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DANGER LURKS IN THESE PAGES WHAT THE BATTLE OVER COMIC BOOKS SAYS ABOUT OUR SOCIETY.

Byline: Nancy Dillon

Staff Writer

Comic books have long played nemesis to our country's cultural police.

They've pushed conservative boundaries with their sexual subtext, glamorized crime and graphic violence. They even prompted Senate subcommittee hearings on their link to juvenile delinquency in the mid-1950s.

But they're also a great American art form -- one that makes readers laugh, ask questions and fall in love with complex characters.

A new exhibit mapping the evolution of the comic book opens Monday at California State University Northridge's Oviatt Library.

"Today's comic books didn't just materialize out of thin air. They started with the earliest comic strips. They survived the Senate hearings. They faced censorship by the Comics Code Authority. They have a very interesting history, and I'm trying to tell that history using our collection from the 1930s to the 1990s," said the show's curator, Tony Gardner, a university archivist.

Gardner's exhibit pays special attention to industry arch-enemy and U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver, the anti-crime crusader who led the public hearings on comic books in 1954.

The code and the comics

Kefauver's subcommittee sought testimony from concerned parents and expert witnesses and eventually asked comic book publishers to tone down their content voluntarily. Sensing a losing battle, the publishers developed the now infamous Comics Code Authority to censor their own content.

The Code, as the CSUN exhibit explains, banned violent and suggestive images in comic books, dictated that good should always triumph over evil, and outlawed specific words and concepts such as "horror" and "zombies."

"If you look at a comic book issued after 1954, you will see a little white label, the insignia of the Comics Code Authority," Gardner said.

One highlight of the exhibit is a rare copy of Dr. Fredric Wertham's 1954 book "Seduction of the Innocent," the scholarly text that many people credit with instigating the Senate inquiry and the subsequent Comics Code.

" 'Seduction of the Innocent' was probably the single strongest influence that has kept American comics from becoming an all-ages medium. It did a lot to hamper comics as an adult art form," said Caleb Monroe, 27, an employee at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood. "It's a sad piece of history, but it's history. I'd love to see it."

Gardner said the chilling effect of "Seduction" and the Comics Code helped fuel the popularity of squeaky-clean superhero comics in the late 1950s and sparked a side industry that specialized in evasive tactics.

One comic that sidestepped censorship was "Vampirella." On display in the exhibit, Vampirella got around the whitewashing rules by publishing in a magazine format, Gardner said.

Not so lucky was EC Comics, the legendary publisher known for its horror and crime comics. "The negative publicity surrounding the hearings pretty much led to the end of EC Comics, which couldn't meet the (new) standards," Gardner said.

The Comics Code finally received revisions in 1971 and 1989, loosening up restrictions, he said.

Of course, the CSUN exhibition also focuses on the lighter side of comics, featuring the personal correspondence of Donald Duck illustrator Carl Barks and some early strips from the Sunday funny pages.

From pencil to page

Those interested in comic book production can learn how their favorite comics came to life in the era before the computer. The elaborate and highly collaborative process involved a writer, a penciler, an inker, a colorist and an editor, the show's organizers say.

Gardner says his favorite item in the exhibit is a 1928 handwritten letter that Popeye creator Elzie Crisler Segar sent to Chase Craig at Western Litho.

The letter includes an early drawing of Whiffle Bird, a magical creature that Segar introduced in his newspaper strip "Thimble Theatre."

"He even signed it with the little cigar next to his name," Gardner said.

Nancy Dillon, (818) 713-3760

nancy.dillon@dailynews.com

CELEBRATING COMIC BOOKS: AN AMERICAN TRADITION

Where: C.K. and Teresa Tseng Gallery, the Oviatt Library, CSUN, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge.

When: Monday through Aug. 3. Open during regular library hours, including 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Admission: Free. Parking $4.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Violence and its aftermath have always been part of the comic-book world, as shown above in this "Batgirl" page, part of "Celebrating Comic Books," an exhibit at California State University, Northridge. Below, a vintage "Buck Rogers" cover. The display opens Monday at the university's Oviatt Library.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 22, 2007
Words:737
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