Monday, October 21, 2013

Archie vs The FBI - When John Goldwater Challenged J Edgar Hoover

It started with a standard FBI memo, issued to all law enforcement agencies across America, and signed by J. Edgar Hoover.  Hoover loved his memos almost as much as he loved scaring the general population and collating data on people via index cards and secret files – the amount of files that have been released in recent years is a mere teardrop in the ocean.  For example, the FBI claim that they have no files at all relating to crime comics or the infamous Senate Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency, and, if you believe them, then you’re more gullible than most.  The bulk of Hoovers memos regarding comic books and their effect upon the youth of America went unchallenged, but one publisher stood up and took the FBI, and Hoover to task – John Goldwater, the publisher and co-founder of MJL, and best known for publishing Archie Comics. 

In the early 1950s, Goldwater was instrumental in the formation of the Comics Magazine Association of America, the organisation who established the Comics Code of America, which would dictate the content of comic books from the 1950s through to the late 1990s.  If the comic didn’t have a CCA stamp of approval on it, then it wouldn’t be distributed, the Code stamp signified that the comic was child friendly.  It would take Stan Lee, of all people, to begin to buck this trend when, as a publisher, he made the decision to publish two Spider-Man comics dealing with the effects of drug taking.  Over at DC Comics, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were doing something similar in their landmark Green Arrow/Green Lantern comic, but, for the most part, the CCA held a firm grip on what could, and couldn’t, be published by all the major, mainstream comic publishers.  The Code was revised during its history, but the basic rules remained the same – no crime, no horror, no blood, no guns – none of the things that children, especially by the 1970s, were seeing on a daily basis on their televisions. 

The Code generally pacified the FBI.  By the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s the FBI was large enough that nobody, especially anyone working in the comic book industry, wanted to take them to task.  To fight the FBI was akin to committing professional suicide and those who did take them on didn’t do so lightly.  Thus the FBI were able to say and do pretty much what they wished without fear of challenge.  This included publishing briefs about the effects of comic books upon the youth of the day, and linking them to all kinds of illicit and illegal activities.  Despite the claims, and as false as they were, the publishers kept their silence, until one publisher, John Goldwater, clearly decided that enough was enough and fired back.  

The memo that set Goldwater off lumped comic books in with pornography.  The offending paragraph read; “I am speaking of the unquestionably base individuals whospread obscene literature across our land through the means of films,decks of playing cards, photograph’s, "comic" books, salacious magazines, paperbacked (sic) books and other pornographic products. These forms ofobscenity indeed threaten the morality of our Nation and its richest treasure – ouryoung people.”  The rest of the memo followed Hoovers usual method of operating, mentioning moral decay, obscenity, depravity, pointing out that drugstores and ‘sweetshops’, while once the haven for the innocent, “…now display publications whicha few years ago would have a place in only the bawdiest of gathering places.”  Thrown in were some crime statistics involving sex crimes and rape and the inference was clear – comic books were no better than porn.  Despite the claims, the publishers remained silent.

Writing under the guise of the President of the Comics Magazine Association of America, Goldwater wrote directly to Hoover strongly objecting to the memo.  In the field of comic book history, the three page letter, and the person it was directed towards, is as important a strike as any against the misguided attacks that the comic book industry had suffered since the 1950s.  Goldwater’s letter led off with the following paragraph;
“Our attention has been called to your statement linking comic books with pornography, which has been reprinted in newspapers throughout the country during the past month. We respectfully, but most strenuously, wish to protest such unjustifiable characterization, for there is absolutely no existing basis for it. Its publication, over the name of someone of your stature and public esteem, constitutes a serious liability to an industry which has demonstrated its responsibility to a remarkable degree on practically a unanimous basis ~or more than five years. The comic books sold on the newsstands today are not, in any sense, pornographic or obscene; they are, on the contrary, decent and in good taste. While it is possible that your statement was not intended to include the comic books sold on newsstands; nevertheless, the average reader could assume that it did, for the statement did not distinguish the legitimate product of our industry from the type of material produced in cartoon-form to be sold illicitly as pornography.”

The rest of the letter pointed out that the comic book industry, for the most part, had suffered as a result of the Kefauver Senate Hearings and Wertham and that 90% of all comic book publishers (the hold out being Harvey Publishers, who felt that Casper The Ghost and Ritchie Rich clearly didn’t need a CCA code) had signed up and adopted the code.  Goldwater also made mention that the Catholic Church approved of comic books and pointed out that, since the dark days of 1954, “…almost two-thirds or the publishers or comics magazines in business at the time the code was adopted have gone out or the field. There were some thirty publishers actively engaged in producing comic books in the Fall of 1954. Today, there are only eleven!”  Goldwater also enclosed the standard Comic Code booklet and waited.

Typical of the FBI of the time, Hoover, in their eyes, was right and Goldwater was wrong.  It was all in the wording.  “There is no basis for his criticism since there was no intention of connecting legitimate comic magazines with obscenity,” a follow up memo read.  “The second paragraph of the Introduction stated that obscene literature is spread through the means of films, decks of playing cards, photographs, 'comic' books, salacious magazines, paperbacked books and other pornographic products. Certainly this should not be interpreted as meaning that all decks of playing cards, "all photographs, paperbacked books or "comic” books are means distributing obscene material. The quotation marks were used specifically around the word comic in the Introduction to convey the idea that legitimate comic books were not-being criticized.”  The reply memo went on to state that the comic books in question were under the counter comics and not quality fare such as Moon Mullins, Dagwood or Lil’ Abner.  Plus the FBI and Dell had collaborated on a comic book that showed the FBI in action, so, as far as the FBI was concerned, Goldwater was the person who was misinformed.  The letter saw two results, Goldwater was duly awarded his own FBI file and he got his very own reply from J Edgar himself which closed with the official FBI finding; “You might like to know that although I have received a number of comments and letters concerning my statement, yours has been the only one misinterpreting it.”

Goldwater couldn’t fight the FBI, but he at least took them on, which is more than can be said for a lot of other publishers, both historical and current.

1 comment:

Odkin Wood said...

Clearly the FBI was referring to the under-the-counter "Tijuana Bibles" that contained explicit comic strip pornography using pirated famous characters.

To look for actual legislative attempts to suppress the first amendment, you have to look to the Senate Democrats.