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Perhaps the most interesting thing in Amy Kiste Nyberg?s book, Seal of Approval, is that it doesn?t chronicle the evolution of any actual legislation ? the comic industry decided to regulate itself rather than risk the Congressional hearings of the 1950s leading to government regulation.
Nyberg, a communications professor at Seton Hall University, has a great interest in comic books ? so much so, that she?s the chair of the Comic Art and Comics Area of the Popular Culture Association. Even though she wasn?t involved with the situation as it was happening, Nyberg still has just a good of a grasp of the issues involved, and was honestly, one of the more even handed books I?d read.
Usually, the focus in books like these is that the comic book publishers were 100% in the right, and Dr. Fredric Wertham and his famous book, Seduction of the Innocent, was 100% wrong. Nyberg actually showed both sides of the story, and clarified things that other texts overlook ? such as, contrary to popular belief, Seduction of the Innocent wasn?t just about comic books, but popular culture in general. Wertham?s book merely used comics as an example, as they were rather prevalent when he was doing his work as a social worker and psychiatrist. While Wertham believed that comics ?were a factor in juvenile delinquency, he was careful to point out that there was no direct, linear relationship between reading comic books and delinquent behavior? (p. 86).
Even though Nyberg goes the extra mile to make sure that Wertham isn?t misunderstood, she makes clear two things: First off, that although Wertham wasn?t the quack that many comics historians make him out to be, he wasn?t dead on either, and secondly, the Comics Code Authority, the regulating committee was not only at its base wrong, but also arbitrary and misguided (which, on the other hand, many comics historians agree with).
It actually was interesting and refreshing to see a small biography of Wertham in the text. It illustrated that he actually was reputable, socially conscious (in fact, he worked to get minorities benefits and help, in both fighting hospital bureaucracy and even testifying for Clarence Darrow ?on behalf of indigent blacks?), and had a legitimate interest in helping children (p. 89). Most books on this subject paint Wertham as some sort of bizarre caricature hopping up and down raving for the destruction of anything that even resembled a comic book, and shrieking ?Won?t somebody please think of the children?!?. Of course, Wertham doesn?t get off completely free, but Nyberg refuses to attack Wertham himself, merely his pro-censorship ideas. The real fun of the book, however, is when Nyberg deconstructs the often idiotic constraints put forth by the Comics Code Authority, or CCA. The CCA was an independent organization funded by the major comic book publishers in the form of fees paid for their books to be critiqued. A publisher would do a book, send the art to the CCA, along with the fee, and it would be looked over, and each page would be approved, or if it wasn?t, notes would be given on why it was unacceptable and how exactly to go about changing it. Once, everything was approved, the book went out with the stamp on the cover.
The problem with the CCA was the completely arbitrary standards. One of my favorite examples was that of the E.C. Publications (publishers of Mad magazine) story ?Judgment Day?, in Incredible Science Fiction (formerly Weird Fantasy). The story is about an astronaut who goes to a planet of robots, where everything was segregated based on the color of the individual robots. The astronaut decides that the planet is ?not ready to join the rest of the galaxy? because of their backward ways ? in the last panel, the astronaut removes his helmet, and it turns out that he is black (p. 123). A pretty straight-forward anti-racism story. A pretty straight-forward anti-racism story that was rejected by the CCA. The reason? When the helmet was removed, the reader could see perspiration on the man?s face, which apparently fell under the code?s rule stating that ?ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible? (p. 123). I?ve yet to understand how this excuse works, especially in a story that seems to back up that rule. The story was printed after the publisher, William Gaines, threatened to sue; the CCA deemed the story acceptable, rather than deal with an angry Gaines.
About the only shortcoming of the book is that it doesn?t really go to the history of comic book censorship before the Congressional hearings. For example, the short-lived attempt to treat comics with an anti-war theme as seditious libel. I believe the reasoning behind it was that comics were marketed more to children ? which wasn?t entirely true; one of the big components of the post-WWII comic boom was the GIs coming back home to the US wanting to continue reading the comics they read overseas. Thankfully, the idea of these books being seditious libel was more or less rejected right out when it came to court. This minor shortcoming aside, I thought the book was well written, and while I don?t exactly see it becoming a bestseller anytime soon, I thought it was reasonably accessible even to someone who hadn?t read anything about this period of history as it applied to comic books.