Student-curated exhibit at Sterling Library explores the 1950s comic book scare

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Stephanie Tomasson ’16 curated the exhibit, which occupies the five cases in the library’s exhibit corridor, based on her senior essay for the Department of History. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

During a televised hearing on April 21, 1955, U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver held up a comic book to the cameras. Its cover depicted an ax-wielding man holding a woman’s severed head.

Kefauver, who was chairing hearings on whether crime and horror comics contributed to juvenile delinquency, asked Bill Gaines, editor of EC Comics and publisher of the comic at issue, whether he thought the cover was in good taste.

“Yes, sir, I do — for the cover of a horror comic,” Gaines said.

Kefauver’s crusade against comics is the subject of “Senators, Sinners, and Supermen: The 1950s Comic Book Scare and Juvenile Delinquency,” a new exhibition at the Sterling Memorial Library on view through Sept. 22.

The gruesome cover of “Crime Suspenstories No. 22” was the subject of an intense exchange between Kefauver and Bill Gaines, editor of EC Comics.

Stephanie Tomasson ’16 curated the exhibit, which occupies the five cases in the library’s exhibit corridor, based on her senior essay for the Department of History. Each spring, the Yale University Library offers senior undergraduates the opportunity to curate exhibits based on their senior thesis research. Tomasson was selected from a pool of candidates as the first in a new program that makes all of the corridor’s display cases available to one student curator.

An interest in the power of visual imagery and the intersection of politics, media, and culture drove Tomasson to explore the 1950s comic book scare. Kefauver and others accused crime and horror comics — which told lurid and graphic tales of murder and mayhem — of causing a spike in juvenile delinquency after World War II.

Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” which argued that the comic books encouraged bad behavior in children, inspired Kefauver’s anti-comic stance.

“I considered Wertham’s arguments and thought there is no possible way that this was really only about the relationship between comic books and juvenile delinquency,” the Yale senior said. “There has to be something at work here beyond that.”

Senator Estes Kefauver chaired Senate hearings in 1954 on whether crime and horror comic were causing a spike in juvenile delinquency.

Tomasson’s research led her through Yale’s collections and to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where she combed through Kefauver’s archives with the support of a Mellon Grant as well as two grants from the history department. The exhibit presents her discoveries using materials drawn from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Special Collections at the Yale Divinity School Library, Sterling Memorial Library, and Manuscripts and Archives, as well as Kefauver’s papers.

Kefauver’s hearings occurred amidst growing Cold War anxieties about communist infiltration and the erosion of the American ideal of the nuclear family, Tomasson said. They ran parallel with the televised Army–McCarthy hearings that resulted from U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous investigation into communist infiltration of the federal government.

Tomasson argues that — like McCarthy — Kefauver, Wertham, and the comic book publishers sought to capitalize on American’s fears. The publishers wanted to sell comic books. Kefauver and Wertham hoped to gain notoriety and bolster their respective careers. (Kefauver had an eye toward winning the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 1956 presidential election.)

“I don’t really think Kefauver believed that comic books had anything to do with juvenile delinquency. I think he was trying to regain his status as a household celebrity – get back on people’s TV screens. Literally get into their homes,” said the Yale student.

In his attacks on comic books, Kefauver adapted McCarthy’s characterization of communism as an insidious and evil force contaminating the minds of Americans and the world at large, Tomasson said.

“If you look at Kefauver’s rhetoric, you can see that his message was about the need for containing an invisible force that was going to infect the minds of the youth of America,” she said.

This Shadow Comics from June 1940 demonstrates that comic book covers featured graphic images years before Kefauver’s 1954 Senate hearings.

The exhibit features several examples of the “crime and horror” 10-cent comics that Kefauver had targeted, including a copy of the now iconic EC Comics “Crime SuspenStories, No. 22” comic that Kefauver had waved before the cameras.

Tomasson, a student docent at the Yale University Art Gallery since her sophomore year, put certain materials into dialogue with each other, she said. For example, a photograph by Wynn Bullock of a child facedown in a redwood forest, which stirred controversy when exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1955, is juxtaposed with a copy of “Crime SuspenStories, No. 21” whose cover shows a sexualized woman about to bury a dead man in a forest.

“The Distribution of Comic Books in the New Haven Area,” a 1954 essay by William E. Mundell for a social ethics course at the Yale Divinity School, shows that Yale students also grappled with the notion that comic books influenced children’s behavior. (Mundell’s essay warned of their corrupting influence.)

The exhibit explores the versatility of the comic book medium. It includes examples of comics used as anti-communist propaganda, as campaign literature for a U.S. Senate candidate, to advocate for the American worker, and to teach children about atomic energy.

Kefauver’s subcommittee released a report in 1955 that rejected government censorship of comic books, but called on comic book publishers to self-regulate.  The industry created a Comics Code Authority and appointed a “Comic Book Czar” to review all titles before publication. EC Comics folded soon after the hearings, and the number of comic books published in the Unites States fell sharply over the next two years. Gaines switched his focus to humor. Mad magazine is the lone surviving title from EC Comics.

The comic book industry began to self-regulate after Kefauver’s hearings, but as this 1972 edition of Supergirl shows, publishers continued to release material that sexualized the female body.

The exhibit’s last case explores the enduring influence of comic books on American culture. Comics generated about $935 million in sales in 2014, not including digital media. They inspire blockbuster movies and top-selling video games. Comic books remain a vehicle for social and cultural commentary, addressing issues, such as race, sexuality, and the response to terrorism.

“The comic book medium is one of the most powerful forms of communication because it only takes a second to understand what a comic is trying to say to you,” Tomasson said. “And I think that’s one of the things that really scared people.”

Tomasson, who will move to New York City after graduation and take a job at an independent advisory firm, praised David Gary, Kaplanoff Librarian for American History, and Kerri Sancomb, the library’s exhibits production coordinator, for supporting her throughout the project.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” she said. “They guided me through every step of the process, which was great because I have never done anything like this before.”

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548