'America Is Not A Land of Crime, Horror, Murder, Hatred, and Bloodshed'

Censors on school boards and in legislatures have attacked a vast breadth of literature as “obscene.” You'll be shocked how they define obscenity! PLUS: The death of Whatshisname, leader of ISIS

 'America Is Not A Land of Crime, Horror, Murder, Hatred, and Bloodshed'
A Will Elder illustration for “The Night Before Christmas” from Panic. Text by Clement Moore. Via Fantagraphics.

Edited by Spencer Ackerman

ON MARCH 14, 1955, nearly 67 years before the McMinn County School Board banned Maus, the children of Stone Bank, Wisconsin, an unincorporated place in Waukesha County, were offered something like a hostage exchange. Relinquish their comic books, filled with lurid tales of treachery, crime, horror, and racism, and they would receive copies of books of their choosing from a library of two hundred more edifying titles. Ten comics got a kid a hardback copy of Swiss Family Robinson or Heidi.

The program, a national phenomenon called Operation Book Swap, was a project of the influential veterans’ public service organization The American Legion. It had come about in response to public outcry over the comics, stoked by opportunistic politicians and fraudulent pundits hawking pseudoscience that claimed crime comics produced juvenile delinquency. Inside each wholesome book, according to the Waukesha Daily Freeman, was a note from the parent who had organized the Stone Bank event, Ruth Lutwitzi:

Dear Young Reader,
You have performed a great service to your country today, by getting rid of those ten crime and horror comic books. Those ten books were like ten enemies who were trying to destroy good American boys and girls. You deserve a reward. We are happy to give you this good book as your reward.

America is not a land of crime, horror, murder, hatred, and bloodshed. America is a land of good, strong, law-abiding people who read good books, think good thoughts, do great work, love God and their neighbor. That’s America.

There are thousands of other bood books on the shelves of your school and public libraries. Read good books! Remember, good books make good Americans.

Lutwitzi made a big pile of the comics— 546 of them, writes David Hadju in his excellent book about the panic, The Ten-Cent Plague. The girl who traded in the most comics won a prize of three dollars. Then Lutwitzi set the comics on fire.

The Stone Bank event was one of many. Across the U.S. in 1955, hundreds of thousands of comics were collected by the Legion. Many, though not all, of the exchanges culminated in enormous bonfires. The flames in Stone Bank reached heights of at least twelve feet and burned for half an hour.

On the comics pages that were rendered to ash, some of America’s greatest illustrators had asked what it meant to be a good American. William Gaines’s E.C. Comics ceased publication shortly after an official Senate inquiry into whether his books contributed to juvenile delinquency; they were among concerned conservative parents’ most hated scapegoats. Gaines published horror, crime, romance, and sci-fi stories with twist endings; often, those endings took a poke at public racism and the complicity of American institutions. In one story, a reporter wakes up in the hospital to see two FBI agents, who ask him whether he can identify the Ku Klux Klan leader who murdered a woman for “consorting” with a Black man. When he says that he can, the corrupt G-men gun him down in his bed. In another, a man joins a mob that burns down a Jewish man’s house, only to learn from his mother that his family, too, is Jewish, and she has kept it a secret from him. He is the mob’s next victim.

Comics, as Jeffrey Dauber observes in American Comics: A History, were often the province of artists who couldn’t find work in other media because of their ethnic or religious backgrounds. Madison Avenue was closed to Jewish people. Cartoonists with Black heritage often worked in obscurity. The most famous and celebrated of them, George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat, passed for white by refusing to ever take his hat off.

If E.C. was condemned by the Senate, it was executed by a new organization called the Comics Code Authority, a draconian censorship board born in the aftermath of the Senate hearings. Its job was to placate a public that now thought of cartoonists as pornographers to children; they did this by reviewing comics pre-publication and giving them a literal seal of approval so that newsstands would sell them. The Authority was run by New York magistrate judge Charles F. “Boss” Murphy, who had already held the distinction of being the longest-serving head of Tammany Hall. He read Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando’s story “Judgment Day!”, about a Black astronaut sent to judge the fitness of worlds aspiring to join the Galactic Council. “You can’t have a Negro,” Murphy told Feldstein.

According to Hajdu, Gaines called Murphy and threatened to hold a press conference denouncing Murphy as a racist. Murphy relented on the condition that Orlando make a meaningless alteration to the art.

“Fuck you,” Gaines responded, and slammed down the phone. His final act as the publisher of E.C. Comics was to run the story unaltered. His comics had been reduced to smoke, but his questions remained.

AS IN 1955, there is a current vogue in banning books from schools for the unpardonable crime of suggesting that America might actually be a land of crime, horror, murder, hatred, and bloodshed. The grounds, as always, are “obscenity."

How reactionaries define obscenity is the most important thing to examine. Depictions of fascism and of the history of atrocity ought to be taught, even though they are going to be upsetting, but those are not the only books being banned. Republican elected officials are also banning straightforward stories of Black and queer and trans existence, books about court cases, even children’s picture books. Pictures themselves seem to cause special offense: They are easily understood by children, and help them order a moral universe in ways that challenge unjust authority. The easiest way to subvert that power is to declare that the Bill Gaineses of the world are slandering decent, God-fearing Americans and dare others to disagree.

By now, you’ve read that the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted unanimously to remove Art Spiegelman’s masterly graphic novel Maus, about his father surviving the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum. The reason given for removal are that the book contained eight curse words and a picture of a naked woman. Spiegelman’s book is about his parents’ time in Auschwitz and the personal devastation that radiated outward across generations because of the Holocaust; the only picture of a naked woman in the book is of Spiegelman’s mother, dead by suicide in the bathtub.

The driving force behind this specific ban seems to have been a man named Mike Cochran, an electrical engineer at nearby Smalley Manufacturing and a youth pastor at Englewood First Baptist. There’s been a great deal of condescension directed toward Cochran and others on the board over the minutes of the meeting, in which Cochran in particular appears flummoxed by the book’s content and says he went to school there for 13 years and only learned the word “damn” in third grade; I have to say I find that extraordinarily implausible. Cochran has a four-year degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee; basic literacy is often a requirement for such a degree. From his campaign photos on Facebook, he looks like he is about my age—early forties—and we had any number of swear words when I was a child living not far from McMinn County. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we also had Maus, a book that won the Pulitzer when I was eleven. The past for which Cochran and others claim to long is not merely another country; it is another country in a different dimension.

Another notable skirmish over unapproved reading took place in Muncie, Indiana in November. Students taped homemade posters to their lockers after reading Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s dystopian comic book V for Vendetta. One student drew a snarling police officer, surrounded by the names of police killers and their victims, as well as quotes from Moore’s script.

According to a report on the incident in Vice, The image so offended School Resource Officers that three of them cornered the girl who had drawn it to lecture her about the dangers of stereotyping cops. Doubtless that was the lesson she drew from the experience. The class’s posters, made in response to a forty-year-old comic about a fascist police state, were taken down at the request of the public school’s in-house police force.

The students, god bless them, mounted a full protest and marched to city hall. In response, school administrators closed the school for three days, ordered teachers to submit lesson plans detailing the next two weeks of classroom teaching, and sent a letter defending the decision to take down the posters with a denunciation of Black Lives Matter by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, a troglodyte. The teacher who assigned the book resigned in January.

THESE TWO BOOKS aren’t primarily about life in America. To the extent that Maus, a book about the Holocaust, comments on the U.S., it focuses on uncomfortable parallels, like the moment when a Holocaust survivor freaks out about picking up a Black hitchhiker. V for Vendetta is set in London and explicitly inspired by the excesses of the Thatcher administration in the 1980’s (both the author and the artist explain this in their respective introductions). But both books analyze fascism—its past accomplishments, in Maus, and its plausible future, in V for Vendetta—in a way that is accessible and interesting to older children, and that explains what is happening here. That kind of analysis, especially as part of public education, is incommensurate with the Republican program of eliminating people who belong to racial and sexual minorities.

Maus is in national news both because of Spiegelman’s stature as an artist and because many very rightly see banning a book about the Holocaust as setting an unusually shameless and frightening precedent. But attempts to ban books about Black and queer people are perennial. Recent legislative and grassroots efforts to remove books from libraries and schools have often been spearheaded by a Florida group called Moms for Liberty. The group made headlines in Tennessee for its objection to a second-grade module called “Civil Rights Heroes” on the grounds that it was “anti-white” to show students an illustration of white firefighters blasting black children with firehoses in a book about Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. In many respects, these bans are an outgrowth of the American right’s grudge over school integration, but its current manifestation as a ginned-up moral panic over “Critical Race Theory” has found more purchase than previous iterations, especially as politicians like Rokita have taken over the Republican party at the local level where these decision are made.

As those politicians ascend the party’s ranks, censorship scales up. The most sweeping bans have come in Texas. Governor Greg Abbott has denounced “pornography” in schools. State Representative Matt Krause has compiled a list of some 850 books he wants removed from the classroom because they might make students “uncomfortable.” Thanks to a recent ruling, the books are being removed from library shelves and put into storage in advance of review by the school board. Photos circulated on Twitter of boxes marked “Krause’s List” being wheeled out of a high school in Granbury, Texas.

Among the 130-odd books selected for review from the Granbury High School library were Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Movement by Susan Bartoletti, Moore and Lloyd’s V for Vendetta again, two books about the legal history of abortion by Susan Dudley Gold, and Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, a YA graphic novel about theater kids, one of whom is gay. “Krause’s List” includes virtually every award-winning graphic novel about LGBT characters published in the last few years—manga series Wandering Son, multi-volume fantasy saga Moonstruck, and Tillie Walden’s masterpiece On a Sunbeam, to name a few.

“It’s not just delinquents that want to read smut, it’s honors students who want access to the full extent of their education,” one irate eleventh-grader told the board of the Granbury Independent School District.

“Let's not misrepresent things, we're not taking Shakespeare or Hemingway off the shelves,” retorted school superintendent Jeremy K. Glenn. “We're not grabbing every socially, culturally or religiously diverse book off the shelves. That's absurd and people saying that are gaslighters and it's designed to incite division. [Governor] Abbott said that students should not have access to vulgar or pornographic materials in schools and our district totally agrees with that. Those are exactly the type of books we removed.”

Those were not, of course, exactly the type of books he removed.

It seems at first that there are two kinds of books on these lists: Books that expressly object to fascism like Maus and V for Vendetta; and books that largely eschew politics in straightforward depictions of daily life as members of racial, sexual, and religious minorities. The censors seem offended by anything visually striking, whether or not it is explicitly antifascist. Speigelman and Moore are voluble about their love of old E.C. horror, humor, and crime comics, and they are working deliberately out of that artistic tradition. Their peers on these lists are not: Telgemeier’s work recalls Donald Duck cartoonist Carl Barks; the banned manga emerges from a third, even more radically different lineage.

Conservatives have flattened all these diverse works into the same pornographic category. Frank discussion of racism is obscene; so is abortion. A graphic depiction of people walking down a public street, eating a meal, or holding their partners’ hands while being gay or trans is exactly as offensive as a comic about throwing a flaming bottle of gasoline through the window of a police station, at least as far as these activities concern “good, strong, law-abiding people who read good books, think good thoughts, do great work, love God and their neighbor.”

COMICS ARE POWERFUL. In 1871, another Tammany Hall boss, William Tweed, complained to one of his friends about the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who had depicted him variously as a vulture, a police officer in a striped jailbird outfit, and a fat tycoon with a sack of money for a head. “Can’t you stop those pictures?” Tweed complained to a friend (presumably one of Nast’s fellow newspapermen), according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’t care what they write about me, but those infernal pictures hurt.”

The medium’s champions make various cases for its power, but in 1871, Tweed was particularly right to be more concerned with pictures than words. An 1870 study found that 20 percent of the adult population was illiterate, and people were literally dying to get from Europe to American shores, where there would not be any formal immigration law until 1875. Those who were struggling to learn to read a new language and those who couldn’t read at all had an easier time with the comics than they did with the long columns of tiny text, and those cartoons’ power was immediately apparent to people for whom power was a primary concern. This is how comics were born, Dauber points out. America’s public school system taught kids to read, so newspapers developed comics that kids would ask their parents to buy.

When comics are censored, it is always because they are too “explicit” or “graphic.” That is because comics communicate, words be damned, and they communicate especially well to children. The comic that artist Will Elder remembers as “the beginning of the whole hullabaloo for EC” was called, appropriately, Panic. In it, Elder drew silly illustrations for the unabridged text of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. The Governor’s Council and the State Attorney General demanded the comic be pulled from shelves. "[Attorney General George Fingold] objected to a cartoon strip which pictured Santa Claus as ‘Just Divorced,’ and his reindeer as Cupid, [a] horse, ballet dancers, and a football team. Drawings of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell also appear in the strip,” reported the North Adams Daily Transcript.

E.C.’s lawyers objected to the ban arguing that you can’t libel Santa Claus, but that wasn’t the point. Elder was Jewish; so was most of the staff of Panic. The pure fact that Elder could walk around a free man, drawing little cartoons to make kids laugh, was illegal paganism. If the jokes were an affront, Moore’s poem had to be a sacred text; it just stood to reason. In order to stamp out difference, every stupid little trapping of white American life has to be completely pure, and the law wasn’t of any concern.

It still isn’t. In Ridgeland, Mississippi. last week, when mayor Gene McGee announced that he would be withholding $110,000 of funds allocated for the public library system until the library purged all “homosexual materials,” including a children’s book about a little girl’s convseration with her gay grandfather. Nick Judin, of the Mississippi Free Press, asked McGee whether he had the legal right to withhold funds the town had already allocated for the libraries. “I don’t know that I do or do not,” McGee replied. But right now we’re holding the money.”

SPENCER HERE. As we were finishing up this edition, the Biden administration announced a military operation in Syria that resulted in the death of the guy who took over ISIS from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His name isn't important because he's going to be replaced and you won't remember his name by Saturday anyway. And also because if you lead ISIS, fuck you, no one should give a shit about your name.

I wrote this piece after the Baghdadi raid and it applies here. Decapitation strikes are always heralded by the administration that completes them because they provide a dopamine-spiking illusion of victory. They provide nothing more, as proven by the fact that we keep doing this almost eleven years after doing it to Osama bin Laden and two-plus years after doing it to Baghdadi. Material circumstances are what keep the War on Terror alive, not charismatic figures.

Among those circumstances is a massive prison-like complex in Hasaka that for three years has been home to some mixture of ISIS fighters, ISIS relatives, ISIS supporters and unfortunate people caught up among them on refugee flows. Among them are hundreds of teenage boys and others as young as 10 years old. Their captivity persists because the U.S.-led coalition can't figure out what to do with them. Last week, an ISIS attempt at freeing the Hasaka prisoners led to the most intense urban combat since the fall of the Caliphate. I would expect that the existence of an indefinite prison camp consisting of thousands of people will have a more lasting impact on the War on Terror than the death of what's his name.

The first details of the operation are almost certainly going to emerge as incorrect. I'm writing this after listening to John Kirby's Pentagon press conference. The administration said that the ex-leader of ISIS detonated himself and killed members of his family. Maybe that will turn out to be true. On the other hand, think of all the times that, as in August, the Pentagon initially insisted that a strike that wiped out a family was a "righteous" kill. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin opened a rhetorical door in his statement on the mission:

This operation was specifically designed and conducted in a manner to minimize civilian casualties.  We know that al-Qurayshi and others at his compound directly caused the deaths of women and children last night.  But, given the complexity of this mission, we will take a look at the possibility our actions may also have resulted in harm to innocent people.

Kirby suggested in his press conference that there is a question over who killed a child on the second floor of the compound. He also clarified Austin's comment: there is "no decision to do a review or an investigation," just a willingness to "take a look… I don't want to leave you with the impression that there's an investigation." Credit to Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal for, typically, pressing him on the point.

Here is an initial account from a neighbor of the place where al-Qurayshi was, via Joe Kent from Air Wars.

What does it mean for ISIS? There's always an awkwardness for the same administration officials who hype a decapitation strike. They're pinioned between needing to show that the killing matters but not that it matters so much that the terrorist entity is destroyed. Eleven years after bin Laden, President Biden and team didn't even make an effort today at contending that this dead terrorist leads to anything like finality.

Instead, they promised more of this sort of thing. "We will stay at it," said Austin, who was "emboldened by the knowledge that ISIS, though still very much a viable threat, is now weakened."