Review by Peter Duncan
HORROR: The First Time America’s Paranoia Infected the World is a recently published volume written by Australian author, Phil Hore and published by Markosia. Its aim being to take a fresh look at the American censorship of comics in the forties and fifties, and its impact worldwide.
It’s a book I very much wanted to like. It’s tackling a subject that has intrigued me for many years, the origin and impact of the moral panic over comics that struck the English-speaking world in the post-war years, and continues to cast a malign influence over the medium to this day.
The title was a big part of the appeal, implying that the author was drawing a parallel between the spread of the original “funny book” paranoia across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to infect the UK, Australia and other anglophone nations and the present-day knock-on effects those same nations are seeing from the rise of the likes of the anti-vax movement and the Qanon conspiracy emanating, again, from the United States.
From all appearances, this was a book that would both deal with a pet subject of mine and reinforce some of my own political prejudices, it would be perfect for a comfortable weekend’s reading.
Sadly, that was not to be.
The book is structured to follow a number of separate but related streams. The most enjoyable, being a fictionalised account of the experiences of a group of young comics fans in smalltown Illinois. They begin by swapping and trading comics, searching stores for titles they’d missed and conversing with friends over which comic was best or which hero was stronger.
As the book moves forward, the boys become spectators as concern over comics is raised on radio, in the newspapers and with their parents. This is probably the best written part of the book, but is not without problems. There is a degree of carelessness in the research; one of the very few comic titles name-checked in the early chapters, set before any of the campaigns began, is Turok, a character who did not appear until much later, after the hated comics code had been set up to bring the campaign to an end*. This might seem unimportant in itself, but it’s a mistake that could easily have been avoided, and alerts the reader to the possibility of other errors.
A series of chapters then outline the career of Fredric Wertham, the psychiatrist whose Seduction of the Innocent is seen as the book which led to the US congressional inquiry into comics and the restrictive, Comics Code that emerged.
What we find is an important and thoughtful figure, a man well ahead of his time in some ways, and a liberal and compassionate thinker who was no fan of censorship and took very modern positions on the treatment of the ‘insane’ and the young in the US legal system and on racial segregation.
These chapters form the opening core of a stream giving an account of the developing case against comics often using long quotations from court cases, radio broadcasts and talks given by Wertham and other key players in the campaign.
Mixed throughout the book are a series of stand-alone chapters on various aspects of the history of comics, that the author uses to develop the story he is telling.
It was with these sections that the problems with the work began to arise. Some seem to fit well, both thematically and chronologically, into the overall story being told. The links, real or supposed, between Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and the creation of Superman provide an excellent and relevant starting point. Others are badly out of sequence confused, or irrelevant. There is a full chapter on Orson Welles, for example, and his love of newspaper comic strips, that hardly mentions comic books at all, that seems to equate the newspaper strips and comic books as coming equal facing fire from Wertham and his allies. Something that was certainly not the case.
Then there are occasional out and out errors. Max Gaines, for example, was not responsible for producing the output of both All-American Comics and National Comics, the companies that would merge, joining with the separate Detective Comics Company to become DC. If that could be said of anyone it would be Harry Donenfeld, co-owner of, All-American Publications with Gaines, and CEO of National and Detective. But Gaines is used to draw a link between Superman and the early days of EC comics – a neat segue, but an inaccurate one.
More critically, from my perspective, are the sections which simplify a complex series of events to the extent that they become actively misleading. The summation of Siegel and Shuster’s various lawsuits over the ownership of Superman ignores the key issue in the case – the notorious, Work Made for Hire contracts, and completely misidentifies the basis on which they had their one major success, over the ownership of the Superboy character.
In turn, the section on the UK campaign against horror comics confuses the importation of American comics to the UK with the practice of UK publishers reprinting them; and quotes a debate in Parliament on one of these subjects, while drawing conclusions on the other. There are figures quoted and statements made about the economics of comics at that time that look wildly inaccurate compared to other research I have seen. But there is no way to check, as none of the author’s sources are referenced.
I could go on; there are similar examples chapter by chapter. There are also places where statements are made that, while not exactly wrong, are misleading because they are incomplete or not placed in context. The most disturbing thought is that somewhere in his research, our author may have found something new, but because of the complete lack of any referencing of sources it’s impossible to tell new discovery from error or over-simplification.
The thing I found most jarring of all, was the stylistic decision to mix straight factual reporting of events, often through long detailed quotations, with what amounts to a fictionalised description of the thoughts and motives of the individualsspeaking. These are delivered with the full authority of the author. There is no, “he might have been thinking”, or “perhaps he reasoned”. The thoughts of these real people are delivered as certainly as if by a fictional character and in some cases, at least, Hore seems to be applying 21st century sensibilities that it are very unlikely to represent what the real-life speaker had in mind.
It not often I get annoyed at a book, it’s even less often that I write a negative review. If I don’t like something, I tend to follow the “if you can’t say anything nice…” principle. But this book has pressed all my buttons. Not because, Horror is offensive or puts forward views I find unacceptable; my annoyance and the reason for the review is because I feel that the book is a badly missed opportunity and is, potentially, misleading on a number of important subjects.
My view is that the manuscript, as presented, was simply not ready for publication. An editor’s hand was needed. To correct some basic errors in the writing, as picked up in some other reviews, most certainly, to question the sequencing of chapters to bring them into some sort of chronology and to insist on the accurate dating of events and referencing of sources.
Most importantly, a firm line needed to be drawn between fact and fiction and the facts quoted needed to be checked for accuracyand to ensure that enough of the story was being told to avoid misleading the reader.
There is a wonderful book in here, in fact there may be more than one, and that could be the real problem. Phil Hore’s account of the lives of his young comics fans is charming and eminently readable. It would, I suspect, find a ready audience with grown-up versions of his characters, anxious and happy to relive their early relationship with comic books.
Then there is the information on the early career of Fredric Wertham, puts in context a man often vilified by comics fans, but who, in the end proved to be something very different from the demon they believed him to be. His story, told from a sympathetic point of view would be a fascinating one. This alone, would make an excellent subject for a book.
But by mixing these strands, with other bits and pieces, to tryto tell the story of the 1950s moral panic over comics, the book fails. If presented as a first draft, something to be worked on, everything is there, everything is fixable. Indeed, a minor restructure, some fact checking and a relook at some confused and over-simplified sections and there is an excellent book that could be created and its one I would be delighted to read.
Phil Hore’s own introduction provides a possible defence to everything I am saying. He warns his readers that “what follows is a story”, perhaps to excuse the odd factual inaccuracy or his invention of motives and thoughts for real-life characters, but the final sentence of the same introduction, “it’s still a story meant to entertain as much as to teach”, does, confer a responsibility on the author and more importantly his editor. To claim to be a work that teaches, requires the writer to make their best efforts to identify what is real and what is invention and to be, as accurate as is possible, with the depiction of real events.
That is, I think, the least we can expect.
• Horror: The First Time America’s Paranoia Infected The World, published by Markosia is available from all good bookshops ISBN 978-1913802448 | Buy it from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
* Turok was published by Dell, a publisher who did not join the scheme run by the Comics Code Authority, but had their own, much stricter set of restrictions on content. As a result,Dell comics never carried the CCA stamp and this may have been where the confusion arose