“This comic book describes a sexual aberration so shocking that I couldn’t even mention the scientific term on television. I think there ought to be a law against them. Tonight, I’m going to show you why.”
On October 9, 1955 the Los Angeles, California-based television network KTTV aired Confidential File: Horror Comic Books. A “factual” report presented by newscaster Paul Coates, the 25-minute broadcast purported to not only uncover the shocking truth of horror comics, but depict explicit the threat that they posed to future generations of the United States.
From interviews with the infamous Senator Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee Senator who led the 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearings against comic books, to speaking with a “reformed” comic book artist Ellis Eringer and a multiracial group of children, Coates attempted to show on multiple levels — and on public television for the first time — how comics were not only dangerous, but directly responsible for the rise in juvenile delinquency.
“Excellent manuals. Regular do-it-yourself pamphlets” is how the Coates described horror comics of the 1950s. And sadly, with the American public being spoon-fed information about the negative implications of comics on the radio, in magazines, in newspapers, and now the newly popular home television set, they couldn’t help but continue to see them this way.
In the early 1950s, Brooklyn-based child psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham began his crusade against comics, culminating ultimately in the 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearings and the subsequent creation of the Comic Code Authority and Comics Code. Although stories of the “true” and “lurid” nature of comics had been printed in numerous newspapers and magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Time, and “scientific” reports had been compiled into books like Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, Confidential File was the first time an in-depth, comprehensive report appeared on television and in people’s living rooms. Complete with graphic reenactments of child violence and the sadomasochistic impulses that “experts” claimed would result from reading comics, Coates captivated audiences with sound and picture. If people didn’t think comics were so bad before, after witnessing what was presented on television, they did now.
“One of the wonderfully appealing things about children is that they haven’t come to the age where reality and unreality are divorced,” ironically notes Coates — the same thing could be said about the people who attacked comics. “The emotional impact of something they read in a comic-book may be much the same as a real-life situation they witness.”
Although the argument being made by Coates wasn’t new or original, being able to see a serious reporter talk about a “serious” issue, talking directly to you made all the difference. “I mentioned before that the final responsibility for the control of crime and horror comics rests with you,” concludes Coates, who then advocates for legislation banning comics:
A few cities have already done something about them — not too many, but a few. Legislation against unfit comic books is possible. Legislation that won’t interfere with the rights of free press. Contact your city officials. Let them know how you feel about the crime and horror comics, and remember this, America is the richest country in the world, with the world’s biggest producer of goods, but our most important commodity — the one commodity we can’t put a price tag on — is our children.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!