Qiana Whitted to lecture 'Caption and Corpses: How to read an EC Comic'
San Diego State University officially launched its Center for Comics Studies (CCS) last year. One of its key goals stated on its website is: "Demonstrate the power of the comics medium to highlight and foster diversity, equity, and inclusivity; to identify social injustice, and to point the way to solutions." While the Center is focused on education and serving its students, it also wants to spread the word about the importance of comics to a wider audience.
To accomplish that, University of South Carolina professor Qiana Whitted will give a public lecture on Feb. 7 at the CCS inspired by her Eisner Award-winning book "EC Comics: Race, Shock and Social Protest." Everyone is invited.
Whitted will be the first guest lecturer of the year with her presentation, "Captions and Corpses: How to Read an EC Comic."
In the 1950s, New York-based EC Comics specialized in crime, horror and science fiction. But within those genres, it also offered social commentary.
"I'm going to be talking about a chapter from my book on that company," Whitted said. "And how they used elements of the comics' form, the actual text and the captions and the dialogue to relay, I'm not going to say "substantive" messages ... but to relay — let's just say — social and political messaging about racism and antisemitism and a lot of other things that were sort of raging around the country in the 50s."
And still raging today, which is just one reason why Whitted wants to examine the comics.
Whitted, a professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina, plans to talk about the comics' form and how the publishers tried to shape and craft their genre fiction.
EC Comics got into trouble for the kind of genre stories it told. In the 1950s, the public and government were concerned about juvenile delinquency and the potential "dangerous" effects comics could have on young minds.
The U.S. Senate held hearings about what was referred to as the "comic book menace" in 1954. The Senate called psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham to testify about the dangers comics posed to children. At one point he stated: "I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger."
The hearings did not result in any government legislation, but did prompt the industry to create its own Comic Code Authority in order to avoid government censorship and to self-monitor the content of comics. That's when the Comic Code Authority seal of approval came into being.
EC Comics' publisher and co-editor William Gaines was called before the committee to answer Wertham's condemnation of EC Comics, in particular a story called "The Whipping." Gaines' testimony impressed Whitted. Gaines said that he was particularly proud of that story, because it was about the evils of racism and about how discrimination hurts everyone. The story dealt with a woman whose racist father does not want her seeing a nonwhite person, and the father's actions ultimately result in the death of his own daughter.
"Gaines tried to make the case that this is actually a story against prejudice, and that teaches kids that it's wrong," Whitted said. Then, referring to the public transcripts of the hearings, she added:
"He said. 'One of the reasons why I can tell that I know this and that people are getting this message, is because our readers know how to read our comics. They know that if it's the second story out of four in this title, it's going to be this socially relevant story. And they know that if we put the message in the captions ... we are speaking directly to them. Whereas in another story called "The Orphan" about werewolves and vampires, we don't use captions for that purpose. We use dialogue instead.' It gets kind of in-the-weeds about how you're reading one panel versus another. But for him, and for many of EC's readers who were reading dozens of these stories, that did make sense. They did know when to take a story seriously versus when it was just for fun."
Gaines' defense hinged on the idea that the comics were giving children a map to know when to take the comics seriously and how to read them. That fascinated Whitted.
"I talk about what it means, that he tried to separate out the layout of the page and the stories in such a way that the relevant current political messaging would get across, whereas the mummies and the werewolves would be all in good fun," Whitted said.
EC Comics was not the first publisher to discover the allure of horror, but they did do it exceptionally well for many years.
"They were very proud of their artists who they allowed to sign their work, which was also not as common during this period," Whitted said. "But they also used their horror as a way of thinking about what it means to be the 'other' and 'othered.' ... the best (stories), is that they would put the reader in a second person perspective. Sometimes they were the monster or other times it would be a child who sees something, but the adults don't see it. (They used) the premise of a horror story to show how kids could be empowered or how it feels to have people scream when they see you."
And that is something Black readers and other minorities could identify with.
Whitted's lecture takes place Tuesday, Feb. 7, from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Gold Auditorium at the Donald P. Shiley BioScience Center on the SDSU campus.
The Center for Comics Studies at SDSU that is sponsoring the event serves as "a collaborative and innovative nuclei of comics research, scholarship, and action," according to its website. The center evolved from the Comics Working Group, a group of cross-disciplinary faculty interested in teaching through comics, and later the Comics@SDSU initiative in 2019. Elizabeth Pollard, professor of history, and Pamela Jackson, pop culture librarian and comic arts curator, co-lead the center.
For more information about the comics scare of the 1950s, I highly recommend the documentary, "Comic Book Confidential."