Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gershon Legman vs. the Crime Comic Books – 1948

[1] Crimes by Women — No. 3, Oct 1948, Fox Features Syndicate, Inc.
“I have met many recent publishers of erotica (including Wood), and I believe almost all of the erotic publishers in America during the 1930s and ’40s and of the 1950s and ’60s in France. And I can testify that every single one of them who also or mainly wrote or published sado-masochistic literature was an open, and usually admitted freak on the subject.” — Gershon Legman, 1981
“That’s how I got to be a moron.” — Jerry Lewis on reading crime and horror comic books, 1955
“Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!” — Allen Ginsberg, Howl, 1955
by John Adcock  

IN JULY 1971 fanzine contributor Bill Blackbeard (45) replied to CAPA-alpha, an amateur press association he had contributed articles to, explaining why he did not discuss “non-reprint comic books, an area toward which its members are ‘strongly biased.’” One of Blackbeard’s remarks as “a critic whose responses on all media are based on early acquired tastes…” 
“What I didn’t realize then was that through the garish pages of the super hero comics an angry, mocking, asocial and suppressed community of depression-racked, half-talented, and no-talented jobless hacks of the bleak ’30s had been laid open like a gangrened wound. These men had been told over and over again by art instructors, honest artist and writer friends, and syndicate heads and magazine editors that their stuff was, in some cases, worthless; in others mediocre at best; in a few more, promising but lacking sensible integration.

They of course didn’t see it that way, and when a number of quick-buck magazine publishers and editors began buying up their stuff as fast as they could turn it out, obviously making good money out of it but callously paying them as little as possible, their accumulated venom and fury against prevailing standards of taste, against established comic narrative, against society as a whole, bubbled out in every panel they drew, every face they limned, every story they told.”
— Bill Blackbeard, in Riverside Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1, July 1971
WOW. Such was fandom. There is some truth to what Blackbeard says, a lot of publishers sold sleaze while disguising it as a public service, many young Depression-tired cartoonists served apprenticeships under unscrupulous publishers, and it was said that Victor S. Fox hired students to churn out comic books and laughed at them when they tried to collect their pay. Many of these young apprentice cartoonists would grow into professionals as the decades wore on. Cartoonist Don Rico recalled the page rates at Fox (if he could be cornered into payment) as $7.50 per page for a complete penciling, inking and lettering.

[2] Politix Komix. “… I feel that a splendid addition to our line would be ‘politics comics’!…” — George Lichty Grin and Bear It cartoon, July 17, 1954.

BILL BLACKBEARD (28 April 1926 - 10 March 2011) was not a postwar boomer; he was from the World War II generation, a generation of kids which absorbed popular culture via film, radio, phonograph, pulps and comic strips. Bill had just turned twelve when Superman entered the picture in Action Comics, June 1938, soon followed by Pocket Books in 1939:
“The superhero comic concept was the sick reverse of this: the invulnerable hero became society, became authority, and as such beyond criticism and cavil, and wreaked havoc against all those who opposed him, or plotted to destroy him. That this is fundamentally a fascistic attitude hardly needs to be pointed out, or that the Germans, with their support of Hitler as a superhero smiting anvil against a background of brightly uniformed pageantry, did in actuality what the superhero creators and readers could only do in vicarious fantasy.” — Bill Blackbeard, in Riverside Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1, July 1971
[3] A reader of Apache KidOct 17, 1954.
BLACKBEARD may have formed these opinions very early in life, he mentions that comic book discussions “had to be an exchange of enthusiasms — you could prefer Superman to Batman, or Submariner to the Human Torch (a little like preferring Dillinger to Baby Face Nelson, that last) … but you didn’t dare deny the excitement and wonder of the magazine comic heroes as a whole.”
“And of course the army, the navy, the police and the FBI, and all the resources of civilization are powerless. Only the Nazi-Nietzschean Übermensch, in his provincial apotheosis as Superman can save us.” — Gershon Legman, Love & Death, 1949 
On the other hand he may have formed these ideas through reading Gershon Legman’s Love & Death, published in 1949. Although superheroes were not Legman’s main concern, that being sadism in literature, lurid paperbacks, crime and jungle comics as a substitute for normal sex.

[4] Justice Traps the GuiltyNo. 1, Oct-Nov 1947, American Boys’ Comics, Inc.
A SYMPOSIUM was held on March 19, 1948, by the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy on ‘The Psychopathology of Comic Books’ with Frederick Wertham, M.D., introducing the speakers. First up to speak was a wild-haired, walrus-mustachioed literary tramp and eccentric named George Alexander (called Gershon) Legman (1917-99), a social and cultural critic with a Freudian viewpoint who was of Bill Blackbeard’s generation. He spoke on ‘The Comic Books and the Public,’ excerpted from “a monograph on sex and censorship, Love & Death, already rejected by thirty publishers.”

New York publishers Ziff-Davis and New Directions rejected the Love & Death manuscript. The reason publishers refused Love & Death was that according to the laws of the time it was obscene and libelous. Legman refused to remove the offensive bits. The book was then self-published by Legman in 1949. The Post Office took offense and cut off all service to his home address. A frustrated Legman moved to France in 1953 where he eventually settled in the mountain village of Valbonne, on the Riviera.

‘Comic Books and the Public’ 
— see it HERE was an edited and toned down excerpt from Legman’s in progress Love & Death and was published in print (minus libels and obscenities) in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, No. 2, April 1948. Frederick Wertham, M.D. then wrote an article titled ‘The Comics… Very Funny!’ for the May 29, 1948, issue of the Saturday Review of Literature — HERE.

[5] Crime Does Not PayNo. 52, June 1947, Lev Gleason.

JOHN CLELLON HOLMES, just beginning his literary career, met four different men on the “long, muggy July 4th weekend in 1948” who would profoundly affect his writing for the rest of his life. They were Jay Landesman, Gershon Legman, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The descriptive ‘Beat’ was not yet formed. Holmes recalled (in Nothing More To Declare, 1967) that Legman’s three room cottage in the Bronx, allegedly once inhabited by Charles Fort, author of Book of the Damned (1919), was filled with wooden packing crates overflowing with comic books, bought from the neighborhood children and “arranged according to degree of atrocity.”
“Now, what is it that is supposed to be attractive to 12 and 14 year old boys about torturing women to death, with or without their clothes, about tying them up with ropes and chains, whipping them, branding them on the modestly un-nippled breast, skewering their throats with javelins, pumping their veins empty (or full of unheard-of viruses), throwing them to wild animals, shooting them in the belly with hot lead? What is it that makes adolescents buy eight million dollars’ worth of comic books yearly in which those are the principle themes both outside and in? That the publishers, editors, artists and writers of comic-books are degenerates and belong in jail, goes without saying; but what makes millions of adolescents willing to accept degeneracy too?” — Gershon Legman, The Psychopathology of the Comics, 1948
IN UNEXPURGATED form Legman’s ‘Comic Books and the Public’ was issued as ‘The Psychopathology of the Comics’ in Jay Landesman’s Neurotica, No. 3, Nov 1948. Neurotica, a journal meant to “psychoanalyze the culture,” ran for 9 issues from 1948 to 1952. John Clellon Holmes edited No. 3; eventually he was replaced by Gershon Legman. ‘The Psychopathology of the Comics’ was later published  in France as ‘La psychopathologie des bandes dessineés’ in Les Temps Modernes, No. 31, in May 1949.

[6] Love & Deathcover, 1949.
WITH FUNDING from Osmond Beckwith, in 1949, Gershon Legman published four essays in book form. The essays, originally published in Neurotica, comprised ‘Love & Death, a Study in Censorship by G. Legman.’ The four jeremiads were ‘Institutionalized Lynch,’ ‘Not for Children’ (formerly ‘The Psychopathology of the Comics’), ‘Avatars of the Bitch,’ and ‘Open Season on Women.’

Legman’s main contention, and one that he repeated in other articles later in life, was that violence, not sex, was the real pornography.
“Murder having replaced sex in the popular arts, the glorification of one requires the degradation of the other … so that we are faced in our culture by the insurmountable schizophrenic contradiction that sex, which is legal in fact, is a crime on paper, while murder — a crime in fact — is, on paper, the best-seller of all time…
…Civilisation is not yet ready to let love and death fight it out in the market place with free speech and four-color printing on both sides.” — Gershon Legman, The Psychopathology of the Comics, 1948
[7] Crime Comics, 1937-1947Legman’s list in Neurotica, 1948.

GERSHON LEGMAN was no crusader like Wertham, although we imagine that he would have been happy to see all comic books banished from the newsstand, and all comic book producers and readers obliterated from the earth. Legman’s condemnatory notice was that in our culture “the average mental age is fourteen.”
“The public can hardly be told what is being done to it.” — Gershon Legman, The Psychopathology of the Comics, 1948
[8] Crime and PunishmentNo. 1, April 1948, Lev Gleason.
JUDGED by his own words Legman was no saint. He was intemperate, misanthropic, homophobic and sometimes misogynous. He wrote with a chip on his shoulder, considering everything and everyone in his immediate environment as a personal slight. He wrote in the finger-pointing style of a Drury Lane pamphleteer, answering no questions and brooking no arguments. He was a drop out, self-taught, with a sneering view of the academia that rejected him. 

[9] True Crime — No. 2, Magazine Village, May 1948, art by Jack Cole. 

BY THE TIME Legman came to write ‘The Fake Revolt’ (in Breaking Point, 1967) his inner steam-boiler finally did explode. His humor was still intact: he tells a personal story how the 1930s Communist party refused his advances “owing to the excessive timorousness of my prose style.” The Sexual Revolution was to his mind an acceptance of sadism and deviancy as a normal, rather than the healthy outcome he had hoped for in 1948.

TODAY most people, if they think of him at all, would describe Legman as a crank or a nut. His “timorous” prose style worked against his being taken seriously. Contrarily, when he issued ‘Psychopathology of the Comics’ he was taken very seriously, by authors Jay Landesman, John Clellon Holmes, Marshal McLuhan and many others among the new generation of writers forming in New York. He was widely quoted even in Europe. Landesman thought that in Legman he had finally found an “honest man.”

[10] Crime Does Not Pay — No. 63, May 1948, ‘A Message from Bob Wood, Lev Gleason, Charles Biro.’
TAKE AWAY all the hysteria in Legman’s writing on comic books and we are left with some uncomfortable truths. Comic books are for children, Legman asserted, and he was absolutely right (today the average reader of comic books is 35). The idea that the mass of readers of crime comic books were adult G.I.’s returning from the war was exaggerated. One only has to look through the voluminous fake letter pages in Crime Does not Pay and Crime and Punishment to see that publisher Lev Gleason and editor/scripter/cartoonist Charles Biro were fully aware the bulk of readers ranged in age from 6 to 16 years of age.

[11] Crime and Punishment — No. 2, May 1948, Lev Gleason.
WE ARE LED to believe that Mothers, fathers, police officers, teachers, lawyers, camp counselors, ministers, priests and nuns recommended Gleason’s magazines as a deterrent to crime. We are led to believe that hardened career criminals and reform school boys were miraculously put on the right path by the warden’s gifts of copies of Crime Does Not Pay and Crime and Punishment. We are led to believe that $2 was paid for each letter published — this at a time when a comic book cost a dime!

[12] Crime and Punishment — No. 17, August 1949, Lev Gleason. 
IN LEGMAN’S VIEW the manufacturers hired child-psychiatrists and other respectable personages to sell the idea that comic book sex and violence was cathartic and good for children. In spring of 1948 the US Supreme Court Winters decision struck down all state laws against printed “bloodlust, lust or crime (Legman).”

[13] Crime and Punishment — No. 1, April 1948, Lev Gleason.
J. EDGAR HOOVER, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, commented specifically on crime comics in November 1950, saying a sharp distinction must be made between those glorifying the criminal and those “written with good taste and authenticity which teach that crime does not pay.” Hoover went on to say “it is doubtful that an appreciable decrease in juvenile delinquency would result if crime comic books of all types were not readily available to children.”

[14] Crime Does Not Pay — Jan 1948, Lev Gleason.

ON THE CONTRARY, in November 1959, Hoover said of pornography that “We know that sex criminals read it, are clearly influenced by it. I believe pornography is a major cause of sex violence. I believe that if we can eliminate the distribution of such items among impressionable school-age children, we shall greatly reduce our frightening crime rate (quote from The Smut Peddlers, 1960).” 
“To the contrary, where institutionalized violence appears in history, it is as the last resort of bankrupt nations, sick and reeling into death.” — Gershon Legman, The Psychopathology of the Comics, 1948
Gershon Legman was more influential than has been acknowledged. In 1948 John Clellon Holmes was passing copies of Love & Death along to every writer he knew. The leading members of the Beat generation were impressed and borrowed much from his style of writing. His prophet screaming from the rooftops vocal style was a foreshadowing of Allen Ginsberg’s nascent Howl, all capitals sloganeering, slang, made-up words and (some said) bad grammar.

[15] Jo-Jo Congo King — No. 20, Oct 1948, Fox Features Syndicate, Inc.
SUBCONSCIOUSLY, or intentionally, the image of Slim Pickens joyously riding the phallic atom bomb to its target in Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a perfect metaphor for Legman’s lifelong message — in our shared popular culture the repression of normal sexual impulses is redirected into sexual perversion and physical violence. Popular culture breaks the spirits of children and adults and distorts the social environment.

In 1963 Legman returned to the United States for a series of lectures at the University of Ohio then took on an assignment teaching folklore as a scholar-in-residence at the University of California at La Jolla. He made himself so offensive with staff and students that he was soon banned from teaching. He was under contract and spent the rest of the year being as disagreeable as possible, then returned to his family in France.
“It is necessary to be realistic. Violence in America is a business — big business — and everybody is in it, either as a peddler or customer.” — Gershon Legman, The Psychopathology of the Comics, 1948

[15] G. Legman in 1968.

AUTHOR Gershon Legman died on February 23, 1999, in the south of France. It’s not hard to imagine that were he alive now he would be angrily dissecting the sex as sadism/violence of video games, internet porn and the militaristic and political violence that feeds 24/7 off the popular culture of today. Gershon Legman with all his faults was a prophet of love. His message was rejected but his ideas still contain truths about who we were and who we are now; how we lived then and how we live now.

MOST of G. Legman’s work, including an unpublished autobiography, Peregrine Penis, is out of print. | The Fake Revolt is available HERE. | His introduction to The Private Case is HERE. | Comic books on Gershon Legman’s list can be browsed HERE.

See ‘From a Corner Table at Roughhouse’s,’ by Bill Blackbeard in Riverside Quarterly, Vol. 5 No. 1, July 1971 | Nothing More to Declare, by John Clellon Holmes, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1967; the author of ‘Go,’ ‘The Horn,’ and ‘Get Home Free’ | Brother-Souls, John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation, by Ann Charters and Samuel Charters, University Press of Mississippi/Jackson, 2010 | Funny Peculiar; Gershon Legman and the Psychopathology of Humor, by Mikita Brottman, The Analytic Press, 2004
Thanks to Michael Feldman


  1. If these arguments are valid, shouldn't you be getting them from someone who wasn't hysterical and paranoid? Anyway, we now know who Ginsberg meant when he said the best minds of his generation had gone mad.

    It was Slim Pickens who rode the bomb in Dr. Strangelove, in place of Peter Sellers.

  2. I loved Love and Death when I read it in College, thoroughly acknowledging that Legman was nuts, he was still a better writer than Wertham. My girlfriend/wife took a lot from his work in writing a scathing paper on Ernest Hemingway. Legman actually spent more pages on Hemingway than he did on comics. He also collected two immense books full of dirty limericks, insisting there was no other kind. On top of that he was one of the first western experts on origami.

  3. Legman was a consummate comics historian as one will read here. This is a transcription on 1800s comic strip books I put out on the net in 1999. Jay Maeder turned me on to the zine American Notes and Queries. This is out of the Jan 1946 issue. There is also side bar notes by me puzzling thru then what was being read.

  4. HI John, first time visitor, so I haven't got round to everything yet, but I zeroed in on this post 'cause I'm fascinated with Legman, though I casually despise what he stood for.

    A very informative article, as I didn't know that Bill Blackbeard nurtured similar sentiments toward the superhero genre, though I might've guessed from a couple of remarks in his well-known "Popeye" article for XERO.

    One question you may be able to address-- given that Legman was as you say self-educated and owned no sheepskin-- how in the world did he wangle his way into speaking at that conference of psychologists?

  5. Hi Gene, I would have to look up the exact details but I believe he was invited by Frederick Wertham who he assisted by supplying the comic books illustrated in Seduction of the Innocent. Some accounts mistakenly describe Wertham as the "ghost-writer" of that book.