Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency: Comic Books, "Soda-pop," and Societal Harm

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Cover of Black Magic 29

This is "not a subcommittee of blue-nosed censors," the chairman Robert Hendrickson claims, in his introductory remarks at these famous Congressional hearings on the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, broadcast over WNYC on April 21, 1954.

He is quickly upstaged, though, by the publicity-hungry star of the proceedings, the presidential aspirant Sen. Estes Kefauver, who inveighs against "indecent and scurrilous literature" and points out that the crime rate is up, particularly in areas (burglary, auto theft) associated with juveniles. Thus the tone is set for one of the more colorful showdowns between 1950s conformity-conscious America and the seamy underbelly of its popular culture. 

The first witness is the committee's investigator, Richard Clendenen. Using slides as a visual aid, he recounts some of the more gruesome plots of current horror comics. With the senators solemnly looking on, he summarizes a recent story in Black Magic magazine, explaining:

…that this shot shows certain inhabitants of this sanctuary which is really a sort of sanitarium for freaks where freaks can be isolated from other persons in society. You will note one man in the picture has two heads and four arms; another body extends only to the bottom of his rib. But the greatest horror of all the freaks in the sanctuary is the attractive-looking girl in the center of the picture who disguises her grotesque body in a suit of foam rubber. The final picture shows a young doctor in the sanitarium as he sees the girl he loves without her disguise. The story closes as the doctor fires bullet after bullet into the girl's misshapen body.

Clendenen's thesis seems to be that while there is no conclusive proof that tales of sadism and immorality (or just plain weirdness) can turn an ordinary American youth into a juvenile delinquent, the easy accessibility of these publications and the increasingly transgressive direction in which they are heading can encourage latent antisocial tendencies in some readers. He introduces a host of (often contradictory) opinions from various psychiatrists and professors as well as a complex grading system of all comics. Archie, for example, receives an A, while Captain America's Weird Tales is given an F.

Dr. Harris Peck, director of the Bureau of Mental Health Services and the New York City Children's Court, is the next witness. He is less comfortable in assigning such a direct relationship between comics and juvenile delinquency, taking "something of a middle-of-the-road point of view."

The final witness of the morning session is Henry Edward Schultz, general counsel of the Association of Comic Book Magazine Publishers. He pretty much admits that the current Comic Book Code has been a failure, hinting at an industry rife with "internecine warfare." Rather than conform to the code, publishers of horror comics have simply left the organization.

With the conclusion of Schultz's testimony, the morning session comes to an end. Kefauver is clearly on the attack in these proceedings, burnishing his image as a protector of decency (he had previously complained about "pin-up" posters) and attempting to recapture some of the notoriety he had received from his 1950 hearings on organized crime. But the real fireworks will come in the afternoon session, which contains his famous exchange with horror comic (and future Mad Magazine) publisher William Gaines.

Kefauver (1903-1963) was in many ways an anomaly for his time and place. A populist liberal representing Tennessee first in the House and then in the Senate, he was only one of three Southern senators (Albert Gore Sr. and Lyndon B. Johnson being the others) who refused to sign the Southern Manifesto, a segregationist response to the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. He was particularly interested in what we would now call consumer protection long before it was a considered an important issue. Theodore Brown Jr. and Robert B. Allen write on the website that:

…As chairman of the Senate's Antitrust & Monopoly Subcommittee in the late 1950s and early '60s, he earned the well-deserved reputation as the nation's foremost defender of the public interest. For example, he conducted several highly publicized investigations into such abuses as administered prices in the steel, electrical, and drug industries and into the inadequacies of federal drug safety regulations. One result of his efforts was the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act (1962), which, though weaker than the proposed legislation initially introduced by Kefauver, imposed such federal controls on the sale of dangerous drugs as requiring substantial evidence that a drug be both effective and safe as prerequisite to licensing, generic names on drug products, and mandatory disclosure to physicians of information about the effectiveness and side effects of prescription drugs.

But there was another side to Kefauver. In his bid to gain national attention, he often resorted to publicity stunts, holding hearings on subjects that seem, in retrospect, not to have merited in-depth investigation. At his Switchblade Hearings, ostensibly held to warn of the danger of concealed weapons, he would brandish for the press various lethal objects, including bayonets. Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, calls these hearings on comic books:

…an investigation conducted by senators [that] has been compared to a court run by kangaroos, and the analogy is not unfair, except possibly to the kangaroos. The normal rules of evidence do not apply in Congressional hearings: badgering is appreciated; the verdict has frequently been arrived at in advance. Perry Mason, swatting away objections like flies as he sweated the truth out of guilty witnesses, faced more stringent procedural constraints. The Senate committee…was determined to indict the makers of comic books, and the hearing was designed as a spectacle.

Kefauver ran for president twice, losing the Democratic nomination in 1952 and 1956. He was Adlai Stevenson's vice-presidential running mate in 1956. In 1963, he suffered a heart attack while speaking on the floor of the Senate and died two days later, at the age of 60.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.


Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of original recording.