Fifty years later, looking back on the man who fought the mob and the comic book industry ... and won
By Jason Scavone
In March 1951, Frank Costello sat across from U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver and his special committee to investigate crime and, when asked what he ever did for his country, scoffed “Paid my tax.”
The moment is the climax of the Mob Museum’s best installment, a look at the Kefauver Hearings, which rolled into the old Las Vegas courtroom on November 15, 1950. Vegas, then in the warm, lovingly extortionate embrace of the mob, was a natural fit for Kefauver’s crusading.
The hearings concluded a month later, signaling the first inroads toward breaking the mob’s control of Vegas. (Thanks for ruining my potential career paths in leg-breaking, numbers-running or wheel-manning, Estes.) The triumph gave Kefauver enough steam to mount presidential bids in 1952 and 1956 (eventually joining the ticket as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in ’56).
But 50 years ago on April 21, Kefauver, in between failed presidential bids, held another set of hearings. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency had people actually testify, in front of members of Congress and everything, about the dangerous, morality-eroding qualities of comic books.
Because Estes Kefauver is history’s biggest buzzkill.
In 1953, Senator Robert Hendrickson convened the subcommittee of the Judiciary (on which Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada sat at the time) to investigate the growing problem of juvenile delinquency (lots of leather jackets; frequent orders to “scram”) along with Senators Thomas Hennings, William Langer and Kefauver. For three days in New York in 1954, the committee grilled a series of psychologists, publishers and cartoonists about the link between “crime and horror comics,” and the rising tide of juvenile crime. Like all the Luckies that were being shoplifted, or the way doo-wop groups terrorized street corners all over the neighborhood.
They were spurred on largely by The Seduction of the Innocent, a book published in 1954 by New York psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, then 59 and a consulting psychiatrist at both Queens Hospital Center and the New York Police Department’s juvenile aid bureau.
Wertham wasn’t exactly a fan of comics. Or of, you know, tolerance. In Seduction, he accused Batman and Robin of being secretly gay partners and Wonder Woman of being a lesbian. He also thought there was a secret conspiracy in the publishing world to keep Seduction out of circulation, pointedly asking the subcommittee, “Will this book be distributed or will the sinister hand of these corrupters of children, of this comic book industry, will they prevent distribution?”
Not self-delusional enough for you?
“Stating that mine is not a minority report, Mr. Chairman, I would like to quote one more critic, Mr. Clifton Fadiman, who says that he senses the truth in my presentation as he sensed the truth in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Nothing like putting your hysterical fears that Wonder Woman might have a girlfriend up against a landmark text in the crusade against slavery. Maybe you can write that off as it being the times, but if you really want to get a sense of just how Fox News-on-cheap-PCP unhinged the climate was, consider the exchange when Wertham insisted that comics trained kids in how to rob banks and whatnot by eliminating the kinds of mistakes that normally brought down criminals.
Kefauver: Would you liken this situation you talk about, showing the same thing over and over again until they finally believed it, to what we heard about during the last war of Hitler’s theory [of telling] the story over and over again?
Hendrickson: The “big lie” technique?
Wertham: Well, I hate to say that, Senator, but 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.
In 1940. Steve Rogers clearly beat up Hitler on the cover of Captain America No. 1, so I’m pretty sure Wertham didn’t even bother to fact-check his material. But Batman and Robin are gay? Everything you oppose equals Hitler? Give Wertham credit: He was an Internet comments troll 40 years before there was an Internet.
With the focus of the hearings on crime and horror books—the bread and butter of EC Comics—the committee saw fit to bring in EC publisher William Gaines, who got in what might have been the greatest dig ever entered into the congressional record: “Some may not like them. That is a matter of personal taste. It would be just as difficult to explain the harmless thrill of a horror story to a Dr. Wertham as it would be to explain the sublimity of love to a frigid old maid.”
Then, for the second time in four years, Kefauver got Costello-ed.
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.
Just as with the mob, though, Kefauver’s committee got its way. By September 1954, the comic book industry voluntarily banded together to create the Comics Code Authority, which would self-regulate for decades until Marvel withdrew in 2001, DC in 2011 and finally, even Archie. (Archie Comics recently announced they’d be killing off Archie Andrews. Coincidence?)
The mega-blockbuster films of today more accurately reflect Code-era comics than they do darker material that started when the industry fractured in the ’80s—except for the rule that “females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” No one could have foreseen Scarlett Johansson.
But the hearings do give credence to those who insist that Vegas was better in the mob days. If the man who so clearly loathed fun was the same guy who wanted to get truth, justice and the American way into the casinos, maybe gun molls and the skim really were better than players club cards and progressive slots.