In 1954, the massive, and popular, comic books industry changed forever. Those heavily visual narrative tales provoked outrage amongst the grown-ups who believed these books would lead to the ruin of a generation of youngsters. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham condemned them in his book Seduction of the Innocent. The U.S. Senate held hearings to determine how bad comic books were. This all resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which, until only recently, existed as a sort of self-censorship arm of the industry. Certain popular genres of comic books went underground, or disappeared altogether.
"That was the last moment of a huge media industry," says Ben Dickow, "for it to be free."
Dickow is the director and producer, as well as a performer, for Captured Aural Phantasy. That's an L.A.-based theater group that stages readings based on vintage comic books. Sunday night, a few weeks shy of the 60th anniversary of the Senate hearings, the group performed the second installment of their "Seduction of the Innocent" trilogy, a series highlighting the genres most impacted by mid-20th century controversy over comic books.
Called Taboo Tales of Terror, Sunday night's show delved deep into horror. On the stage of Silver Lake restaurant/theater El Cid, the cast performed comic book tales like "Mother's Advice," "Wall of Flesh" and "Lover, Come Hack to Me" as though they were radio dramas. In between, they added other bits that fit with the theme of the show. This includes a rendition of a comic book story called "Raving Maniac," about an angry reader giving an editor grief about publishing monster stories. They performed old comic book advertisements and included a few related cover songs as well ("Mack the Knife" and "Psycho Killer"). They presented a dramatic reading of an obituary for EC Comics, the publisher whose books were at the center of the brouhaha. If you came to El Cid knowing nothing about horror comics or those Senate hearings or the Comics Code Authority, you would be the end of the night. It was as informative as it was entertaining.
A few days before the performance, I met with members of Captured Aural Phantasy before a rehearsal at the Highland Park home Ben Dickow shares with his wife, and fellow performer, Laurel Robinson Dickow.
Captured Aural Phantasy started out in Chicago. Their founder, Ben Ziola, was a comic book fan who used to read the stories aloud to his family. That led to similarly-styled gatherings with friends, which led to the founding of the theater group. Dickow, who was part of the troupe in Chicago, brought the show to Los Angeles with "partner-in-crime" Thomas Roche. They've been running for five-and-a-half years and currently perform monthly at El Cid. They have also performed at San Diego Comic-Con.
Ben is a comic book collector and has acquired lots of titles of that came out prior to 1970s. Beyond that, there are vintage titles that have been reissued. He also says that there's a good network of fellow collectors who help out each other in their quests for now-obscure comics. Sometimes, he says, it's tough to narrow down the selections. And they do need to be selective.
"Not every story works for this," says Dickow. "We read through tons of stuff to decide what we're going to do."
The tales have to meet certain criteria. "It has to have a nice, succinct story," he says. The visuals have to work with the performance as well, as panels from the comics appear on a screen in the middle of the stage during the performances. Their work explores the multitude of comic book genres that existed during the gold and silver ages. Each event takes on a different theme from "teen angst" to superheroes. They've tackled stories like "Supergirl Goes to College" and delved into the love life of Lois Lane. "Early Silver Age DC is the best to do in this format," says Ben. "There's so much weirdness. So much funny stuff."
The primary goal of the group is to have fun with the material. "I don't want to be too heady about it," says Ben.
However, there is some social commentary as well, particularly in the latest installments of the show.
"For using the comics as the cornerstone of what we do, we've never been so overtly sort of about comics than we have been," says Ben. A lot of that is timing.
On April 21, 1954, William Gaines of EC Comics (also the publisher of Mad magazine) appeared before the Senate subcommittee handling this hearing. Gaines was essentially the fall guy for the industry. He took a lot of heat for the comics that EC published, particularly the horror titles. Consequently, the comics suffered. Gaines put his efforts into Mad, which became one of the most influential humor publications of the 20th century. "It was William Gaines from EC Comics who kind of failed miserably at the Senate hearings and sort of damned the industry," says Ben. "Within two weeks, the industry had started having meetings to write the Comics Code. By the end of that summer, it was adopted. It happened super fast."
It cannot be stressed enough how important these events were for the evolution of the comic book industry. Maybe, with a trilogy of shows, audiences can see and hear what genres were devastated by the actions. Last month, the group performed romance comics, another genre that fueled the outrage of those concerned groups, a genre that practically disappeared in later years. The group discusses one of the pieces from the show. "They were touching on subjects that maybe a younger audience might not even have the bravery to discuss amongst themselves," says Amy Golden, who is an actor with the troupe.
With horror, the stories are gruesome, but not without humor. The pun-driven titles like "Lover, Come Hack to Me" are an indication of that. This specific piece, which closed out Sunday night's event, was a standout. It was from issue number 19 of an anthology called The Haunt of Fear, published by EC. In it, a newlywed couple get caught in a storm and wander into an old mansion for shelter. Nothing bad can happen there, right?
The group discussed what kind of horror comics they would present. "I wanted to be able to show what people were commenting on," says Ben. "What were the stories that people were really offended by or really drawn to at the time?" Two of the pieces here are murder tales and that's important to note in the context of the 1950s controversies surrounding comic books. They are unsettling stories. Even one of the actors, Golden, says that she was uncomfortable at first reading the stories aloud.
In some respects, the stories may appear tame. There aren't mass casualties or live action gore. However, the troupe members point out a difference here. You get to know the victims pretty well before they meet their fate.
"Some of them, probably, couldn't be made on network television today if you did them shot for shot," says Josh Hickman, the show's narrator. "They're too intense and they're too personal"
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