Tales from the Crypt

Article excerpt

In the early 1950s, a respected psychiatrist and well-meaning reformer named Fredric Wertham published a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent and nearly destroyed an indigenous American art form. Wertham alleged that comic books were a major cause of juvenile delinquency, violent crime, social disaffection, and deviant sexually (sound familiar?). Not only did he wax apocalyptic over the lurid horror comics of the time-EC Comics' The Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, and The Vault of Horror--even the superheroes fell under his ever-critical eye. Wertham accused Wonder Woman of promoting lesbianism (under the very scientific theory that dykes wear skimpy flag costumes and fly about in invisible air, planes) and fearlessly sniffed out the homosexual undertones in the relation, ship between those costumed bachelors, Batman and Robin. The end result of the 1950s comic-book-violence controversy--which ranged from community bonfires to Senate Judiciary Committee hearings--was the creation of the Comics Code, which managed to keep comics from maturing for at least 20 years.

Because the code actually prohibited the use of the words horror and terror in comics' titles, EC publisher William Gaines was forced to shut down his popular horror comics. As a result, EC editors Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein threw all their efforts into the company's one remaining money, maker: Mad magazine.

For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather; this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.

William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman both died in 1992 but are fondly remembered by legions of fans. Fredric Wertham is currently on the same internal chain gang as Anthony Comstock --using his bare hands to lay down hot asphalt along the Good Intentions Expressway. (I hope the Crypt-Keeper's there too, with a shotgun and mirrored sunglasses, shrieking, "What we have here, boys and ghouls, is a failure to communicate! Eee-hee-hee-hee!")

Like most predators, censors thrive when the culture can provide lots of weak, disorganized, wiggly little creatures for them to chew up and swallow --and the past 15 years have seen a virtual Cambrian-scale explosion of such organisms. The advent of the printing press helped facilitate the Protestant Reformation; today, for any number of reasons, people have greater access to more forms of expression and entertainment than ever before. I don't think rap music would be half as vital if the Reagan administration hadn't spent years kicking the hell out of the under, class, and it wouldn't be anywhere near as technically complex and sonically challenging as it is without the advent of digital sound technology. Suddenly, kids who would never be able to afford a whole studio could mount assaults of sound with merely a boom box and a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. In publishing, desktop systems helped such radical efforts as On Our Backs and Z to be born, and thanks to advances in software, nearly anyone can design a magazine that looks as cool as Mondo 2000 or Spy. There's a nifty device for Amiga computers called the Video Toaster that lets video freaks create special effects that rival those of Industrial Light and Magic (for example, the new TV series "Babylon 5" does its effects with a bank of Toasters).

Of course, this good stuff isn't all due to technology. Inspired by the creative independence of the "under, ground" comics of the late 1960s, as well as the desire of many comics workers to gain some control over their work, artists and writers have been starting their own companies, taking care of their own distribution, and throwing off the constraints imposed by the code. …