American Horror Comics as Cold War Commentary and Critique
Michael Goodrum and Philip Smith
Manchester: University Press, 2021
Hardcover. 328 pages. ISBN 978-1526135926. £80
Reviewed by Nicolas Labarre
Université Bordeaux Montaigne
Printing Terror is a frustrating addition to the growing body of scholarship on horror comics. The book purports to examine the interactions between these comics and US society, stating in the introduction that “to understand the purpose of horror, we must understand its historical context” , and seeking to avoid “totalizing theories”  about a notoriously slippery genre. In addition to social context, the two authors pay close attention to the broader media ecology in which horror developed—building notably on Skal’s seminal The Monster Show (1993)—and in particular to the mutual influence between comics and horror cinema.
This is a familiar premise, and the book comes in the wake of many instances of fan studies of horror comics, as well as a recent surge in scholarly interest (notably Julia Round, Terrence Wandtke and Qiana Whitted). However, Goodrum and Smith argue that these works, whether fannish or academic, have typically overemphasized the rebelliousness and the transgressions of the genre, while downplaying its more conservative elements: “Unlike our colleagues, we read horror comics not as a disruptive social force that challenged McCarthy-era sensibilities, but as primarily preoccupied with threats to, and the preservation of, white heterosexual male subjectivity” [27-28]. The authors point to the ambiguous politics of horror and the fact that horror comics “resisted dominant narratives of social and economic progress”  to the point of appearing “profoundly counter-cultural”, while also being “deeply conservative” . This apparent paradox has, of course, been central to discussions of the politics of horror cinema (in the work of Robin Wood, Noël Carrol, Barbara Creed, Carol Clover and David Roche, among others), but it is fairly novel when applied to horror comics.
However, some problems appear as early as this introduction. For instance, in an abrupt one-page overview of the comics industry, the two authors note the influence of “the woodblock prints of Rodolphe Töpher [sic]” , while Töpffer used pen lithography, not woodblocks. Elsewhere they mention the disappearance of ACG’s Adventures in the Unknown in 1959 as evidence of the decline of horror in the 1950s  while that comic book actually remained in print until 1967. These factual errors become less frequent afterward, but they are jarring here. More problematically, the two authors insist on using the obsolete periodization of the history of comics in terms of “ages”, borrowing from the very fan scholarship they purport to question , while comics historians have long discarded this terminology.
The authors then identify two broad eras for their study, 1945-1954, then 1964-1979, each studied over three chapters, focusing on trauma, gender and race. A further chapter on the rise of monster culture bridges the gap between the two periods. In each chapter the text proceeds through case studies, ranging from the most obscure early 1950s comics (Witches Tales, Ghost Comics) to more familiar examples (a few EC stories, Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula or Warren’s Vampirella), often accompanied by the reproduction of selected panels or pages. This vast corpus, which ranges from mediocre byproducts to celebrated exemplars (such as Feldstein and Krigstein’s 1955 “Master Race”), is one of the strongest assets of the book. Reprints and digital repositories have made it easier than ever to obtain and read comic books beyond the usual celebrated examples, and Goodrum and Smith take full advantage of that possibility to offer a survey of the field that is not entirely predetermined by previous appraisals of worth. The introduction convincingly argues that horror comics “broadly, [speak] with one voice”  despite all their differences, and the book mostly succeeds in proving that claim, while paying attention to the particulars of the selected stories. Yet, this claim would have been even more convincing had the authors indicated precisely what corpus they used for the book and how they chose their sample in the case of longer series. For instance, all the examples for Vampirella come from the first 15 issues of the magazine, out of 112: it is unclear whether the authors read only these issues or whether they felt they stood for the entire existence of the publication. Similarly, the first half of the book refers to many of the reproduced panels as “anonymous” due to the lack of identification in the comics themselves. However, many of these works have later been attributed and referenced in the Grand Comic Book database. The fact that a striking pinup pose  was drawn by Black artist Matt Baker, in his distinctive style, could have enriched the authors’ consideration on the intersection of race and gender.
The book is frustrating precisely because its main thesis is sound, especially when the authors focus on fear as the privilege of male white characters. People of color are an object of fear, but they are almost never shown as experiencing it themselves. Women, for their part, are often the object of fear, but when they experience it, they tend to be turned into eroticized stock characters and pinups [94-97]. This is a difficult case to make, because the book relies on examples whose representativeness cannot be ascertained. Initially, Printing Terror appears to impose symptomatic meaning onto isolated images. However, the accumulation of these images and the diversity of sources gradually bolster the argument, as echoes and recurrences come into focus. The most convincing passages in the book are unsurprisingly to be found in the conclusions to the later chapters, which offer nuanced recapitulation not only of their respective sections but also of the entire book.
Unfortunately, the authors undercut their demonstration in a variety of ways. Most strikingly, Goodrum and Smith omit any analysis of the Comics Code and of the hearings at the 1954 US Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency which led to that system of self-censorship. In their conclusion, they attempt to justify this omission by stating that “horror comics of the 1950s were not, as a rule, written in dialogue with contemporary criticism”  and argue that as a result, they should be read in light of their broader social context, rather than through this early comics scholarship. This is unconvincing, for horror comics offer a rare example of a comics genre which did produce an institutional response, allowing us to chart pragmatically how countercultural they were, instead of relying on cultural reconstructions. Furthermore, such a study would likely have bolstered the authors’ cases, if only by observing that the senators and witnesses who debated the ills of horror and crime comics were also overwhelmingly white men, for whom the transgressions of horror comics were tailored. Qiana Whitted’s recent book on EC Comics, EC Comics : Race, Shock, and Social Protest (Rutgers UP, 2019), whose central thesis is compatible with Goodrum and Smith’s, demonstrates how fruitful the use of contemporary sources (the minutes of the Senate Subcommittee’s hearings, but also readers’ mail and newspaper coverage) can be to ascertain the political valence of these comics.
This refusal to make use of contemporary modes of reception illustrates what is possibly the central weakness of the book: its inability to articulate the position from which it is challenging the politics of these comics. At times, especially in the convincing later chapters, it correctly puts them in dialogue with contemporary political discourses, and offers some useful insight on the way comics writers tried to answer feminist claims in their works [226-227]. At other times, it merely registers the representations under study as “problematic” (three instances between pp.52 and 57, among others). The 1950s comics under study mostly fail to offer progressive representations of gender and race. They are, in fact, often frankly racist and sexist. Goodrum and Smith demonstrate as much, but they never establish why we should apply contemporary modes of judgments to these mostly discarded cultural artifacts. In what way, in what context and for whom would it be “problematic” for a blond woman to be represented in a death camp, for instance ? It is certainly implausible, and it indicates reliance on genre archetypes rather than context-specific characterization, but Goodrum and Smith do not offer a standard against which the gravity of this deviation should be measured.
Printing Terror’s conclusion hails the contribution of Marc Singer’s important Breaking the Frames (2018) to comics studies. Building on Singer, the authors observe that horror comics scholarship has not entirely shed its relationship to fan boosterism. This is probably true, yet that observation is not supported by the kind of careful method and rigorous approach Singer also champions. As a result, Goodrum and Smith’s potent thesis, appealing selection of examples and at times astute close readings, result in a deeply flawed book.
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