Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency: Wertham Versus Gaines On Decency Standards

Email a Friend
Cover of Crime SuspenStories 22. This issue was entered as evidence in the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings, April and June 1954.

The investigation continues! The evils of horror comics are explicated by two contrasting witnesses, Dr.  Fredric Wertham, a reserved psychiatrist, and William Gaines, the chief purveyor of such lurid publications as The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, and Tales From the Crypt

The increasingly bizarre claims made by both sides in this dispute, and the pointed questioning by the presidential aspirant Sen. Estes Kefauver, eventually prove too much for the other members of the committee. 

Wertham contends that comic books, with their emphasis on sadism, immorality, and blood-lust, are fueling a rise in juvenile delinquency.  He considers them "a public health problem" and favors a law forbidding them to be displayed to any child under the age of 15. Frequent mention is made of his just-published book on the subject, Seduction of the Innocent. When asked by Senator Kefauver if horror comics are much like Hitler in their use of the "the big lie," he responds:

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.

Wertham is followed by EC publisher William Gaines, who reads a prepared statement:

I was the first publisher in these United States to publish horror comics. I am responsible, I started them… 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.

Gaines' argument is that his comics are in good taste -- "What I consider good taste." This opens the door to his famous exchange with Kefauver, who holds up a cover of Crime.

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.

There's a palpable sense of discomfort in the chamber, which only grows when Kefauver presses Gaines on  a mock-ad in the comic magazine Panic referring to the advertising campaign for Maidenform bras. "This is a lampoon magazine, sir," Gaines answers in exasperation. "We make fun of things."

Although Gaines' appearance now looks like a typical "setup" to provide shocking ammunition for the committee's publicity-hungry senators, the comic book website recounts:

…Historian Maria Reidelbach notes that public sentiment turned decisively against the young publisher, as television and print news reports widely quoted the “severed head exchange.” The front-page story in The New York Times emphasized that testimony and carried the headline: “No Harm in Horror, Comics Issuer Says.” Such reports helped to confirm what book critics had been arguing all along -- that comic book publishers were a decadent group out to make a profit at the expense of children, with little regard for the impact their crime and horror comics had on the youth of America. Common sense dictated that full-color comic book covers with gruesome illustrations were definitely not in good taste for children’s reading material.

The irony is that the resulting furor drove Gaines from the field of horror and caused him to focus on his humor publication Mad…which he transformed into a magazine to escape the new strictures imposed on comics. Mad, in turn, proved far more subversive, and had a far greater influence on the youth of America, than any horror comic. It also made Gaines a wealthy man and a symbol of 1960s  iconoclasm.

Gaines was born in 1922. His father, Max Gaines, is regarded as instrumental in the development of comics as a newsstand staple. William Gaines took over EC (which could stand either for Educational or Entertaining Comics) in 1947, when his father died in a boating accident. He shifted the company's emphasis from, among other subjects, illustrated Bible stories to horror comics. Aficionados, however, contend that EC's literary content and artistic quality were of a much higher standard than that depicted by the committee. Plots had unexpected twists. Many stories contained subtle critiques of American crassness and materialism. And standards of taste were considered. The very cover Kefauver critiques in this recording was a revised version, toned down at the request of Gaines himself.

But it was with Mad Magazine that Gaines truly came into his element. Although he did not contribute to the magazine directly, he claimed to be responsible for the "atmosphere" which fostered its unique assault on hypocrisy. By doing so, he became a well-known cultural figure in his own right. The New York Times described him in its obituary as:

…a 240-pound publisher who filled the office water cooler with wine and celebrated hitting the million mark in circulation by packing his staff off to Haiti, where Mad had exactly one subscriber. Few readers ever receive the kind of personal attention that Mr. Gaines lavished on him: Mr. Gaines drove to his house and handed him a subscription-renewal card.

Gaines refused to accept advertising for Mad, or cash in by agreeing to lucrative merchandising deals. He insisted on removing from all contracts the standard agreement that the parties would resolve disputes "in a reasonable manner," claiming he could never be reasonable. Thus, while not a writer or an artist, he seems to have embodied the magazine's anti-authoritarian spirit.

 Gaines died in 1992, at the age of 70.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of transcription disc.