Love & Death
LOVE & DEATH
In the early 1950’s, comic books were coming under increasing attack due to their continuing content of violence and sexual innuendo. Leading the attack were such books as Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by Dr. Frederic Wertham, and Parade of Pleasure (1955) by Geoffrey Wagner. However, the hysteria found its beginnings in the 1940’s in an article by Dr. Wertham, published in the Saturday Review of Literature (1948) and in Love & Death (1949) by G. Legman. The latter, which billed itself as “A Study in Censorship”, contained within it a wholesale attack on comic books, their violence masquerading as “entertainment”, their super heroes whose actions as lynch-mob vigilantes are “in no way distinguishable from [those] of Hitler and the Klu Klux Klan”. While the question of violence in comics was certainly a valid concern, the tenor of the attack on comics, whether crime, western, educational or teenage, can only be viewed as strident and fanatical.
The diatribe against comic books is contained in a series of disjointed essays in a chapter of Love & Death called “Not For Children”. Legman’s recurrent theme is that comic books (and other “entertainment” medium for that matter) glorify and pander to sadism and violence while treating acts of sex - which is at least normal-as a taboo. In America, says Legman, “sex in literature is worse than murder. The publisher of a novel in which intercourse is described goes to jail. The publishers of pocket reprints-seventy or more percent murder-make a million dollars”. (P. 46). Legman states that it goes without saying that “the publishers, editors, artists, and writers of comic-books are degenerates and belong in jail”. (Page 45).
G. Legman is George Alexander Legman. According to Contemporary Authors Volume 15, Legman is a Marxist who wrote several books on sex and violence in popular culture. Legman boasts to have collected one of the finest private libraries on the subject of erotic literature. He was a critic of censorship which allowed “children to watch dramatizations of murder and mayhem but prevents them from seeing people making love”. Legman himself has asked: “Can anyone explain this double-standard before it blows up the world?” The U.S. Post Office labeled Love & Death “obscene” refusing to deliver mail to Legman. Fed up with such actions, Legman moved to France for a period of time.
Legman’s tirade against comics appears to have been triggered by the dramatic explosion of crime comics which occurred in 1948. The dramatic increase in the number of crime titles was in direct response to the decision in Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507 (1947) wherein the Supreme Court held that a state statute which prohibited the publication or distribution of publications “principally made up of criminal news, police reports or accounts of criminal deeds or pictures or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime” was unconstitutionally vague. In obvious reaction to this decision, crime titles increased from twenty in 1947 to over one hundred in 1948.
Two basic themes run through Legman’s essays on comics. Firstly, all comics (or “violence-leaflets” as he calls them) are principally, if not wholly, devoted to violence. Secondly, the only “censorship” demanded is that whatever violence has been committed after “seven pages of glorious cop-killing and lawbreaking” by a particular criminal, the appropriate killing of the criminal be inflicted in “perfunctory genuflection” on page eight to show that “crime does not pay”.
Legman states that children who gobble up these stories are exposed, panel after panel, year after year, to a steady diet of violence, wherein the reader identifies himself not with the victim but with the “heroic beater, shooter, strangler, blood-letter, and/or torturer”, teaching children that “violence is heroic and murder a red-hot thrill”. (Pages 31-32).
It is at this juncture that Legman really gets the wagon rolling. Legman claims that the “psychiatric justification” for comic book violence is that “violence in fantasy will prevent violence in fact, that perversion on paper is social therapy”. This “fantasy violence will...divert [a child’s] aggression to unreal enemies and frustrations and in this way prevent him from rebelling against parents & teachers [who are] busy abnormalizing him.” (Pages 32,49).
Legman finds violence in comics starts at the youngest level with “little anthropomorphic animals” mutilating one another. This pattern of violence, he claims, is not confined to the medium of comics but pervades movies and radio as well. “In our culture perversion of children has become an industry.” (Page 34) (For instance, Legman complains that Walt Disney’s The Three Little Pigs changed a “story of diligence rewarded and laziness punished” into an animated collage of “wolf-tortured-by-pigs”.). From here comics of “talking animals massacring one another” evolves for older children to “similar massacres between cops & robbers”. (Page 37)
Critics of Dr. Wertham in the 1950’s countered that it was absurd to trace juvenile deliquency to comics. Such simplistic cause-and-effect ignored the child as an individual and his individual neurosis. Legman anticipated such a defense by stating who would not be neurotic after being exposed year after year to thousands of “little pictures of ecstatic murder and heroic sadism”. (Page 49). Legman maintains that no proof of causal connection would be required if what was published were erotic comics. The mere possibility of harm would be enough. However for American society somehow murder is different.
It is at this point that the wheels start coming off the wagon. Not satisfied with these observations Legman furthers his criticism of comics by attacking Superman and his fellow imitators who wear “hangmen’s suits of red-white-&-blue”. The attack is not just limited to the fact that these costumed heroes enforce law and order by “fists crashing into faces” as “the court of highest appeal” or that they invest violence with “righteousness and prestige”. (Page 39). No these acts promote Naziism, homosexuality and anti-Semitism. Justice (nor, perhaps, understanding) could not be done to his explanation for these conclusions by trying to paraphrase his thought process. Legman states at pages 42 - 43 as follows:
Nor are the comic-books lacking in any of the trappings
of their Naziism. It may even be that they are not un-
conscious of their function as pilot-plants for the fascist
state. There is the same appeal to pagan gods for totally
unearned powers- Wodin, Thoth, Oom, Ug and the rest of
that pantheon. There is the same exploitation of magical
insignia: Superman’s big “S” without which he is powerless,
The Flash’s thunderbolt, also Captain Marvel’s- a swastika
is two thunderbolts crossing, ....-the Lone Ranger’s even
clearer monogram, lacking only one leg of being a swastika
There is the same needful creation of a super-menace to
excuse the creation of the super-avenger. There is the same
anti-intellectuality, not only in the worship of “coat-hanger
shoulders and nutcracker jaws”,....and in the stock character
of the “mad” scientist, but in actual propaganda strips
showing whole hordes of scientists in white coats setting out
to enslave and destroy the world. When the comic-book
reader hears the word “culture” he too reaches for the
safety-catch of his revolver. There is of course the same
anti-Semitism: all the more sinister villains have “Jewish”
noses. In some cases the hook-nose is the only way to tell
the equally bloodthirsty villain and (snub-nose) hero apart.
There is the same glorification of uniforms, riding boots,
and crushed caps: Blackhawk, for instance, and his
international lynch mob, are dressed from tip to toe in the
Gestapo uniform, but in state-trooper blue instead of black.
And there is the same undercurrent of homosexuality and
The exploitation of brutality and terror is blatantly ap-
parent. The homosexual element lies somewhat deeper.
It is not- at least, not importantly- in the obvious faggotry
of men kissing one another and saying “I love you”, and then
flying off through space against orgasm backgrounds of red
and purple, not in the transvestist scenes in every kind of
comic-book from floppity-rabbits to horror-squinkies,
not in the long-haired western killers with tight pants (for
choice). Neither is it in the explicit Samurai sub-
servience of the inevitable little-boy helpers- theoretically
identification shoe-horns for children not quite bold enough
to identify themselves with Superprig himself- nor in the
fainting adulation of thick necks, ham fists, and well-filled
jockstraps; the draggy capes and costumes, the shamanistic
talismans and superstitions that turn a sissified clerk into
a one-man flying lynch-mob with biceps bigger than his brain
It is not even in the two comic-book companies staffed
entirely by homosexuals and operating out of our most
phalliform skyscraper. The really important homosexuality of
the Superman theme- as deep in the hub of the formula as the
clothes and kisses are at the periphery- is the lynching pattern
itself, in the weak and fearful righteousness with which it
achieves its wrong. No matter how bad criminals
(or even crime-comics) may be, in identifying himself with them
the child does consummate his Oedipean dream of
strength: the criminal does break through his environment.
The Superman, the Supersleuths, the Supercops
do not. They align themselves always on the side of law,
authority, the father; and accept their power passively from a bearded
above. They are not competing-not for the forbidden mother,
not for any other reward. Like Wild Bill Hichkok, our own
homosexual hero out that where men were men- with his long
silk stockings and his Lesbian side-kick, Calamity Jane-
they are too unvirile to throw off fear, and kill as criminals.
Instead, unseen and unsuspected in some corner, they put on a
black mask, a sheriff’s badge and a Superman suit, and do all
their killing on the side of the law.
Having crossed this violence-sexual threshold Legman’s wagon sleds to its finish. Legman perceives the attack on the normal sexual element in comics to be misplaced. It diverts the focus from the violence in the books. Beside the fact that certain aspects of sex are natural and healthy Legman believes it is violence that abnormally “sexually” excites young boys and not “highly developed binocular bosoms.” (Page 45) The “hypocrisy” of the current attack on comics to Legman is that comic book critics review comic books “showing half-naked women being tortured to death, and complain only that they’re half naked. If they were being tortured to death with all their clothes on, that would be perfect for children”. (Page 45). For Legman, sadism is being substituted for sex. The publishers of comics have substituted “legal blood for illegal semen, crime for coitus”. Society accepts as “respectable” murder mysteries, murder movies and murder comics. But present a “sex book” and a “sneer” is automatically elicited. Legman rhetorically asks: “At least sex is normal. Is murder?” (Page 53) For Legman, society is not ready to have love and death fight it out in the marketplace.
Legman, in the final analysis, perceives little that can be done to rectify this situation. “Not for children”. Not while parents see nothing wrong with comic book violence when they themselves are addicted to “precisely the same violence page of their breakfast newspaper to the nightly prize-fight or murder-play in movies, radio and television coast-to-coast”. (Page 50)
While certainly Legman’s extremist views and acidic words may obscure the validity of his point, one might wonder, forty years later in today’s comic-book marketplace, where clearly the generation of “slice-and-dice” “ heroes” sells best, if something has indeed been lost in the medium of the comic book.
©Jon Berk, 2009, All Rights Reserved.