The morning was overcast and cold, not terrible weather but hardly the best spring might offer Manhattan. I’d left the top up on my snazzy little white Kaiser-Darrin when I escorted Bob Price to the federal courthouse at Foley Square. At the Entertaining Funnies office on Lafayette Street, his partner Hal Feldman declined to come along.
"I’ve tried to talk him out of testifying, Feldman had said. He looked like a cop who’d been trying for hours to talk a jumper in off a ledge. "He won’t hear it.
"I know, I said. "I tried, Maggie tried, even his shrink tried.
"Stubborn jackass, he said, his Brooklyn-tinged baritone ragged. "Well, I can’t watch it. I don’t go to public executions.
Normally Hal was a dapper guy, but this morning his tailored blue suit seemed rumpled, his John Garfield-ish mug hadn’t seen a razor yet, and his wavy dark hair was like a squirmy nest of black snakes. In his mid-twenties, Feldman clearly had been sitting up all night. With a sick friend, as it turned out.
He sighed, grinned wearily, clasped my shoulder. "I’m just glad Bob’s got you to babysit him now, Jack.
"Happy to, Hal. Just so everybody understands I don’t change diapers. I checked my watch. "We ought to head out.
The editor shook his head. "He’s still working on that goddamn opening statement.
I frowned. "Hell, I thought sure he’d be finished by now. Hasn’t he been working on it for days?
"More like weeks. Feldman lighted up a Camel. His eyes were bloodshot. "All night, he’s been alternating NoDoz and that diet medication of his.
"Dexedrine, you mean?
Feldman nodded wearily. "He’s eager to go down there, Jack, into that lions’ den, can you buy it? Thinks he’s doing the right thing, the noble thing. Says he’s a friendly witness, and certainly these senators, as good patriotic Americans, will wanna do what’s right, too. You know, listen to reason.
"That isn’t the way things work in real life.
"Jesus, Feldman said, rolling his eyes, "that ain’t even the way it works in our comic books.
Not surprisingly, I’d found Bob Price at his desk, typing away, wadded balls of discarded typewriter paper overflowing his trash can, cigarette stubs overflowing his ashtray, desktop littered with empty paper coffee cups.
"Time, Bob, I said.
Fingers flying at the typewriter keys, he said, "Just a second. Just a second.
I dragged him out of his office and into the waiting arms of the unshaven Feldman, who had gotten his partner in front of a mirror with an electric razor, and helped him into a clean suit. Price was like a prospective groom who’d tied one on the night before, and had to be pieced and patched together for the big ceremony.
Which made me the ring bearer, I guess.
At least we weren’t late. In fact, we were fifteen minutes early, and we had to move through a group of reporters, their cameras and notepads at the ready, before we could get past the Grecian columns that flanked the entry. Somehow Harry Barray had wrangled a press pass, though if the big blond disc jockey with the puffy features was a reporter, I was J. Edgar Hoover.
But Barray was the only member of the press contingent who recognized the comic book publisher, or at least the only one who accosted Price with any pre-hearing questions, shoving a microphone in his face and saying, "Good morning, Bob. Are you anticipating any trouble inside?
In Barray’s defense, this was hardly a hostile question, but Price snapped at him like a bulldog on a short leash.
"Any trouble I get is the fault of people like you, Price said, eyes bulging, spittle flying, "who trample the rights of good Americans to read and write what they please! Comic book readers are citizens, too, you know!
Barray backed away, looking damn near scared. I could hardly blame him.
Inside the courthouse, where footsteps echoed like one gunshot after another, Price grinned at me, his eyes glittering behind his round-lensed dark-framed glasses.
"See, Jack? I set that character straight, didn’t I? Show guys like that the error of their ways, and they’ll come around. They will come around.
"Are you kidding? I said. "You scared the shit out of Barray. He’ll tell his listeners you behaved like a maniac.
He blinked, eyes owlish behind the lenses. "Why would he do that?
I ignored that absurdity and instead said, "You still have time to head out a side door. I’ll go in and say you were too sick to testify.
His cheeks reddened—he might have been blushing, but he wasn’t. "Goddamnit, Jack, I want to testify! This is my big chance!
"Well, ease off. Stay calm and don’t look and act like a monster that jumped out of one of your funny books.
That threw him, even hurt him a little, but he said nothing, and I escorted him by the arm into Room 110, where the Kefauver crime hearings had first been held, till the public interest sent them into larger quarters upstairs.
We found our way into the good-sized chamber where burnished oak rode the walls and floors and even the furniture. Reserved seats awaited us at the front of the ten-row spectator section at left. At a long central bench four congressmen (including Senator Estes Kefauver himself) were taking their seats. The room was cool and they left their suit coats on as they settled in.
Near their bench was an astonishing display that disrupted the courtroom’s austerity in an explosion of garish colors and grotesque images. On easels were two dozen blow-ups of full-color comic-book covers: Tales from the Vault, Fighting Crime, Weird Fantastic Science, Suspense Crime Stories, Weird Terror, True Criminals, Beware!, and more. Starring in these poster-size exhibits were walking corpses, machine-gunning gangsters, rampaging werewolves, drooling space creatures, and leggy gun molls showing off their .38 revolvers and heaving "headlights.
Possibly also 38’s, come to think of it.
I pointed out this display to Price.
"You’re screwed, I whispered.
He glanced at the array of covers—potentially the most damaging witnesses of all, and most of them EF publications—and shrugged as if to say, "So what?
The witness table sat before the bench but at a forty-five degree angle, so that the spectators could also view the testimony. The witness chair was angled to prevent eye contact between those testifying and those questioning (and, for that matter, those observing). A trio of stenographers were positioned nearby, one man, two women.
On both the witness table and bench were arrays of microphones with a nest of heavy cables on the floor, snaking behind the spectator seating, where (up on a platform) TV and newsreel men, their cameras as big as robots in a science-fiction film, were waiting for the fun to begin. As the seats around and behind us quickly filled in, I was reminded of the bustling tension you encountered on a movie set.
Senator Kefauver was the draw here—his crime hearings had been a big hit on TV, making a star out of him (and the sweating, twitching manicured hands of camera-shy witness, gangster Frank Calabria). But the man in charge was New Jersey Senator Robert C. Hendrickson.
So it was Chairman Hendrickson who, at 10 a.m., spoke into the microphone and called the proceedings to order. He was a straight-laced type, mustached, bespectacled and in his mid-fifties, his thinning, silver hair combed slickly back on a bucket head. He had the humorless demeanor of a high school principal in a Henry Aldrich movie.
"Today and tomorrow, he began lugubriously, "the United States Subcommittee on Investigating Juvenile Delinquency is going into the problem of comic books...
So, they’d already decided it was a problem.
"...illustrating stories depicting crime or dealing with horror and sadism.
To be fair, the committee chairman did claim that their work was not as a board of censorship.
"We want to determine what damage, if any, Hendrickson declared, "is being done to our children’s minds by certain types of publications.
First up was not a witness, but a slide show of comic-book panels that alternately depicted scenes of blood-spattered horror or bullet-spraying crime, with occasional "headlights panels tossed in. Some images were genuinely disturbing, as when a hypo wielded by a madman seemed poised to plunge into the wide-open eye of a lovely young woman. This stuff made the array of violent covers on those looming easels look like kid’s stuff.
Which of course was the problem—the assumption by these stuffed shirts that only little kids read these comic books. Hell, the EF line was clearly for teenagers and adults. Despite the vivid, detailed horrors of the artwork, you couldn’t tell what was going on if you didn’t read the captions and speech balloons. Feldman was a guy who seemed to be getting paid by the word.
No kid under eleven would be able to read this copy-heavy stuff, much less understand it. And those older kids who could read it needed to be smart. You know—literate.
But that wasn’t touched on, not at all. Committee executive director Richard Clendenen—lean, middle-aged, with a square jaw right out of an Americana super-hero comic book—narrated the slide show with unctuous pre-judgement: "Typically, these comic books portray almost all kinds of crime, committed through extremely cruel, sadistic and punitive acts.
At several points, Clendenen singled out particularly violent, disturbing panels as prime examples of the content of comic books published by Entertaining Funnies.
"I mention this, Clendenen said, "because the publisher of that firm will be appearing before this committee later this morning.
The implication was that Price had been summoned, when of course he had volunteered.
Following the slide presentation, various documents were introduced as exhibits from assorted government agencies, as well as newspaper and magazine articles criticizing comic books and linking them to juvenile delinquency—the majority written by one Dr. Werner Frederick.
Then the first witness was called, a mental health expert with New York’s so-called "Family Court. Surprisingly, he did not join in on the anti-comics theme. Some of his colleagues (he said) considered certain comic books potentially worthy of "stronger criticism, while others found them essentially harmless.
The second witness was a representative of a comic-book association of publishers, printers and distributors that had attempted, without any particular success, to provide the comics business with a self-monitoring group like Hollywood’s Breen Office. This testimony was long-winded and flip-flopped between pandering to the panel and defending comics as "a great medium.
But it managed to go on long enough that Bob Price—scheduled for the morning—got bumped to the afternoon. I hauled him off to a deli for lunch, and he had a sandwich and a Coke, just like me. But I passed on dessert—Price’s choice, more Dexies and NoDoz, killed what was left of my appetite.
"You should lay off that stuff, I said.
"If I do, I’ll fall asleep up there.
"How long has it been, Bob, since you had a decent night’s sleep?
"...What day is it?
The sky was almost black as we walked back. Price didn’t seem to notice. He was smiling. He had bounce in his step.
"I can’t wait to get up there, he said, raising victory fists to his paunch.
"Just stay cool, I said.
"You bet, boy. You bet.
But his eyes were as wild as a zombie’s on an EF cover.
After lunch, however, Price was not (as we both had expected) the first witness up.
Dr. Werner Frederick was.
With his background as a forensics psychiatrist for the city, the doc was an old hand at testifying—he knew it was theater, and had dressed for the occasion: a white jacket over a white shirt with a simple black necktie. As if he’d just arrived from the lab, where he’d found a cure for cancer or, better yet, comic books.
He even turned his chair to the right, a little, so he could face the committee.
Initially he was asked to describe his new book Ravage of the Lambs, a softball question if ever there was one. He replied by detailing the work with troubled children and adolescents that had gone into this "sober, painstaking, laborious clinical study.
The S.O.B. was writing his own cover blurbs!
Despite that thick German accent, his tone was clear and piercing, his voice ringing in the room, and he’d have made a great B-movie scientist, particularly a mad one.
When he really wanted to make a point, he slowed things way down, phrasing for effect.
"It is my opinion, he said, "without any reasonable doubt...and without any reservation...that comic books...are an important...contributing...factor...in many cases...of juvenile delinquency.
"I’ve never seen this guy in person before, Price whispered to me. His right leg was shaking. "Look at him! He’s so goddamn smug...and sarcastic.
"Don’t you be, I advised.
The committee let Frederick rail on and on. When asked what kind of child was most likely to be affected by crime comic books, he claimed, "Primarily the normal child. The most morbid children are less affected by comic books because they are wrapped up in their own fantasies.
He was good, he was eloquent, but he was also German, and while the U.S. government loved German scientists, the American public didn’t. That much Price had going for him.
Ironically, prejudice of another sort was what Frederick got into next. He spoke of an EF story that used the word "Spick and promoted (Frederick claimed) bigotry.
"I think Hitler is a beginner compared to the comic-book industry, Frederick said. "They get the children much younger, teach them race hatred at the age of four, before they could read.
From the spectator seats behind us, a voice cried out, "You’re a liar! You are a goddamn menace!
Will Allison again.
I hadn’t seen him come in, yet there he was, not in J.D. drag this time, rather a suit and tie, like a kid heading to prom. But his eyes, his hair, his expression, were those of a wild man.
Hendrickson rapped his gavel. "Guards! Escort that man out!
Allison continued to shout his protests as a pair of uniformed guards yanked him bodily from the audience and hauled him struggling out of the chamber.
Price didn’t have to whisper, because a general murmur of excitement filled the courtroom as he informed me, "Will illustrated the story that creep called bigoted. It’s an anti-bigotry story, Jack. That bastard Frederick has to know that!
"And misrepresented it, to take a cheap shot.
"Damn right. Price’s eyes were tight behind the glasses, and he was shaking that big oblong head. "Well, that’s it—I’m gonna get that bastard.
And Price soon got his chance: he was the next up to testify. Once again, Dr. Frederick had warmed up a chair for him. In his loose-fitting, rather bulky pale gray suit, Price looked even heavier than he was, and he was already sweating. He brought a briefcase to the witness table, removed his prepared speech and other notes, and took his seat.
"Gentleman, Price said, "I would like to make a short statement.
This was allowed, and the comic book publisher gave his name and outlined his credentials, including his certification to teach in New York City public high schools. He reminded them that he was there as a voluntary witness.
What followed was an admirably well-written, if haltingly delivered history of his father’s beginnings in "the comic magazine field, a business which Leo Price had "virtually created, in so doing fostering an industry that employed thousands and gave entertainment to millions. He moved on to his own involvement, after his father’s passing, which included continuing to publish his father’s beloved Bible stories comics.
(This was something of a white lie: Leo had printed way too many copies of his Bible comics, and all son Bob did was fill from the warehouse the occasional Sunday school orders that came in for them.)
Then Price opened the door: "I also publish horror comics. I was the first publisher in these United States to publish horror comics. I am responsible. I started them. Some may not like them, but that’s a matter of personal taste.
The boldness of that was appealing. In fact, the whole statement was fine, just swell, only he was just reading it, never looking up, occasionally stumbling over his own words, pausing to dab the sweat from his brow with a hanky, and that leg of his was shaking again. More violently now.
"My father, he said, "was proud of the comics he published. I am proud of the comics I publish. We use the best writers, the finest artists, and spare nothing to make each magazine, each story, each page a work of art.
Maybe it was a good thing Price was looking down at those typewritten pages: he was spared the skeptical expressions the senators at the bench exchanged, some glancing back at the looming grotesque comic-book cover blow-ups.
"Reading for entertainment has never harmed anyone, Price was saying. "Our American children are for the most part normal and bright. But those adults who would prohibit comic magazines see our kids as dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action. Are we afraid of our own children? Are they so evil, so simpleminded, that all it takes is a story of murder to convince them to murder? A story of robbery to inspire them to robbery?
Finally, he set down his papers and began to speak from his head and his heart—perhaps not a wise move, but even as well-crafted as his prepared statement was, I was pleased to see him stop reading and just talk to the panel.
"I need to point out that when Dr. Frederick spoke of one of our magazines preaching racial intolerance, he was indulging in an outrageous half-truth. Yes, the word Spick’ appears in it. But the doctor neglected to tell you what the plot of the story was—that it was one of a series of stories designed to show the evils of race prejudice and mob violence, in this case against Mexican Catholics. Previous stories have dealt with anti-Semitism, anti-Negro feelings, as well as the evils of dope addiction and the development of juvenile delinquents. And I am very proud of that.
A good off-the-cuff response, I thought, but it soon degenerated into a back-and-forth between Price and the committee’s junior counsel over the inconsistency of the publisher claiming comics were merely entertainment that made no impact upon young readers, when these social-comment tales were obviously designed to make just such an impact.
This seemed to rattle Price, who—caught in a defensible inconsistency—just couldn’t handle himself under questioning. He might have, and probably could have, if he hadn’t been fading.
But fading he was.
That Dexie high of his was descending into its inevitable limp-rag aftermath. He just sat there getting pummeled, like a punch-drunk boxer, head down, sweat drops flying, just taking it. At least his leg wasn’t shaking anymore.
Then star performer Kefauver got into the act. The senator was a lanky road company Lincoln with sharp eyes behind tortoise-shell glasses. He was not wearing his famous coonskin hat, if you’re wondering.
"Mr. Price, let me get the limits as far as what you will put in one of your magazines. He had a cornpone drawl that you mistook for easygoing at your own peril.
"Certainly, Price said.
"Do you think a child can be hurt by something he reads or sees?
"I don’t believe so, no.
"Is the sole test of what you publish, then, based on whether or not it sells? Is there any limit to your, ah, entertainment?
Price’s chin was up, but his eyes looked tired. "My only limits are the bounds of good taste. What I consider good taste.
"Your own good taste, then, and the sales potential of your product?
Kefauver held up a copy of a Suspense Crime Stories comic book whose cover depicted a terrified woman in mid-air, having fallen from a window where the silhouetted hands of her assailant could still be seen in push mode. The woman was screaming, staring wide-eyed at us as she looked through us at the oncoming (off-camera) pavement. Terror-struck, screaming or not, she was very attractive, in a skimpy nightgown, that showed off her shapely legs and, of course, her...headlights.
"Do you think this is in good taste, Mr. Price?
"Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a crime comic.
"What might constitute bad taste here?
"Well, we could have depicted her after she’d fallen.
"You mean her body on the pavement?
"And that would be worse?
"Yes. Showing her twisted corpse, blood everywhere, bones sticking out of her shattered limbs, that would be a cover in bad taste.
Kefauver’s drawl was so folksy, it was like Tennessee Ernie Ford giving you the third degree. "And you decided against that. In a display of eminent good taste, your artist depicted a scantily clad female screaming in terror as she falls from a great height, with her life about to end?
Bob Price saw nothing wrong. And the reporters and the cameras saw him seeing that.
Me, I just sat there watching the spectacle of a guy falling from a great height without even screaming. Without even a shove.
He was a shambling wreck when, an hour later, they had finally finished wringing out every ounce of humiliation from him ("So this decapitated head held by a man also holding a bloody axe, that would be in bad taste if you showed more blood?), and sent him along on what they clearly considered to be his vile business. His loose-fitting suit was soaked with sweat now, the flesh on his face hanging like a balloon that had lost maybe a third of its air. He had done everything wrong, stopping short only of rolling ball bearings in his fingers like Captain Queeg.
The reporters were on us like kids swarming Martin and Lewis, only this bunch didn’t want a signed picture. They were yelling questions.
"Hey Bob! Do you really think horror comics are in good taste’?
"Bob, over here! How much blood is okay for a comic cover?
"What will you do if Congress bans horror comics?
I was escorting him through the crowd, grateful that he wasn’t answering any of the questions, keeping his head down. At least he didn’t cover his face like a criminal, though clearly that’s how he was being treated by the press boys.
But then that was how he’d been treated by those patriotic Congressmen as well, hadn’t he?
Suddenly—and whether planned or accidental, I couldn’t tell you—we were facing Dr. Werner Frederick, pristine in his white jacket, like he’d arrived to haul Price and me off to the loony bin. He’d stepped out from behind a pillar like that dentist who shot Huey Long.
"Mr. Price, the doctor said with nasty pleasantness, "I just want to tell you in person that I find reprehensible what you’re doing to today’s youth.
The sight of the doctor and the sound of his German-inflected condemnation broke through the torpor of the Dexie crash, and Bob Price came alive. It was as if that other doctor, Frankenstein, had thrown a switch and sent electricity pulsing through the publisher’s dead flesh, reanimating it.
"You lied, you son of a bitch, Price spat at him.
"I would expect that kind of language from a peddler of filth, the psychiatrist said, sneering. "I sought you out not for an intelligent discussion of differences, because from your testimony it is clear you’re incapable of that.
I was tugging Price along, but he was fighting me.
Frederick, raising his voice, reporters circling like the vultures they were, said, "My book Ravage the Lambs is about to appear, gentlemen, and perhaps you aren’t aware that it’s been chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection.
Price snarled, "You used artwork from my comics without permission! I’m going to sue you. I’ll get an injunction!
"Gentlemen, Frederick said to the reporters, "you are my witnesses! This is the sinister hand of a corrupter of children threatening to prevent the distribution of my book...because it exposes him as the father of juvenile delinquents across our great nation.
Price was doing his best to squirm out of my grasp. "I’ll kill you, you bastard! I’ll kill you, so help me God!
But before Price could strangle the smirking shrink in front of dozens of witnesses, I regained my purchase on his arm and dragged him through the crowd and outside. His energy was soon drained and when I got him into the convertible, he quickly fell asleep.
Not a restful sleep on our drive back to Lafayette Street, no. Filled with nightmares.
Monsters, no doubt. With German accents and white lab coats.
Copyright © 2013 by Max Allan Collins.