The Comic Book Scare and the New Criticism

[The following is excerpted from Chapter 3 (“Fan-Addicts and the Comic Book, 1938–1955”) of Projections: Comics and the History of 21st-Century Storytelling, a new book from TCJ's Jared Gardner, published by Stanford University Press. ]

As Marshall McLuhan put it in 1954, “If there is a truism in the history of human communication it is that any innovation in the external means of communication brings in its train shock on shock of social change.” A decade later, Richard Hofstadter characterized the response to such shocks throughout American history as traditionally articulated in what he termed the “paranoid style.” We see both McLuhan’s shock and Hofstadter’s paranoia, for example, in the response to the rise of the new media of the novel in the late eighteenth century: the sudden influx of a new and seemingly captivating narrative mode accessible to those who had long been denied access to literature and literacy, and the concomitant visions of a generation of readers so deeply immersed in a world of novelistic fantasy that they can no longer distinguish fiction from reality, rake from worthy suitor, con man from trusty steward. A little more than a century later, a similar pattern emerges in the response to the rise of cinema and the new audiences and producers who crowded into the nickelodeons of the early twentieth century, anxieties about moving pictures and their tendency to dazzle spectators (into submission or sin) with a technologically empowered illusion of motion and realism. In both cases, the popularity and accessibility of the new media was of course central to the anxieties it inspired. And in both cases as well, the anxiety often centered on concerns about how “weaker” and more impressionable minds (children, women, immigrants) would handle the (to use an anachronistic but apt term) “virtual reality” generated by the new narrative media.

Given this recurring history of shock and paranoia in response to “innovation in the external means of communication,” it was to be expected that the unprecedented rise of the comic book—both in terms of speed and quantity—would follow a similar pattern. After all, the comic book seemed to have literally appeared overnight, particularly after the return of soldiers from World War II who brought their habit of reading comics home from the front, where comics had often been the most accessible reading material. Still a relatively small industry at the outbreak of the war, by its conclusion the comic book was the most widely consumed reading material in the United States.

As opposed to responses to the rise of the novel in 1809 or cinema in 1909, in 1949 the anxiety about comic books was definitely not that they produced a dangerously illusory alternative reality. The danger was never that comics were too immersive, but that they were not immersive enough. No one can read a comic book, no matter how well executed (as only a select few were in those early days of the comic book industry, which relied heavily on a sweatshop system of production), and forget that these are made things: someone drew the comic, someone lettered it, and so on. Where the early novel marketed itself as offering the “truth” (often in the form of “found” documents) and the early films focused on actualities and relished in popularizing stories of audiences so mesmerized by their projections as to shoot back at the screen or, like the country bumpkin in Uncle Josh Goes to the Motion Picture Show (1902), compelled to fight an onscreen villain, comic books from the start necessarily foregrounded their madeness. For example, the inside cover of the inaugural issue of Action Comics, in which Superman made his first appearance, featured an open invitation to readers of the comic to pick up a brush and try it themselves.

Similar contests, as we have seen, go back to the serial forms of the previous generation and would have been familiar to readers. But such invitations in a comic book describe a very different relationship to the constructed story-world being presented. Since comics could not pretend they were not drawn, written, colored, they highlighted the work of producing comics and promised that readers would soon be making comics of their own (“This is a cinch!” the young artist announces in Action Comics). Whereas the dominant narrative conventions of U.S. narrative cinema in the 1930s strove to achieve the classical Hollywood “styleless style”—the camera’s agency as “narrator” creating the illusion of voyeuristic access in an unfolding event—comic books from the start explicitly called attention to their creators. We see this for instance in the first issue of Superman, which presents a portrait of the two young men at work, with Siegel “at his typewriter, thinking up his next thrilling adventure” and Shuster “at his drawing board about to start the new superman episode.” If the Hollywood dream was that anyone could be discovered at the soda fountain and become a “star,” the dream that comics sold from the start is that anyone could write back to the comics’ authors and become a “creator.”

From early on, it seems, readers did respond to the invitation. The illustrations accompanying a 1943 account of comics and their readers in the New York Times, for example, provides an interesting view of how some young readers at the time were interacting with these materials. In the first image we see children buying the comics from the newsstand, reading them on the street, communicating with each other about the contents of the latest issue. In the second image, the children are portrayed as actively engaged in making and sharing their own comics: a pigtailed girl holds up a three-panel comics describing a violent crime, while the boy at the easel invents a new superhero.

In fact, several of the earliest studies and portraits of the comic book phenomenon seemed to support the narrative represented in these illustrations. For example, a 1941 account by Paul Witty, an education researcher at Northwestern, focuses on the tendency of comic books to inspire in their readers a desire to “make original comics” of their own; his survey results reveal that the majority of comics readers also produced—and often traded and even sold—their own comics. Witty describes a visit to one school, for instance, where he is approached by a student asking him if he would like to “rent a book” that he and his friends had made—and even offering for a slightly larger sum to produce “a special limited edition, designed and tailored to suit my personality.” Witty and other researchers discovered gray markets in schoolyards and clubhouses where comics were traded, resold, and original comics were circulated and “rented.” By and large, the academic study of comics in the 1940s was for the most part unified across a range of disciplines—psychology, sociology, education, and criminology—in finding little significant “danger” in comics to a reader’s mental development, literacy, school performance, or likelihood to turn to crime.

While the majority of studies from the social sciences and psychiatry attempted to defuse the mounting concern over any direct connection between comics and crime, it is by no means accurate to suggest that all academics saw the rising influence of the comics as fundamentally benign. Comic books came on the scene in the midst of a major sea change in the fundamental understanding of aesthetics and especially of the professional labor of those who made aesthetic judgments. Within the humanities, the rising tide of four-color comic books was inevitably perceived as a travesty to the model of aesthetics on which the academic professional increasingly staked his identity. As Wendy Steiner puts it, “The chasm between high- and middle-brow taste yawned in 1950s America,” a chasm increasingly, in her analysis, focused around the privileging of “feminine beauty and allure” which “flourished in the popular arts,” while “high art more ferociously than ever shunned such nonaesthetic ‘interest.’” Framed somewhat more broadly, as the distinction between high and low widened and hardened in the postwar period, the body and its affects became identified increasingly with the “nonaesthetic” while the style and taste apportioned to high culture was that which liberated the viewer from bodily affects to an “objective” relationship with the art object itself. While we tend to focus in the stories we tell about postwar anticomics anxiety on the content of the material, it is their status as aesthetic objects that was perhaps most disturbing to many observers—especially in their capacity to engender bodily and affective responses that humanities criticism was working to relegate to a primitive past and a degenerate present.

As Michael Trask describes it: “Whereas the fin-de-siècle account of the aesthetic (Oscar Wilde’s, say) understood it as an immersion in experience, the mid-century account of the aesthetic (Clement Greenberg’s, say) emphasized art’s self-distancing and its detachment from experience….” Within postwar art criticism, the emerging aesthetic ideal privileged the work of art as complete, autonomous from the viewer’s gaze, appealing to the viewer’s logic and not to bodily experience or personal emotions. Any work of art that “depends upon the beholder, is incomplete without him,” as Michael Fried argued in Art and Objecthood (1967), and any such work becomes necessarily predatory, waiting in the dark for the viewer: “And once he is in the room the work refuses, obstinately, to let him alone.” The comic, with its formal and inescapable demands for active completion by the reader, is therefore necessarily a most predatory aesthetic objects.

If art criticism of the postwar period was especially concerned with protecting the viewer from the degenerate art object that clings to the viewer for its completion, postwar literary criticism—epitomized by the New Criticism—focused on the degenerate reader imposing his fantasies on the text. In the new “science of objective evaluation,” both the “origins” of a literary work (its author) and its “results” (the emotional response of its readers) must be excluded from the field of analysis. Only when liberated from the critical fallacies of the past, as Wimsatt and Beardsley argued in the 1940s, can the systematic reader (freed from his own feelings) finally see and study the text itself (freed from the biographical and biological facts of the author). As René Wellek put it in an influential 1941 English Institute lecture that would serve as a call to arms for many postwar critics, for too long criticism has been “purely emotive: it judges works of art in terms of their emotional effect on the reader or spectator and describes this effect by exclamations, suggested moods or scene, and so forth. However disguised, much criticism amounts to the labeling of works of art by emotional terms like ‘joyful,’ ‘gay,’ ‘melancholy,’ and so forth.” In place of the Wildean deep immersion in the aesthetic experience, New Criticism promised a method of reading that liberated the text from the personality of the author and the emotive response of the reader, from having to resort to words “like ‘joyful,’ ‘gay,’ ‘melancholy,’ and so forth.”

The search for a systematic and objective criticism purged of “false sentiment” and taint of the personal and particular was of course motivated in part by a broader anxiety in postwar humanities disciplines about the status (professional, but also gendered) of critics. All of which goes a long way to explain the apparent disconnect in the responses to comics in the period from scholars in the social sciences and those coming out of the humanities. In truth, of course, with few exceptions, the New Critics did not openly address the specifics of comic books, far and away the most popular reading material of their age. “Comic book” instead became for them shorthand for all that was degraded and degenerate about contemporary mass culture. As Allen Tate put it, for example, the function of the critic is to resist all attempts to “foist a comic book culture on us, as would-be Grand Inquisitors romp over the freedom of our thinking.”

For the New Critics, “comic book” became an adjective to describe not only the lowest of the lowbrow but also the threat to individual thought and expression posed by mass culture in general. The popularity of the comic book certainly suggested some kind of mass mind-control, which the well-made poem and the well-tuned critic stood ready to resist.

If the comic book could not be addressed directly, the “comic book culture” it served could be held up as that which conspired to prevent the development of the powers that New Criticism sought to extend to a postwar generation of readers with unprecedented access to higher education. Eschewing the encyclopedic demands of allusion, intertextuality, literary history, and biography, the New Critics privileged instead a quality of mind and a disciplined attention to the form of the text itself. These were mental and aesthetic disciplines that could be taught, disciplines that did not require a privileged background or education. The comic, on the other hand, was necessarily intertextual and inevitably incomplete, requiring the reader to insert his feelings and interpretations actively into the text itself. It was captivating, affective, and relished in both the personality of the author and the emotive response of the reader.

There was one fascinating moment where comics and New Criticism collided fairly directly—an unlikely exchange in the pages of The American Scholar between William Moulton Marston, a psychiatrist and the creator of Wonder Woman, and Cleanth Brooks, one of the young stars of the New Criticism. Like other psychiatrists, Marston had first become aware of comic books because of concerns over the influence of this new media on young readers. Unlike most who would follow in the 1940s, however, Marston saw a career opportunity in a growth industry. In what amounted to a job application, in a 1940 article in Family Circle Marston provided the first psychological endorsement of the power of comics and a reassurance to middle-class parents that the fantasies they encouraged were healthy and productive, earning him an invitation from Max Gaines to serve as a professional consultant for the fledgling industry. Once in the door, Marston (writing under the penname Charles Moulton) developed Wonder Woman—as he described it in The American Scholar in 1943, a female superhero designed to counterbalance the one fault he saw in comic books. “It seemed to me, from a psychological angle, that the comics’ worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity,” he argued, and Wonder Woman was to provide what his research, professional and personal, had convinced him was the true desire of every man: to be dominated by a loving and strong woman. “Give them an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves!”

The title of Marston’s article was “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics”, and his professional answer to the question (as both comics professional and professional analyst) was that the comic book format was a powerful and salutary “mental vitamin” that allowed readers to work through their deepest and most repressed fantasies, fantasies (such as the desire of male readers to submit to “an alluring woman stronger than themselves”) that could literally save the world from its own worst instincts, including war. For Marston, the phenomenal rise of the comic book represented the culmination of American literature, now arriving at a “zenith of popularity never before achieved in world history by any form of reading matter.”

In the next issue of American Scholar, Cleanth Brooks and his Louisiana State colleague Robert Heilman responded with a long, facetious account of their sudden conversion to Marston’s philosophy in their literature classes, claiming that they now will even employ models dressed as Wonder Woman to help illustrate their lectures and demonstrate female superiority. Brooks and Heilman maintain their deadpan approach throughout their letter, expressing their gratitude to Marston for inspiring their “conversion” to comics over traditional literature, and they conclude by calling on Marston and the editors of The American Scholar “to tell us more about the comics by means of comics”—even offering to furnish the editors with the zinc plates necessary to transform the journal into a comic book: “We are sure that there are literally thousands of Phi Beta Kappas who will happily contribute their keys, if need be, to bring the power of the ‘visual image’ to the aid of puny reason in the great fight to save the humanities to which we are all committed.”

However, when they turn to the excesses of Marston’s fanciful prose style (for example, his praise of comics for “amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought”), they can no longer maintain the role of “converts.” “Brother Marston is a daring poet, and like all daring poets he needs an imaginative reader to meet him halfway,” they scoff, in what for a New Critic is a most damning assessment of any “poet.” For Brooks, especially, as for the New Critical lions with which he is most closely associated, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, any text that required the reader to meet it “halfway” was by definition not poetry.

This point might in fact be dismissed as an offhand quip was not Brooks at this very moment hard at work on a lengthy response to a direct attack on his methods and aesthetics, also published in The American Scholar just a couple of issues earlier. In “Intellectual Criticism,” Darrel Abel had accused Brooks and his fellow New Critics of studiously working “to define poetry as intellectual exercise and to deny that its value consists in its appeal to the feelings.” In the issue following his sardonic response to Marston, Brooks went directly on the attack against the critics of the methods and goals of the New Criticism. And what he attacked in his critics was in effect precisely what he found distasteful in Marston’s defense of comics. While accepting that, as A. E. Housman had suggested, “the skin may bristle so as to defeat the razor when a man is confronted with true poetry,” nonetheless, Brooks argued, “skin-bristling is not criticism.” As Brooks argues, clearly responding here to Abel and Marston at once: “In a civilization in which we are fast losing our ability to read even expository prose, in which our characteristic study of literature turns, more and more, into history, and in which the majority of the adult population, we are assured on good authority, turns for its emotional satisfaction to the comic strips—in such a civilization there may be something to be said for ‘intellectual’ criticism after all.”

New Criticism in many ways was brought into contact with the tension between its ideals and reality by the rise of the comic book. On the one hand, the New Criticism was motivated by a democratizing impulse, seeking to bring discrimination through critical discipline to a new generation of readers. On the other hand, its methods dramatically widened the gulf between how people actually read and how the critics were now telling them they should read. It was not just “good” reading material versus “bad”: at the heart of the New Criticism and the postwar humanities in general was the teaching of right ways to read versus proscribed and even pathologized reading methods. Bad readers read for emotions, for feelings, for chills and tears and other bodily responses (“skin-bristling”): their reading methods, like the reading materials themselves, were fundamentally pornographic, even masturbatory as suggested in the illustration accompanying an article about the comics scare in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Good readers, on the other hand, read for ideas, liberated of individuated emotions and individual bodies: their reading methods, even more than their materials, are cultivated, as Trask puts it, “against a mass culture that is understood, on the one hand, to wallow in its own emotional excess and, on the other hand, to feign its sincerest values.”

We are unlikely today to associate the New Criticism with the Cold War coalition that was gathering evidence and burning books (often not in that order), a coalition made up of what might reasonably be called the usual suspects: children’s authors such as Sterling North, horrified at the comics’ “hyperdermic injection of sex and murder”; religious leaders like Reverend Thomas F. Doyle who worried over the ways in which superheroes destroy the foundations of modern religion by encouraging something akin to pagan idolatry; or anticommunist committees in search of evidence of socialist propaganda in the newsstand comics mesmerizing young readers. And yet it is important to recognize that the aesthetic ideal and reading practices championed by the New Critics and the postwar humanities in general created the conditions for the pathologization of dangerous books and bad readers. Fredric Wertham arrived on the scene to provide an official scientific medical diagnosis to the pathology— although it was not exactly the one that many anticomics crusaders would have scripted themselves.