Seduction of the Innocent
In the early 1950s, America was literally on top of the world, having emerged from the Second World War as the dominant economic and political power on the planet. But at home, Americans were terrified (or, more accurately, manipulated into being afraid) of communists infiltrating everything from the State Department to the local schools. And they were also scared of comic books.
Yes, comic books were seen back then as a threat to America’s youth. Before there was Elvis and his subversive hips on "The Ed Sullivan Show," there were graphic covers on newsstands of blood-splattered horror, ghouls and women in various stages of undress on titles such as Tales from the Crypt. Publishers like EC Comics put out many of the worst offenders. And once the impressionable minds of our youth consumed this material, all sorts of juvenile delinquency and social anarchy would follow. So the argument went.
Max Allan Collins, bestselling author of several acclaimed mystery series, the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION and a writer of the Dick Tracy comic strip, has written a wonderful historical novel and hardboiled mystery about this period of American history. Seduction of the Innocent was the name of a real 1954 study by psychiatrist and author Dr. Fredric Wertham. In Collins’s talented hands, 2013’s SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT becomes a richly imagined mystery.
"Few people alive today can tell a story better than Max Allan Collins. SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT is a great, page-turning read that is beautiful to look at and serves as another proud addition to the Hard Case Crime library."
And in keeping with the period the novel covers, Hard Case Crime has given the story the full pulp treatment, including 16 pages of illustrated interior pages by comic book artist Terry Beatty of Batman fame and a truly stunning pulp cover by Glen Orbik. The cover shows just what the anti-comic crusaders opposed: the depiction of a young lady taking her last flight out of an open window, the outspread hands of her killer visible in the background. And yet it retains some of the innocence of that bygone era in that, while the woman appears legitimately terrified and she and her blonde hair are apparently in free fall, her garment, however scanty, manages to defy gravity and stay in place.
Collins has written a wonderful portrait of a forgotten period of our history. And while this is a historical novel, he does not use the names of the real people involved in the comic book wars of the early 1950s. Instead, he gives us what might have happened if the leading comic book crusader, patterned after the man who wrote the real Seduction book, was bumped off in comic book fashion one night in the Waldorf Astoria.
Enter Jack Starr, who, along with his stepmom and former stripper, Maggie Starr, is the key mover behind Starr Syndicate, which sells comic strips to newspapers. Jack’s late father did not trust his son to take over the business, so Jack is actually a very private eye. He says, “…my chief role is troubleshooter --- I look out for the syndicate’s interest in the case of lawsuits, or when a cartoonist or columnist gets in a jam, or when a background check on prospective new talent is needed.”
With the industry getting a black eye in the media from what was a real Congressional hearing held in New York City’s Foley Square, Jack has to find out who killed Dr. Werner Frederick. Suspects include fellow comic book publishers, artists, knife-wielding juvenile delinquents, and the mobbed-up companies that distribute the books.
This is actually the third Jack and Maggie Starr story. Collins brings back to life New York in the early 1950s when “The Tonight Show” was still a local program with Steve Allen as host and live television featured names like Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar. Milton Berle (“Uncle Miltie”) was hosting NBC’s “Texaco Star Theater.” But above them all, in terms of popularity, was comic books.
Collins writes of that time:“My city boasts twenty comic publishers putting out 600-some titles each month, selling eighty to one hundred million copies a week, reaching an audience larger than TV, radio and magazines combined… It’s an industry employing a thousand plus writers, artists, editors, letterers and assorted spear carriers… It is a form of story-telling that arrays newsstands with super-hero fantasy and talking ducks, though those are outnumbered of late by monsters both supernatural and human, as well as cowboys and Indians, romance and war and science fiction…even adaptations of classic literature…”
While Senator Joe McCarthy and the Republicans had the Red Scare, Democrats needed a scare of their own. Media was an easy target, as it has always been from the days of the Nickelodeon to the Internet today. And what could be more popular than saving children? By 1956, two thirds of the comics were gone. States had passed laws making it illegal to put words like “crime,” “horror” or “terror” in their titles. And the industry was censoring itself more strictly than even Hollywood with its Production Code.
Few people alive today can tell a story better than Max Allan Collins. SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT is a great, page-turning read that is beautiful to look at and serves as another proud addition to the Hard Case Crime library.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on February 22, 2013