peg. In Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Young tries to make sense of how tall tales like birtherism take hold, breaking down the many stories that confirm chicanery — as harmless as the cheeky street vendor who gouges the price of his umbrellas when it rains or as dangerous as the politician who promises the restoration of white power will lead to prosperity — is an inherent strand of the American DNA. Rather than neatly depicting the masses as hoodwinked victims, Bunk delineates how popular prejudice and stale conventional wisdoms often readily welcome the skills of those standing by to offer simpler explanations and pills that are easier to swallow. By asking, in each case, which cultural assumption led us to be fooled, Young diligently traces the bullshit back to its more sinister, societal implications.
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When I spoke with New Yorker editor David Remnick, he called Bunk a “godsend” for these times and Kevin Young the ideal heir to the weekly’s poetry editorship. From the moment they met at an intimate dinner party hosted by Elizabeth Alexander, Remnick “was completely captivated by him. He was extremely funny, beyond intelligent, and his taste: all over the map” — in the good way.
Remnick was already familiar with Young’s poetry at the time; his poems have been published in The New Yorker since 1999. But over the course of their dinner conversation, Remnick said, “I came to realize that he was also an anthologist.” It was ultimately the varied literary palate he found in Young’s nonfiction work that led him to pick the 47-year-old for the plum assignment, which Remnick carefully describes as “a lot to balance. It’s a kind of complicated aesthetic — a political, literary, and editorial job.”
You can learn an awful lot about a man’s worldview from the kinetic qualities of his handshake. So, when Young greets me — in a nondescript conference room adjacent to the New York Public Library’s sprawling Beaux-Arts main building on 42nd Street — his formal, academic clasp-into-folksy, Midwestern double-shake-into-smooth-dap suggests that the author, poet, and professor is an embodiment of a new intelligentsia: born of the hip-hop generation, seemingly unconcerned with the guardrails of genre and convention, and as likely to debate Andre 3000’s discography as the works of Sartre.
It was this wide relatability that made Young a popular presence on campus at Emory University, where he was a tenured professor and curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library. And while Young’s poems are profound without killing the fun — and therefore the power — of poetry, his nonfiction cultural criticism maintains this sensibility: deeply layered without being inscrutable. Harper’s Magazine has called Young “a relaxed lyricist, precise without being precious.” A critic at The Paris Review dubbed him “a pure essayist in the vein of Emerson and Montaigne.”
A bookish only child, Young moved six times before he was ten as his parents pursued their careers before eventually settling in Topeka, Kansas. His father worked as an ophthalmologist; his mother is an accomplished chemist who also earned a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Young’s parents were each the first in their respective families from rural Louisiana to attend college.
In the late Eighties, Kevin also attended Harvard, where he joined the storied Dark Room Collective, a reading series hosted by up-and-coming writers of color in a den-turned-salon at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge. Young graduated in 1992 and left for a coveted creative writing fellowship at Stanford, but as he wrote in his nonfiction collection, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, “Once you’re in, you’re in forever.” Young’s participation in the Dark Room would be the first stop on a trajectory laden with prestigious honors and positions at the nexus of the academic and literary world. (A Guggenheim Fellowship and an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are among the latest bestowments.)
In an old Twitter bio, Young described himself as a “lover of things thought lost,” which, he says, has “a lot to do with my grandparents in Louisiana and the way they saved everything. Black folks in the segregated South are the inventors of sustainable living — making a way out of no way, and nothing gets thrown away.” More literally, though, Young says the bio was a reference to a devotion to “black writing that’s lost or thought lost and to rediscovering writers or promoting writers who are underappreciated.”
“When I sit down to write,” he says, “I think I’m always trying to recover some aspect of something that we might forget, but is really there.” The Schomburg Center, which Young has helmed since August 2016, is itself named after an oft-forgotten, but important black figure: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican immigrant who, upon migrating to Harlem, helped pioneer African-American history as an institutionalized topic of scholarship. The New York Public Library bought his collection in 1926, and the Schomburg’s founding mission — to serve as an archive repository of the diaspora in all its forms — is still at full tilt. Young, who lives in Central Harlem, continues the legacy, preserving the documents of relative unknowns as well as “knowns” who didn’t quite make it into the mainstream canon: Bayard Rustin, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Gwendolyn Bennett, and countless others. (The center’s fellowshipsgrant intimate access to archives in order to expand scholarship on these subjects.)
The Schomburg gig is perfect for Kevin Young’s skill set. Because, if there’s one thing you learn after listening to him for a while, it’s that Young is a really good rememberer — of culture, literature, and changing political attitudes. Something Bunk, which was years in the making, puts on brilliant display.
When we think of P.T. Barnum in 2018, most picture the charismatic entertainer embodied by Hugh Jackman in last year’s The Greatest Showman. We tend to forget that he got his big start, like our current president, promoting racial hoaxes at his raucous shows. It’s okay if we don’t remember, or never had a clue, because Kevin Young has remembered for us, put it in context, and connected the dots to the present. This is the rhythm of Bunk: deep researching to pull, sometimes obscure, seemingly disconnected anecdotes from the corners of history (both recent and centuries-old), then employing a dose of poetic eloquence to rejigger their relevance in the reader’s mind.
And while scholastically dense, the read feels like a fair bargain, as you, like me, get the dish on things we wouldn’t otherwise know, even if we were better read or a little more cultured. Remnick, a pretty learned fellow by most accounts, admitted: “I didn’t know nine-tenths of these stories.” Still, those unfamiliar with our past are also at risk of becoming sapped from finding out just how much of so much is deeply riddled with at least partially racist roots, from the obscure to the everyday: the movies, the circus, the church, pornography, Emerson, rock ’n’ roll. Is nothing sacred?
“You have to kind of step back and say, what are these things in our culture really about, and ask: How do they tell us something about ourselves even though they’re fake?” Young says. “In fact, especially because they’re fake! That tells us a lot about what we ‘wanted’ to believe.”
Bunk navigates a buffet of subjects — supposed “lost” tribes, fake doctors who performed actual surgeries, and PR for napalm — but much like The Color of Law, We Were Eight Years in Power, and other Woke Blockbustersof 2017, a key motif is breaking it to America that Trumpism’s underpinning sentiments are neither new nor an aberration.
“It’s letting us off the hook to think this is only a recent thing,” Young asserts. Trump was still merely White House Correspondents’ Dinner comedy fodder in the book’s early stages six years ago. But for Young, the now-president has brought a unique form of hoaxing to the forefront, which was too explicit to include alongside all the other nouns in Bunk’s subtitle: bullshit. He writes:
It isn’t that the contemporary hoax provides “a different kind of truth,” but that it offers far less. A whole lie would almost be welcome, but [these] hoaxes won’t extend us the courtesy of respecting the truth enough to betray it. Instead we have become surrounded by the halfway, mealymouthed, politicking habit of bullshit.
Trump, then, is much more a bullshitter than an outright hoaxer or humbugger. “For me,” Young explains, “a hoax is something intended or even unintentionally made to deceive. It isn’t simply a lie because even when it’s sustained, it’s often quite incomplete in its attempt.” A good example? Race, he offers. An abstract construction with dangerous, if not complete, real world consequences: minstrel shows, eugenics, anti-Semitism, Nazism, films like The Birth of A Nation, terms like “miscegenation,” and segregated water fountains are all in conversation with each other — all riffing off the same hoax of Aryanism and white supremacy. “Humbug,” on the other hand, Young reports, “is sort of a nineteenth-century term [that] falls somewhere between a prank and a hoax.”
In Bunk, Young has a well-founded fascination for this more playful shade of untruth and sees the showman P.T. Barnum as its self-serving forefather. The circus he founded, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, shut down for good in May 2017, but Barnum’s legacy resurfaced with The Greatest Showman which, very loosely, traces the vertiginous story of Barnum’s American Museum: a slap-happy mix of a zoo, wax museum, and theater, with freak shows as the main attraction. Despite mixed reviews, the film performed wellat the box office, and earned Hugh Jackman a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Barnum.
The plot’s rising action, which mainly focuses on Barnum battling the classism of other, more refined white men, conveniently ignores his less flattering — and, frankly, more fascinating — ethical shortcomings. That Barnum’s first break as a showman came when he made use of a loophole in the antebellum North to rent — yes, rent — an elderly black woman to pose as George Washington’s 160-something-year-old maid. That this was one of several blockbuster acts employed by Barnum that preyed on the racially imbued myths which plagued that century.
In the movie’s fantasy past, Barnum’s American Museum is premised on convenient, if transactional, partnerships. The gazing at bearded ladies, fake mermaids, little people, and other so-called freaks is recast, with the help of a dance number, as “dreaming with your eyes wide open.”
“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” a patrician newspaper critic asks Jackman’s Barnum. “Do these smiles seem fake?” he retorts. “Hyperbole isn’t the worst crime. Men suffer more from imagining too little rather than too much.”
It’s a sentiment with which the real-life Barnum would have agreed, and in Bunk, Young makes the case that humbugging, while insidiously connected to harmful hoaxes, hasn’t been all bad. Its rise throughout the nineteenth century, Young tells us, fostered a wider recognition of contradiction and an exploration of the tension between faith and fact. The shift to this new cultural default extended from the common man to Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), to Mark Twain’s characters.
In 1865, the year Barnum was first elected to the Connecticut state legislature, he released his book Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages. Barnum billed it as a noble exposé of his own industry: “If we could have a full exposure of ‘the tricks of trade’ of all sorts … religious, political, financial, scientific, quackish, and so forth,” he writes in its prologue, “we might perhaps look for a somewhat wiser generation to follow us.”
Reality TV, with its requirement that we be in on the joke, is a clear descendant of the humbug era. “What if … you could have it all?” the opening sequence of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice beseeched us. Nobody seemed to fully appreciate, or care, that the man behind “You’re fired!” was an overextended real estate hawker with a bankrupt casino business. Then again, Barnum’s financial woes didn’t stop people from watching his shows.
It’s unlikely that President Trump was inspired by Barnum’s The Art of Money-Getting (1880) when he published The Art of the Deal in 1987. Still, as Bunk demonstrates, the similarities are striking: the tabloid fodder bankruptcies, the scorn they received from blueblood types, their eventual entry into politics. Young simultaneously complicates this connection, however, by pointedly noting that Trump, unlike Barnum, seems to lack a magician’s code to never giveaway the secrets of the trick. Despite his many sins, Barnum was driven in part by a clear, if unethical rubric — like a riddling troll under the bridge. President Trump is just a troll.
With humbug, “you know you’re getting a show, but you’re trying to ascertain what is real and what is not,” Young tells me, alluding to the Trump-Barnum comparison. “That’s part of the pleasure of humbug that’s a little bit different than just straight-up BS. I think bullshit is the kind of extreme version where it’s not even trying to fool you, it doesn’t care whether you believe it or not.”
During the 2016 campaign, a syndicated newspaper story called Trump, “a carnival barker without the integrity,” a reference to Barack Obama’s remarks in 2011, regarding birtherism, that “we’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.” Somewhere along the road, Trump sensed how vulnerable the body politic was to the bullshit artist’s codeless form of deceit. (If science and basic statistics are up for debate, then why not all journalism inconvenient to you?) Young writes in Bunk:
Trump signals a far more troubling mindset in which the truth isn’t so much absent or contested as it doesn’t matter … What Trump really heralds is a time when there are no more experts. … The best way to commit a hoax now is to claim you’ve spotted one.
“One of the big problems I talk about,” Young says, “is this need to say there’s two sides to every story. Everything from vaccines to global warming is just kind of reported as this set of opinions, as opposed to things that you can verify. At the same time, I’m well aware that many of the malfeasances that have been discovered are because of journalists.”
“You look at the history of journalism and it’s not until late in our history that even a few newspapers were committed to a high degree of professionalism,” David Remnick told me, encouraging a fully contextualized view. “This is a new thing! I mean, the greatest prize in journalism is named after one of the developers of yellow journalism — Pulitzer.”
P.T. Barnum, distinguishing his love for humbug from what he saw as more dour forms of fibbing, eagerly cited a cynical diplomat who was quoted as saying, “Language was given to us to conceal our thoughts.” The long lineage of lies that Young catalogs — all the way up to Rachel Dolezal, neoconservative lies about Iraq, and Melania Trump plagiarizing Michelle Obama — sets the stage for his closing argument: that we’ve now become enmired in an Age of Euphemism. An era spurred in large part by a refusal to say what’s what, caused by playing along with, or granting plausible deniability to, people who don’t want to accept the ugliness — or flat-out falsity — of their opinions.
The evidence is so overwhelming in its ubiquity it can, ironically, be hard to see: heritage, not treason; bad apples, not corrupt policing; cultural anxiety, not racism; collateral damage, not civilians murdered; super PACS, not oligarchs; disrespecting the flag, helping job creators, America first. Read Bunk, or the news, and take your pick.
“I was trying to find a language that described that,” Young explains.“The Age of Euphemism was one of the ways I was able to name it, because I definitely think there’s a real impulse to not say what we mean. Once you step back, it’s a real short, scary step to ‘Nothing means anything.’”
Young particularly frets over the internet’s role in the mess. Its ever-warping ability to — with or without Russian interference — make “untruths spread faster and faster at the click of a mouse, spawning whole faux movements” as the nation becomes ever more siloed: geographically, ideologically, algorithmically. “The scary idea is that a lot of it’s disinformation, purposefully faked, coordinated; and what does that say about us? Or those who collude with that hoax?”
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In Barnum’s day, if a powerful politico had defended his wife-beating colleague, an attorney general had called law enforcement an “Anglo-American tradition,” and a Senate had passed a bill full of outrageously obvious loopholes for themselves, then there may have been no controversy at all. Now, in Young’s Age of Euphemism, it seems that, when armed with enough privilege, the bullshit will do: something to satiate a press corps eager to quote both sides until, hopefully, the scandal subsides or is subsumed by another scandal and an exhausted, overwhelmed public shrugs, or forgets.
“What was strange for me is I was finishing the book as the election was happening, and many of the things that happened, or have happened since I finished the book I — kind of almost predict?” Young said, clearly grappling with how to publicly react when one’s dystopian hypothesis is vindicated in real time. But if the two choices for people on the right side of history in a wrong world have are to laugh or to cry, then count Kevin Young in the former camp.
“I hope [Bunk] helps us be a bit more skeptical but not cynical,” he said. I wondered how in an age of takes — both good and bad, but almost always hot — Young could stay so cool, after spending years unpacking infuriatingly widespread deceptions, often about his own heritage.
“I think that some of it is my temperament, but a lot of it is really trying to be fair when I could,” he explains. “To say, ‘Well, here are some of the things that this hoaxer did that were interesting or different.’ And sometimes I am just furious about them … but I had to sort of step back and not just simply mock them nor simply make them villains, because I also wanted to understand why we fell for this stuff. We all are invested in it.”
The contrast between the cultural world that produces Young’s forward-thinking, cosmopolitan life and the sphere that engenders the nasty id-driven nationalism that despises people like him — a liberal black intellectual married to a white woman also of the media elite — is, not by happenstance, pretty representative of that sickness.
“I don’t see that disappearing because we haven’t fixed that problem,” Young told me with a sad smirk. “I was really struck by this on the day that people were marching on Charlottesville, when I was with my son watching a basketball game on the courts here in New York and it’s like: do I tell him? How do I tell my soon-to-be eleven-year-old son that there’s still Nazis? That should be a question we ask that everyone asks, not just black fathers of black sons or black parents — everyone should be asking, ‘Why are having to explain this?’ And you know the fact that that somehow can become partisan is really …” He trailed off. “That’s the scary part.”
It’s a dilemma that clearly inspired one of the more heartbreaking pieces in Young’s newest poetry collection: “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia.”
“One of the things at risk is not just our notion of what’s true, but what’s possible,” Young worries. “We sometimes start to lose this sense of the breadth of the imagination, which I think is such a useful tool. And the hoax is the least imaginative, partially ’cause it often uses stereotypes or kind of corny divisions to make its case. It’s shorthand to actual experience, which is much more complicated, rich, fruitful.”
Bunk dedicates an entire section to the finding that the most successful forgeries — in art, literature, or news — are typically those authenticated by arbiters people trust. It opens with a question presented by Orson Welles in his final film as director, 1973’s F for Fake: “As long as there are fakers, there have to be experts. But if there were no experts, would there be any fakers?”
Amid the screechy ambiguity of 2018, the answer seems resounding: yes.
“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.” He flings his arms wide before this drugstore altar, labeled “For the Kiddies,” and exclaims, “What a beautiful gory layout!” Blast Comics features a mushroom cloud, another indication that 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.”
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.
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.
In 2008’s The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hajdu notes that by the mid-1940s, “the comic book was the most popular form of entertainment in America. Comics were selling between eighty million and a hundred million copies every week, with a typical issue passed along or traded to six to ten readers, thereby reaching more people than movies, television, radio, or magazines for adults.” But many of the early superhero comics from the medium’s “Golden Age” had disappeared into vast paper drives during World War II, when characters such as Captain America encouraged readers to gather “magazines, boxes, store bags, envelopes, newspapers” because “Paper is a weapon of war! A mighty weapon! Every gun, bullet—Every piece of ammunition used to smash the unholy Japs and Nazis is shipped in paper containers!” In later years many comics were simply discarded when childhood bedrooms were cleared out as kids left the nest for jobs or college dorms.
In the early 1960s nostalgia for this brash entertainment blossomed into a network of self-published fanzines that allowed enthusiasts to trade comics among themselves; by mid-decade conventions were organized in New York, Detroit, and other cities, where fans could congregate and meet artists and writers from the industry. Thus was born a huge collectors’ market, which long ago swept Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent into its insatiable maw.
A recent search of eBay, that remorseless barometer of the absolute worth of American desires, finds a first-edition SOTI (as it is referred to among the cognoscenti) on the block for $795. Having almost wiped out comics fans beloved art form, Wertham’s out-of-print manifesto became a sought-after relic during those early decades of fandom, and copies were often swiped from libraries. I experienced the effect of this phenomenon as a teenager, in the late 1970s, when I first read of the mysterious and malicious volume in a magazine article. SOTI, it seemed, outraged true believers in a similar manner to the way the perceived lies and nefarious agendas in the Warren Report provoke J.F.K. assassination-conspiracy theorists. Intrigued, I scoured the Baltimore library system, hoping to find the book that had become as legendary—and elusive—as H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon. But it was no dice—I was put on a waiting list and told months later that the book had gone missing. One librarian told me on the sly that I would have a much better chance finding Wertham’s opus at a comic-book convention.
Passion for other branches of literature and art consumed me over the following years, and I only returned to the quest for SOTI when I realized, in early 2004, that its golden anniversary was approaching. At 42nd Street I passed between the stone lions guarding the Fifth Avenue entrance of New York’s main public library branch, notable as a research library, where one must peruse the books on-site. I found SOTI in the catalog, filled out a form, and waited while it was retrieved from the stacks. Half an hour later I was handed a box sealed by a thin cord wrapped around cardboard buttons—opening the protective flaps felt like exposing some forbidden, profane text. The book was sans dust jacket, black covers worn thin, corners dented; the pages were well-thumbed, dog-eared, some annotated with pencil or highlighter—a few had been jaggedly torn out. This was a volume that had engendered genuine passion.
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Wertham “came as close to shutting down the entire comics business as anything I know of,” the renowned comic-book artist Joe Kubert told me during a 2003 interview. Kubert (1926–2012) began working in comics around the age of twelve, just as the industry was exploding with the success of a newfangled hero called Superman. Kubert’s spare, rough ’n’ ready style amped the propulsive thrust of the slyly antiwar stories of his signature character, Sgt. Rock. “If I can give just enough detail so that the reader can finish it off, that reader becomes part of the story,” he told me. In a career that spanned eight decades, Kubert witnessed the birth—and near death—of the comic-book medium. Wertham “was out to make a name and a buck for himself,” Kubert added, his cynicism derived from seeing “a helluva lot of jobs lost” because of Wertham’s anti-comics crusade. (Hadju’s book lists some nine hundred artisans who never worked in the comics field again after the moral backlash SOTI created.)
But like Batman’s nemesis Two-Face (an honorable DA turned schizophrenically cruel after a crime boss threw acid in his face), Wertham was a complex and contradictory character, who was after more than notoriety even as he achieved infamy. Born in Nuremberg, he studied medicine and literature in London, Paris, and Vienna, absorbing Marx and the social-reform theories in the novels of Dickens along the way. In 1922 he landed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he began a lifelong commitment to civil rights and low-cost psychiatric care for minorities and the poor. By 1946, with help from Paul Robeson and Richard Wright, he had established the Lafargue Clinic, located, as his publisher describes, “in the heart of a slum area in Harlem, the first psychiatric clinic to be opened in that district.” (The author’s photo on the jacket of Seduction—tight-lipped, bespectacled, with severely parted gray hair and pinstriped suit—was taken by the noted African-American photographer Gordon Parks, who would later go on to direct the Blaxploitation classic Shaft.)
Wertham’s testimony on the harmful psychological effects of segregation was incorporated into briefs for Brown vs. Board of Education, another major event in 1954’s political landscape. It is therefore no surprise that Wertham writes in Seduction, “While the white people in jungle [comic] books are blond and athletic and shapely, the idea conveyed about the natives is that there are fleeting transitions between apes and humans … this characterization of colored peoples as subhuman, in conjunction with the depiction of forceful heroes as blond Nordic supermen … is the usual parade of invitation to sadistic perversion, race hatred and violence for violence’s sake.” The doctor’s beliefs are clear: Race-hate must never again take root, especially not in the bumptious democracy of his adopted homeland. And when Wertham continues, “We have learned more and more that sexual behavior varies widely and that many patterns which used to be regarded as serious crimes, extremely immoral, or severe abnormalities do not deserve to be so seriously regarded,” it becomes apparent that he isn’t simply the blue-nosed censor of fandom legend.
Wertham’s psychiatric philosophies were leavened with literature—in chapter epigraphs, Bacon and Pavlov rub shoulders with Pushkin, Rilke, and Shakespeare. On my first perusal, Seduction proved as complex as its author. But at closing time, all materials must be returned. In the way of the world, other assignments and life’s pageant intruded, and it was not until two months later that I again requested Seduction, only to be told it was unavailable. Knowing the book’s vulnerability to the collector’s fetish, I contacted the library’s press office and left an inquiry about its fate.
In the meantime, I decided to pursue another touchstone. As a result of Wertham’s earlier articles and other commentators’ alarms, in 1954 a Senate subcommittee began hearings investigating the effect of comic books on juvenile delinquency. On April 21, 22, and June 4, in an implicit stab at the heart of this New York–based industry, the members of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency brought their televised road show to the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. I found the transcript of those hearings tagged in the library’s catalog—but it was held off-site and I was put on another waiting list.
With both books unavailable I next plugged those 1954 Senate-hearing dates into the New York Times archive and crashed right onto the front pages of the Cold War. Above the fold, a headline blares, “McCarthy Charges Plot To Halt Him”; in the lower left corner, less bold and more enigmatic: “No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says.”
The newsprint time machine revealed that Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, whose claim to fame was hunting Communists in government, was in a political dogfight with the Army brass. Meanwhile, the smaller headline heralded one of the most famous moments in comic-book history, when a young publisher, William M. Gaines, was confronted by Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver at the downtown hearings. Gaines’ father had been a comics pioneer, packaging newspaper strips into some of the earliest pamphlet-size comic books. When his father died, Gaines inherited the staid Educational Comics line, which featured such titles as Picture Stories from the Bible and Picture Stories from American History. Along with his editors, Gaines decided that science-fiction, crime, and horror comics would be more fun—and profitable—to produce.
Kefauver was at the televised hearings because of his presidential ambitions; Gaines was simply trying to protect his Entertaining Comics empire, which included groundbreaking horror titles such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, featuring witty, brilliantly illustrated stories with O. Henry–like twists. (Reanimated corpses seeking vengeance on unfaithful lovers was a favorite formula.) “I started horror,” Gaines proudly told the senators, and then calmly testified on the fine art of cropping cover illustrations: A woman’s decapitation would be in bad taste only if the killer were “holding the head a little higher so the neck would show with the blood dripping from it.”
The front-page article reported that Kefauver replied softly, “You’ve got blood dripping from the mouth.”
Gaines, the comics industry, and “Tail-Gunner” Joe McCarthy were all heading for inglorious beatdowns at the hands of the U.S. Senate. Only Gaines would live to laugh at his persecutors.
A few weeks later I received an email from the library announcing the arrival of another Seduction, bought for an off-the-record sum from a used-book dealer. It was in good shape, still wearing its block-lettered dustjacket. Like many a learned tome reposing in private libraries, a number of its leaves had never been cut. The librarian carefully sliced apart the pages the original owner had never gotten to.
In his medical practice, Wertham saw some hard cases—juvenile muggers, murderers, rapists. In Seduction, he begins with a gardening metaphor for the relationship between children and society: “If a plant fails to grow properly because attacked by a pest, only a poor gardener would look for the cause in that plant alone.” He then observes, “To send a child to a reformatory is a serious step. But many children’s-court judges do it with a light heart and a heavy calendar.” Wertham advocated a holistic approach to juvenile delinquency, but then attacked comic books as its major cause. “All comics with their words and expletives in balloons are bad for reading.” “What is the social meaning of these supermen, super women … super-ducks, super-mice, super-magicians, super-safecrackers? How did Nietzsche get into the nursery?” And although the superhero, Western, and romance comics were easily distinguishable from the crime and horror genres that emerged in the late 1940s, Wertham viewed all comics as police blotters. “[Children] know a crime comic when they see one, whatever the disguise”; Wonder Woman is a “crime comic which we have found to be one of the most harmful”; “Western comics are mostly just crime comic books in a Western setting”; “children have received a false concept of ‘love’ … they lump together ‘love, murder, and robbery.’” Some crimes are said to directly imitate scenes from comics. Many are guilty by association—millions of children read comics, ergo, criminal children are likely to have read comics. When listing brutalities, Wertham throws in such asides as, “Incidentally, I have seen children vomit over comic books.” Such anecdotes illuminate a pattern of observation without sourcing that becomes increasingly irritating. “There are quite a number of obscure stores where children congregate, often in back rooms, to read and buy secondhand comic books … in some parts of cities, men hang around these stores which sometimes are foci of childhood prostitution. Evidently comic books prepare the little girls well.” Are these stores located in New York? Chicago? Sheboygan? Wertham leaves us in the dark. He also claimed that powerful forces were arrayed against him because the sheer number of comic books was essential to the health of the pulp-paper manufacturers, forcing him on a “Don Quixotic enterprise … fighting not windmills, but paper mills.”
For someone with such literary pretensions, Wertham delivers some real howlers. Discussing scenes in which characters are violently blinded, he states that there is “no counterpart in any other literature of the world, for children or adults.” The most infamous illustration in Seduction is a panel depicting a young woman dreaming that a “sick hoppy” is about to stab her in the eye with a hypodermic needle. Wertham, the old-world scholar, might be excused for not being hip to the eyeball slash in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, but surely he was aware of the tale of the Cyclops, or of Gloucester having his eyes plucked out and stomped on in King Lear. Blinding is an enduring image not only of cruelty but also of despair. And despair is certainly the point of “Murder, Morphine and Me,” an unglamorous comic-book story of a gangster’s moll, whose looks, relationships, and health are ruined by drugs and crime. Wertham also asserts, “Outside the forbidden pages of de Sade, you find draining a girl’s blood only in children’s comics.” Whatever his grasp of de Sade’s oeuvre, Wertham somehow missed out on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its myriad adaptations across the panoply of popular culture.
Such miscues call into question both Wertham’s methods and his conclusions, as he becomes ever more shrill. “The comic book format is an invitation to illiteracy.” “Comic-book writing is also extremely poor in style and language.” “Comic books are death on reading.” He bemoans a strip in which a beetle turns into a superhero: “Kafka for the kiddies!” Even romance comics earn his ire. “You have to wade through all the mushiness, the false sentiments, the social hypocrisy, the titillation, the cheapness.” Classics Illustrated comics attract special wrath: “Macbeth is offered to your child ‘Streamlined for Action … a dark tragedy of jealousy, intrigue and violence adapted for easy and enjoyable reading. Packed with action from start to finish…. ’ Shakespeare and the child are corrupted at the same time.” Despite the witty end line, one wonders if the Bard himself, always an entertainer first, wouldn’t have relished that description of “the Scottish play.”
Wertham’s anecdotes do evince a real concern for children’s welfare, but at heart he is more a cultural warrior. A product of some of Europe’s finest universities, he simply cannot stomach this audacious new art form. “By no stretch of critical standards can the text in crime comics qualify as literature, or their drawings as art,” Wertham railed, calling them “an inartistic assembly-line product…. Even if the drawings were good, which they are not, their numbers would kill their artistic effect.” Perhaps he was unaware of art critic Clement Greenberg’s dictum, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” It’s certainly the case that Bob Kane’s Batman drawings feel absurdly stiff compared to the flowing figuration of classic European art, but the young Bronx-born artist was creating something else entirely. The black chevrons of Batman’s cape bisecting a flat yellow moon; the bold, contorted stripes of a flailing gunsel’s suit; the vertiginous perspectives of rooftop battles amid dark urban grids; the contrasting color blocks necessitated by cheap printing—all these add up to something new, a gothic cubism, a New York dynamism.
Although Wertham collected artworks by such luminaries of the European avant-garde as Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky, he was blind to the stimulating artistic impact comics would soon have on his adopted culture. In the early 1960s, Pop Art would supplant Abstract Expressionism as the height of American art. This miscegenation of high and low would also influence such novels as Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), wherein Thomas Pynchon gives cameos to Superman, the Sub-Mariner, and Wonder Woman, as well as to the most famous creation of comic-book maestro Jack Cole, whose hypodermic-to-the-eyeball panel so incensed Wertham: “Four-color Plasticman goes oozing out of a keyhole, around a corner and up through piping that leads to a sink in the mad Nazi scientist’s lab.” Pynchon appropriated these pulpy icons to set a bar of outlandish behavior that his flesh-and-blood characters could then surpass.
In Seduction, the comic panels were poorly reproduced in black and white, undercutting Wertham’s argument that kids were drawn to comic books less for reading than to simply ogle the pictures. As the prolific graphic designer Chip Kidd told me during an interview, the eye-stabbing scene in “Murder, Morphine and Me” is “an incredible panel, and … it certainly would’ve made [Wertham’s] case a lot stronger if he had shown it in color. It’s much more terrifying.” In a book on Jack Cole, Kidd uses the original lurid colors and a three-fold enlargement of the scene—the girl’s splayed fingers, the junkie’s hand clawing her face, the spike aimed at her bulging eyeball—to emphasize its riot of nasty diagonals.
It is to Dr. Wertham’s credit that he was more concerned about violence in comics than about sex. (Though he did fret about the relationship between Batman and Robin: “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”) Additionally, he did not propose outright censorship, and in fact he writes of appearing in court to defend a novel against charges of obscenity. But when he proudly notes that the case was dismissed, he cannot help remarking, “This novel belongs to the realm of literature and art and reaches a relatively small number of readers, while these comic books are mass produced and just trash.” (Typically arrogant, he provides no title or author for the novel, and it is only later that I find a clue.)
Wertham’s solution to comic “trash”? A “law that would forbid the display and sale of crime comic books to children under fifteen,” foreshadowing the movie ratings and music-content labeling of later decades. In this same vein, he points out that the “difference between the surreptitious pornographic literature for adults and children’s comic books is this: In one it is a question of attracting perverts, in the other of making them.” Still, the tone of Seduction leaves no doubt that he would not have mourned the complete eradication of the comics industry, an outcome the Senate hearings would at least partially achieve.
Back to 2004, and the arrival of the library’s copy of the Senate transcripts, bound in a forest-green hardback that is blank save for “UNITED STATES/ JUDICIARY COMMITTEE (SENATE)/HEARINGS/83 CONG., 2 SESS. JUVENILE DELINQUENCY” stamped in gold on the spine. It is bound in a cross of linen ribbon—unlike the earlier disrobing of Seduction, opening it feels more like untying a diploma or a proclamation. This was official, not sexy, a neatly wrapped bundle of democracy soon revealed as a collision of ideals, economics, and agendas buffeted by a miasma of rhetoric. (Nowadays you can save yourself a trip to the library—much of the testimony can be found here, though one still gets a more palpable sense of the era’s machinations in the bound volume.)
On the page, the dialogue between senators chimes in the mind like those overly polite rodents, Chip ’n’ Dale. “Mr. Chairman, before we call the first witness, I just want to compliment the chairman upon a very excellent statement of the purposes of this subcommittee and of this hearing here.” “The Senator from Tennessee is entirely correct and the Chair wishes to congratulate and commend the Senator for his contribution.”
But the fix is in right from chairman Robert C. Hendrickson’s opening statement on “the problem of horror and crime comic books. By comic books, we mean pamphlets illustrating stories depicting crimes or dealing with horror and sadism…. Thus, while there are more than a billion comic books sold in the US each year, our sub-committee’s interest lies in only a fraction of this publishing field.” By some reckonings, the crime and horror genres accounted for half of all comic-book circulation, a pretty big fraction. Such a huge, profitable industry will have its defenders. A fellow psychiatrist testified, “We may criticize Wertham’s conclusions on many grounds, but the major weakness of his position is that it is not supported by research data.” (In 2012, this view was reinforced in an academic paper by Carol L. Tilley, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. More than two hundred boxes of Wertham’s papers had been donated to the Library of Congress by his widow, but access to them was embargoed until 2010. Soon after, Tilley sifted through thousands of pages of Wertham’s notes and drafts and found that the doctor “often played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics,” and that he “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.”)
In the Senate transcript, Wertham is also rebutted by a senior psychiatrist from New York’s Bellevue Hospital, who believed it was harmless for children to read crime and horror comics because they know “it is not real.” She was concerned about another medium, though. “I have seen children brought to me in terrible panics, and interestingly enough most often [because of] the Walt Disney movies which do depict very disturbing mother figures. The mothers are always killed or sent to insane asylums in Walt Disney’s movies.” (Uncle Walt was later staunchly defended by a bellicose witness opposed to crime and horror comics.) During the hearings, the senators were photographed examining a display of comics with boldface words in the titles—“CRIME,” “COMBAT,” “DANGER,” “CRYPT,” “FEAR”—reminiscent of that 1952 Charlie Brown comic strip. Similar expositions concerning the dangers of crime and horror comics also traveled to England around this same time, where Winston Churchill for one was underwhelmed—perhaps enduring the Blitz a decade earlier had inured him to the terrors of four-color pulp.
Although Seduction has little to say about Cold War tensions (Wertham was in fact a sympathetic witness on behalf of those hoping to improve the treatment of convicted Soviet spy Ethel Rosenberg in the time leading up to her execution), the specter of Communism loomed darkly over the Senate hearings in this age of McCarthyism. A booklet entitled “Brain Washing: American Style” is entered into evidence, and warns, “This evil literature floods each community by the truckload. It is produced in corruption as maggots are produced.” The American Civil Liberties Union, which has defended comics publishers, is accused of close affiliation “with communistic movement in the United States and fully 90 percent of its efforts are on behalf of Communists who have come in conflict with the law.” One comics page so angered the senators that it became the sole illustration (“EXHIBIT NO. 8b”) in 310 pages of transcripts. “Are You A Red Dupe?” was drawn by Jack Davis, a virtuoso who wildly caricatured the human form while accurately conveying the body language of a jackbooted commissar stomping a printing press. The accompanying text reads, “Here in America, we can still publish comic magazines, newspapers, slicks, books, and the Bible. We don’t have to send them to the censor first. Not yet… ” and then goes on to report that one of the most vociferous critics of comic books is the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, which insists that the violence in comics desensitizes the masses, priming them for capitalist warmongering. After much harrumphing, one senator concluded that the publishers were devoid of ideology and didn’t care “what they dish out to these youngsters as long as it sells.” The committee was fast reaching consensus that crime and horror comics were beyond redemption. (Although Senator Hennings, of the “Show-Me” state of Missouri, mused on whether they were any worse than Edgar Allan Poe, the Brothers Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen.)
Soon Wertham himself appeared. After a numbing list of credentials and publications, his testimony began, rehashing many of Seduction’s charges. He spoke of the eye injuries “with this literature that I have never found anywhere else,” and talked of a school where “Some time ago some boys attacked another boy and they twisted his arm so viciously that it broke in two places, and, just like in a comic book, the bone comes through the skin…. In this same high school in one year 26 girls became pregnant. The score this year, I think, is eight. Maybe it is nine by now.” Wertham spoke of a “general moral confusion…. I think these girls were seduced mentally long before they were seduced physically … and of course, all those people are very, very great—not all of them, but most of them—are very great comic book readers, have been and are.” Considering the circulation of comics at the time, this would be tantamount to saying today that most young miscreants are great cell-phone users.
Wertham then laid into Superman comic books. “They arose in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex.” He would not be the first or last critic to call the Man of Steel a fascist—he may just have been the most humorless. Of a revenge tale from a horror comic in which a woman cooks and eats her antagonist, Wertham said, “I am a doctor; I can’t permit myself the luxury of being disgusted,” and then added, sarcastically, “‘The End’ is this glorious meal, cannibalism.”
SENATOR KEFAUVER: So it did not have a very happy ending.
WERTHAM: Well, the comic book publishers seem to think it did. They made a lot of money.
After this, Wertham took the high ground, proclaiming, “I detest censorship. I have appeared in very unpopular cases in court defending such novelties as The Gilded Hearse.”
This, perhaps, is the elusive novel belonging to “the realm of literature and art” that Wertham referred to in Seduction, though before this august body he has downgraded it to a novelty (or else a transcriber mistakenly heard an extra syllable while typing out the testimony). The Gilded Hearse, by Charles O. Gorham, was published in 1948, and it was probably the title, cribbed from the opening epigraph, that most attracted Wertham.
The new years walk, restoring Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem The unread vision in the higher dream
While jeweled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.
—T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday IV
The book’s major transgressions are references to abortion and “fags,” clinical descriptions of the female orgasm, and moments of adulterous sex (the most explicit being a postcoital “limp, mucilaginous exhaustion” during which two lovers smoke cigarettes—“a spark dropped on Mary’s breast but she didn’t flinch or cry out, accepting the sharp, taunting pain almost with pleasure”). Wertham told the senators that he defends such books because “I believe adults should be allowed to write for adults. I believe that what is necessary for children is supervision.” A reasonable argument, but toward the end of his testimony, Wertham the demagogue rears up again: “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 four before they can read.” He then refers to a comic-book story in which “a derogatory term for Puerto Ricans, which I will not repeat here, but which is a common derogatory term, is repeated twelve times in one story. This greasy so and so, this dirty so and so…. What is the point of the story? The point of the story is that then somebody gets beaten to death.”
The doctor’s testimony ends shortly afterward, and is immediately, like a courtroom drama on late-night TV, followed by William M. Gaines. The publisher at first gives as good as he gets: “The comics magazine is one of the few remaining pleasures that a person may buy for a dime today.” … “[American children] are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action.” … “Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic.” … “The truth is that delinquency is the product of the real environment in which the child lives and not of the fiction he reads.”
Then Gaines bores in. “I am happy to say, I have just caught [Dr. Wertham] in a half-truth and I am very indignant about it.” [He is referring to the tale from the Shock SuspenStories comic that Wertham accused of promoting race-hate.] “There do appear in this magazine such materials as ‘Spik’ [sic], ‘Dirty Mexican,’ but Dr. Wertham did not tell you what the plot of the story was. This is one of a series of stories designed to show the evils of race prejudice and mob violence.”
And so it does. “The Whipping” tells the tale of a racist father who objects to his daughter’s Mexican boyfriend. In the last panel—set outside a dark house on a dark night, a perfect setting for mistaken identity—a Hispanic youth cradles a dead white girl in his arms as a balding white man pushes a white hood back from his face:
LOUIS: We … we we’re married secretly! She was waiting for me to get home … from work … sob …
KLANSMAN: AMY! AMY! Oh Lord! I’ve killed my own daughter!
Although the story is clearly—not to say head-bangingly—blunt in conveying the message Gaines attributes to it, Kefauver condescendingly averred that, while he “can’t find any moral of better race relations in it,” he thinks it should be “filed so that we can study it and see and take into consideration what Mr. Gaines has said.”
THE CHAIRMAN: Mr. Gaines, you have no objection to having this made a part of our permanent files, have you.
GAINES: No, sir.
But then the heavyset Gaines, hopped up on Dexedrine to aid in his chronic dieting, began to fade under the tag-team inquisition of senators and the committee’s chief counsel.
HANNOCH: Do you know anything about this sheet called “Are You a Red dupe?”
GAINES: Yes, sir. I wrote it.
HANNOCH: … You believe the things that you say in this ad that you wrote? … That anybody who is anxious to destroy comics are Communists?
GAINES: I don’t believe it says that.
HANNOCH: The group most anxious to destroy comics are Communists?
GAINES: True, but not anybody, just the group most anxious.
The senators betrayed no appreciation of Gaines’s broad satire, and huffed at being lumped in with Communists. In addition to Commies and beheadings, capitalism was also on the agenda. Gaines was grilled about his salary and the corporate structure of E.C. comics, and much of the testimony of the two dozen witnesses who appeared is devoted to grosses, nets, circulation figures, and retail distribution. “Tie-in” sales were hotly debated, one witness vouching that newsdealers have comic-book “trash” “foisted and thrust upon” them by unscrupulous distributors, who in turn testified that, despite the occasional “overzealous routeman,” no retailer had to accept comic books in order to obtain consignments of House and Garden or the Saturday Evening Post. Like congressional investigators delving into the Watergate break-ins two decades later, the senators were definitely following the money.
The next day, as one witness discusses the “warped sense of values” he finds in Gaines’s comics, you can almost hear a weary sigh rise up from the printed page. The politicians are united in their disgust with Gaines and his wares, and the chairman states for the record, “I shall never forget his testimony nor his demeanor.”
After a month-long recess, the hearings concluded with the orotund cadences of power as the chairman gaveled the proceedings to an end. “I think I speak for the entire subcommittee when I say that any action on the part of the publishers of crime and horror comic books, or upon the part of distributors, wholesalers, or dealers with reference to these materials which will tend to eliminate production and sale, shall receive the acclaim of my colleagues and myself. A competent job of self-policing within the industry will achieve much.”
Shortly thereafter, a group of Gaines’s publishing rivals formed the Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring body created to satisfy Congress that comic books would henceforth hew to the straight American path and portray a world cleansed of murder and deviancy. Soon the bulk of comics on the newsstands would portray Disney’s animal kingdom, Archie’s squeaky-clean teens, watered-down adventurers, and neutered superheroes, who now looked faintly ridiculous in their capes and tights. Distributors began returning unopened boxes of Gaines’s entire comics line, not just his horror and crime issues. A few months later, the disgraced publisher was joined by his old companion from the front pages, Senator McCarthy, who was censured by the Senate for his beyond-the-pale (even by U.S. Senate standards) demagoguery.
So how bad were these #!@%$&*! comic books that were forced off the stands, anyway? Certainly the occasional decapitation, eye-bulging strangulation, gangster’s body flailed by machine-gun fire, and other depictions of ultra-violence weren’t appropriate for the tenderest of tots, and perhaps Wertham’s ideas about age-appropriate ratings would have saved the industry a lot of grief. But even the worst of the comics Wertham selected to illustrate Seduction can’t compete with the today’s parade of outré sex and hi-def brutality on the Internet. The bogeyman was this: Comics were the first mass-market medium aimed at the increasing purchasing power of kids and teens. Ironically, the most subversive comic of all squeaked under the radar of both Seduction and the Senate hearings. Since 1952, Bill Gaines had been publishing a satirical comic book dreamed up by one of his editors who needed more money to fund a growing family. Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD became a runaway hit. In a 2002 interview, Maus creator Art Spiegelman told me that MAD had been “an incredibly original endeavor…. The basic message was, ‘The media, which includes us, is lying to you.’ ” Hence, “What’s My Shine?”—a blistering parody of the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, changing the venue from a Senate hearing room to the “Friendly quiz game for the whole friendly family!” The real-life McCarthy’s shouts of “Point of order!” become demands for ham-on-rye for himself and factotum Roy Cohn, wickedly caricatured with puckered lips whispering into McCarthy’s ears.
After the Senate hearings, Gaines, now a national poster boy for depravity, wanted out of the comics game altogether, since distributors would no longer touch his crime and horror wares (and, unbeknownst to him, the F.B.I. was investigating whether his grittily realistic war comics were seditious). He eventually earned millions by converting MAD from a color comic book into a larger-format black-and-white magazine that would avoid the new comics code altogether. MAD’s irreverence toward all aspects of American politics, religion, and culture—and toward itself—gave license to a group of emerging cartoonists who would crank out some of the most transgressive art America has ever seen.In Seduction, Wertham refers to a pirate drawing copied from a comic book by a patient, describing its “phallic symbols—the sword … the big gun.… The actual genitals are extremely accentuated.” What would he make, then, of S. Clay Wilson, the apex/nadir of an underground comix movement that, in the mid-’60s, rose up like a moldering corpse from an old Vault of Horror comic, as if in revenge for what Wertham had done to the medium that this new breed of cartoonists had loved as kids. Boldly rendered characters such as Captain Pissgums and strips such as “Head First: A Tale of Human Pathos on the High Seas Below Deck” (wherein one sailor admires, then chops off, then eats the massive penis of another) bristle with graphic extremity. Wilson’s chunkily crosshatched, big-foot cartoon style lends such scenes a morbid hilarity. In a published interview, Wilson pointed out, “Just because you depict evil, doesn’t mean you are evil.… People show up in leathers and shit, looking like my characters, I won’t let them in my house.” Influenced by Jackson Pollock, Wilson’s densely packed narratives of pirate slaughter and brawling bikers battle for coherence amid his horror vacui compositions. He once told a doctoral student, “I think cartoons can be art!… Let history sort it out after it’s all done, when we’re all dead.”
Wertham, Gaines, Senator Kefauver, and Tail-Gunner Joe are all dead now, but their legacies claw at us like those bony hands always erupting from unquiet graves in classic horror comics. There is currently no shortage of culture warriors and political demagogues, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund maintains a list of comic books embroiled in censorship battles across America.
For those readers who want to judge Wertham’s taste for themselves, the Web site Comic Book Plus has put up digital copies of some of the books cited in Seduction of the Innocent. On the site you can also find a comic-book series that particularly stuck in Dr. Wertham’s craw: Crime and Punishment, which, despite the title’s pedigree from Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, ignored the great Russian author’s penetrating psychology in favor of gangsters who wreak mayhem and thwart cops before achieving gruesome, premature deaths in The Chair or under a hail of lawmen’s bullets. This casual appropriation of literary cachet may explain why Wertham used multiple examples of Crime and Punishment’s lurid tales in Seduction (thereby ensuring those particular issues increased worth on the collectors’ market—Crime and Punishment, like all its brethren, ceased publication by 1955). Issue No. 59 includes the tale of Carlo Vanna, deported from America to an unnamed European country “on the first garbage scow headed straight for the Mediterranean.” Carlo lives only for revenge, training his growing son in all methods of murder and mayhem. The plan backfires when young Joe knifes his old man and heads for the New World. The panel Wertham chose to include features a silhouette of the Statue of Liberty and the text, “Joe Vanna ran far—He ran to America! He recalled the names his father had mentioned! He knew where to go—to this fence—to that gunseller!” Wertham annotated the illo: “What comic-book America stands for.” The immigrant psychiatrist had seen the downside of the American dream—its crime, violence, and decadence—in both reality and fantasy.
Which brings to mind those “streamlined” versions of great literature that also infuriated the good doctor—Classics Illustrated comics. One of the most dramatic characters in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, travels to America in an outrageous mind trip that has never been equaled in any art form. Vulgar, violent, willful, and rich, Svidrigailov gaily admits to being “depraved” and “sinful,” and says he likes his “cesspools precisely with a bit of filth.” Near the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky allows Svidrigailov an outlandish valediction after he realizes that his life, devoid of love, has been wasted. Stumbling amid the gray St. Petersburg dawn, the rogue finally stops and stares for a long moment at a grizzled old watchman (christened Achilles for his classical bronze helmet).
“Zo vat do you vant here?” he said, still without moving or changing his position.
“Nothing, brother. Good morning!” Svidrigailov replied.
“It’s de wrong place.”
“I’m off to foreign lands, brother.”
“To foreign lands?”
Svidrigailov took out the revolver and cocked it. Achilles raised his eyebrows.
“Zo vat’s dis, a choke? It’s de wrong place!”
“But why is it the wrong place?”
“Because it’s de wrong place!”
“Well, never mind, brother. It’s a good place. If they start asking you, just tell them he went to America.”
He put the revolver to his right temple.
“Oi, dat’s not allowed, it’s de wrong place!” Achilles roused himself, his pupils widening more and more.
Svidrigailov pulled the trigger.
Sadly, you don’t get this scene of America as eternal destination—and damnation—in the Classics Illustrated version of Crime and Punishment. In fact, you don’t get Svidrigailov at all. The editors conclude, “Because of space limitations, we regretfully omitted some of the original characters and subplots of this brilliantly written novel. Nevertheless, we have retained its main theme and mood. We strongly urge you to read the original.”
This is, of course, much more seductive than a parent or teacher urging a kid to read some heavy book bristling with impossible Russian names. Wertham would have done well to document how many kids went on to read the classic after first breezing through an action-packed version “adapted for easy and enjoyable reading.” Comic books opened doors to all the good stuff. Passion. Drama. Sin. Violence. Literature. Love. Sex. America.
What? Never heard of the Republic of Zubrowka? Maybe that’s because the country only exists in the world of Wes Anderson. Let the filmmaker explain all tonight when he discusses his new 1930s-set movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at the New York Public Library. Inspired by the fiction of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, the film, which opens March 7, follows the hotel’s concierge (Ralph Fiennes) as he and a lobby boy try to prove his innocence after a guest is murdered. Paul Holdengräber, director of LIVE from the NYPL, moderates.
There are always those strange cases of hoarding or gross neglect that leave the literary world polishing its glasses in a state of composed scholarly what-the-fuck. Ted Hughes “kept safe”—and hidden—a good chunk of Sylvia Plath’s later works, and an entire suitcase of Hemingway papers was once stolen from a train. It was the same deal with Federico García Lorca’s Poet In New York. The Spanish great wrote this collection while studying at Columbia University from 1929 to 1930. Murdered several years later by supporters of Francisco Franco, he would not live to see his book published in 1940. As for the original manuscript, it was lost for decades. This summer the recovered work and related artifacts will be on display at the New York Public Library, with a bevy of readings to celebrate. Tonight, some of Lorca’s successors on the local poetry scene—including Tracy K. Smith, Patti Smith, and Paul Muldoon—will perform selections from his body of work.
Perennially bearded and bespectacled, author and professor George Saunders has made a living playing the savvy spectator of our consumer culture in his essays, novels, and short stories. In his newest collection, Tenth of December: Stories, which The New York Times glowingly lauded as “the best book you’ll read this year,” Saunders uses a robust arsenal of characters as the collection’s engine. His work often echoes Vonnegut’s in its tone and toughness but, in its own way, remains merciful, despite it darkness. Dick Cavett moderates a discussion with Saunders about the author’s life at the New York Public Library.
For nearly a decade, a Japanese bodega named Yagura operated near the corner of Madison Avenue and 41st Street, on a block that runs directly east from the New York Public Library’s stone lions. In addition to groceries, a prepared-food operation in front with a raised seating area—like a cattle pen—became a lunchtime favorite of librarians and office workers. The menu extended to donburi, seaweed salads, ramen, broiled mackerel, homely yam dishes, and wonderful cream-squirting pastries baked by a crisply uniformed attendant.
Well, Yagura eventually inspired three newer and shinier Nipponese places, making the block christened Library Way into the city’s best Japanese fast-food strip. Most recently opened, Sunrise Mart (12 East 41st Street, 646-380-9280) is a branch of the long-running East Village favorite, boasting a substantial grocery display in the rear. Entering, you’ll see a small seating area; on the right, find a food-prep counter lively with the sound of sizzling fat. Small photocopied color placards hint at the vast range of dishes, most in an over-rice or hero-sandwich vein.
Many of the offerings are extremely oddball, proving Sunrise Mart one of the most ambitious innovators in East-West fusion Gotham has yet seen. This is not necessarily a commendable thing. A cheesesteak hero ($6.75) substituting lamb for beef and Swiss for American is not a bad idea, reminding me of the Weezer lyric from Maladroit, “Cheese smells so good/On a burnt piece of lamb.” But though the smell might entice, the meat is as tough as rhino hide. Another item that sounds good is the so-called rice burger. Unfortunately, only the bun is made of rice, and it falls apart when you take a bite. In addition to the standard beef patty, seven permutations include things like pork kimchi and teriyaki salmon.
But much of Sunrise’s food is great, especially when it stays close to convention. If you’re a fan of okonomiyaki—the gut-busting, mayo-squiggled pancake—the gigundo version here will be more than satisfying, stuffed with pork, shrimp, cabbage, and grated yam ($7.50). The place also excels at donburi, especially the one featuring fried shrimp, onions, and egg over rice. Another advantage at Sunrise is that you can grab a Japanese beer to wash your meal down—even at breakfast. For that meal, a separate counter slings tortured but tasty renditions of French pastries, including a chocolate croissant that also oozes banana.
Moving east, next is Mái Sushi (16 East 41st Street, 212-400-8880). Operating under the slogan “Mái Sushi, My Way,” it sports a full-blown sushi bar in the rear that’s now inactive, serving only as a seating area. However, the sushi pulled from the refrigerator cases is better than you’d expect. An 11-piece assortment that includes half of a tekkamaki roll will cost you only $6.50. But the co-strength of this pleasant spot, laid-back compared with the frenetic Sunrise Mart, lies in its handful of special hot dishes offered every day. These can run to simple assortments of steamed veggies, “hamburg” bento boxes, and, best of all, a pig-foot tonkotsu ramen ($9.50), beige and opaque. It falls only slightly short of Ippudo’s. Another time, there was a refreshingly light udon soup floating lily pads of sweet fried tofu.
Café Zaiya (18 East 41st Street, 212-779-0600), itself a branch of another East Village spot, sits next door to Mái Sushi. Check the signboard out front for daily specials, which can be mind-bogglingly cheap. Once there was a rice bowl topped with cubed bean curd in a ground-pork sauce (mahbo donburi) marked down from $5.49 to $4.49. On another occasion, a chili-shrimp donburi was reduced a similar amount. Note that the sushi sold here is not as pristine as Mái Sushi’s, but adequate nonetheless. The inside will remind you of a mini-food-court, with separate registers for sushi, pastries, and hot food. An airy seating area in the front window allows you to ogle passersby scurrying with their holiday packages.
The tiny Japantown on Library Way buzzes with activity from breakfast till late afternoon, after which it begins to slowly shut down, with kitchens closing around 6:30 p.m. A desiccated selection of leftovers remains available until a half-hour or so later. For supper or evening carryout, arrive early.
I visited all four spots on a daily basis for several weeks. On my last visit, I discovered that the lowliest and earliest, Yagura, had shuttered, perhaps as a result of competition from its newer neighbors. Which is sad, because with a buffet of fried things under heat lamps, cheap and fortifying noodle soups, and cream puffs stuffed as you watched, it was the quirkiest and most charming of all.
It takes cunning to extract the sandwich from the elaborate packaging.
Fork in the Road loves carbs – and hates Dr. Atkins and the South Beach Diet – so when we get a chance to multiply starches in a meal, we take it. Sure, you get both french fries and rice pilaf along with your entrée in many Middle Eastern cafes, and what could be starchier than a spicy and flaky Jamaican beef patty placed, as it should be, inside the mitt-shaped coco bread that was made to hold it?
Japanese fast-food establishment Cafe Zaiya, on East 41st Street
But even we were taken aback upon discovering the so-called potato sandwich inside the refrigerator case at Japanese fast-food restaurant Café Zaiya the other day, a stone’s throw from the lions of the New York’s Public Library’s main branch (who, by the way, are named Fortitude and Patience).
This near-miraculous sandwich is made on white bread with the crusts effetely cut off, English-style, and stuffed with a thin but flavorful layer of the kind of mayo potato salad that the Japanese borrowed from the Americans. Oh, and there’s a single leaf of Romaine for crunch and color contrast.
The thing ($3.50) is memorably good, and we guarantee there’s not much protein in there to distract you from the starchy goodness.
Inari Udon at Mai Sushi is Dish #31 in our countdown.
Welcome to 100 Dishes to Eat Now, the tasty countdown leading up to our “Best of 2012” issue. Tune in each day (weekends too!) for a new dish from the Fork in the Road team.
Udon don’t get no respect. While foodies line up for as long as two hours for a single precious bowl of pig-foot-broth ramen, and soba is produced so carefully that it has attained the status of a complex scientific procedure, udon struggles along, puffy, fantastically white, and underappreciated.
Welll maybe udon is poised to become the next big thing. These white wheat noodles are easy to chew, and have a playful, slippery texture. Eating them is a test of chopstick dexterity, since the udon noodles have no “tooth.”
There’s something delightful and refreshing about the inari udon at Mai Cuisine. Rather than the catalog of crap thrown into your ramen bowl, there’s nothing here except fundamentals: rafts of inari, the soaked-in-sweet-sauce manifestation of tofu, usually stuffed with vinegared rice but here not; a plain brown broth that nevertheless satisfies; and udon, in a context that makes you grateful for each wiggly noodle.
Love new fiction? Once again, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses hosts its annual Lit Mag Marathon Weekend, two days of readings and rubbing elbows with editors from all styles of journals. Today, in celebration of the New York Public Library’s 100th anniversary, it kicks off with editors from A Public Space, BOMB, and Conjunctions, to name a few, presenting their favorite selections from their very first issues. Then, on Sunday from 11 to 4 is the Giant Lit Mag Fair at Housing Works (126 Crosby Street), where you can take home a variety of magazines for just two bucks each and meet the editors. And, wanna do something else really good for literature? On Monday, don’t miss unlimited beer and dancing for just $20 at Riverhead Books’ first annual fundraiser for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts at Brooklyn Brewery (go to vidaweb.org for details). At 4, New York Public Library’s DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, clmp.org, free
Sat., June 16, 4 p.m.; Sun., June 17, 11 a.m., 2012
If you like to play party host or simply enjoy a good drink, you shouldn’t miss the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, an annual celebration that began in 2009 and is described as “part festival, part fête, part conference, and part cocktail party.” We’re definitely going for the cocktail party, but with five days’ worth of events, you’ll have plenty to choose from. Events include “Evolution of the Cocktail,” “Sunday Soulloon with G.Love,” and tonight’s opening gala, which boasts four floors of dancing and unlimited food and drinks all inside the New York Public Library. The saying “Only in New York” actually rings true this time.
Fri., May 11, 10 p.m.; Mondays-Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays. Starts: May 11. Continues through May 15, 2012