The history of modern American comic books is haunted by one person. Much anger has been directed at and much written about Dr. Fredric Wertham and his almost monomaniacal crusade against comics.
But what of the other side of the controversy? For there to be a controversy in the first place there had to be two sides. Who spoke up for the comic book medium?
In fact, there were many, but one stands out; one who was steadfast; one who didn't relent.
It's about time to meet Josette Frank.
The following text is the product of many sources, but chief among them were Stephen Jacobs and Judith Rosen, Josette's children, her grandson, Thomas Jacobs, and Lindsey Wyckoff, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian of the Bank Street College Library. But special thanks go out to Linnea Anderson, Archivist of the Social Welfare History Archives of the University of Minnesota. The vast majority of correspondence utilized in this text came from those archives and without Ms. Anderson's kindness and research help, this would not have been possible.
I have made every attempt to make sure that all other sources are properly cited and noted. Unless otherwise noted, all correspondence comes from the aforementioned University of Minnesota Social Welfare History Archives.
-- Ken Quattro
Robert Maxwell had a lot riding on the success of the upcoming Superman radio program. Trumping that, publisher Detective Comics, Inc. (DC) had even more riding on it.They employed Maxwell and the newly incorporated Superman, Inc. to market their franchise superhero to America and the radio show was to be the platform.
It hadn't been easy. After getting Hecker's Oats, who had once backed the Bobby Benson show, to agree to sponsorship, Maxwell and publicist Allen "Duke" Ducovny, were only able to sell the Superman program to ten regional stations.1 Complicating matters was the concern among certain portions of the citizenry about the effect that "adventure" radio programs were having upon children.
Such was the level of concern that Dr. John DeBoer of the University of Chicago, conducted experiments on 148 children who listened to radio programs while he recorded their respiratory and galvanic responses.
"In situations of danger, combat, pursuit, flights and threats to the possession of some treasured object," he was quoted, "both boys and girls in the 6 to 8 group respond by gripping some article of furniture tightly, gasping, chuckling involuntarily, sobbing, laughing and weeping quietly." 2
Keenly aware of the public scrutiny, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a industry-wide code in July, 1939, aimed at quelling their concerns.
Still, the debate continued and as such, it was one of the topics discussed in a public forum held by the Child Study Association of America (CSAA) in November, 1939, to discuss matters affecting the "modern child". When it came to the portion of the meeting to broach the subject of children's radio programming, Josette Frank of the CSAA Radio Committee, noted that "approved" children's radio shows were not popular with children. She then offered the controversial opinion, "...that parents and teachers must realize that children's tastes are not those of adults." 3
It's not known whether Maxwell or Ducovny were among the audience at the CSAA forum, but they surely were aware of Frank's point of view.
January 3, 1940
c/o Mr. Bob Maxwell
Dear Miss Fielding:
I have looked over the "Superman" script which you left with me and I have an idea it should be very popular radio program with the young.
So far as the two scripts you left with me are concerned I can see no objection to the whatever. They seem to me harmless enough unless one brands all excitement as harmful, but I do not. Naturally I cannot give you any kind of opinion on the whole program on the basis of two scripts. I have no way of know[ing] that the 9th script may not contain something which I would object to and so of course I must confine my opinion to these which I have read.
Do let me know if the program goes on as I shall look forward with considerable interest to hearing it. Knowing the hold which the magazine SUPERMAN has upon young readers, I would be curious to know whether the same fascination could be translated into this other medium.
With best wishes, I am
Maxwell and Ducovny must have been overjoyed to get Frank's approval of the two scripts. So overjoyed that they anticipated her thumbs-up in a press release even before Frank had written her response. This didn't go unnoticed by Frank in a letter dated February 3, 1940.
Dear Miss Fielding:
I am greatly shocked to find on my desk this morning a clipping from the New York Telegraph of January 30th concerning the SUPERMAN program, in which I find this sentence: "The first set of scripts for the serial have been submitted to the Child Study Association, according to reports and have won that body's approval. Reason for the previous ban was that parent organizations had objected to the excitement as too much for children."
I recall very clearly that when you came here to ask for our opinion of the program, you very distinctly told me that this was not to be used in any publicity, and that you merely wanted for the information of the prospective sponsor, to know whether we considered the program harmful. The letter which I subsequently wrote you specifically said that we could not approve a program of which we had seen only two of the scripts but that so far as these two were concerned, we did not consider them harmful. I can imagine no possible warrant in my letter for any such publicity or any such claims as you have made.
Will you please take every measure to eliminate our name from any future publicity, and to correct, in so far as you can, any public impression that this program is going on the air with the Child Study Association's approval.
Please let me hear from you as to what you can do in this respect.
It took a few days, but Fielding's response of February 8th, was geared toward making amends.
Dear Miss Frank,
I have been attempting since receipt of your letter to contact you by phone, but without success. Mr. Maxwell has gone into the matter of SUPERMAN publicity revolving about the Child Study Association and finds that its point of origin was the advertising agency controlling the Hecker Product's account. He has issued orders that no publicity naming the Child Study Association is to be released in the future.
Copies of your original letter to me were submitted both to the Hecker Company and the advertising agency, and since by inference at least, you gave approval to the scripts you read, you can readily see how the sponsors were eager to take advantage of such approval.
It stretches the bounds of believability that Maxwell or Ducovny were unaware of the use of the Child Study Association's good name in the TELEGRAPH piece. Furthermore, Fielding's contention that the submission of Frank's letter had been what triggered the press release rings hollow, given that the TELEGRAPH article pre-dated the writing of the letter by several days.
"I will call you within a day or two and trust that you can see me personally, as we are very anxious to secure, if not your approval, your opinion on our future scripts. Believe me, it was not our intention to trade on the Child Study Association's name, since the SUPERMAN program had already been sold to Hecker's prior to the appearance of the publicity you mentioned."
Fielding's postscript dutifully informed Frank that the Superman program was debuting the following Monday, February 12th, at 5:15 P.M. on local station WOR. In a personal touch, Fielding (who was also Bob Maxwell's wife) added, "I should be interested in knowing how your son reacts to it." It was in the best interest of Bob Maxwell and Superman, Inc. to stay on the good side of Josette Frank. They would have need of her in the near future.
Josette Frank,whose father Leo owned a successful New York City furniture company, graduated from a girls finishing school in 1910 with a clear view of her path in life.
"For me the world was full of things needing to be done, and I needed to be doing," she wrote years later, "I seemed to think I owed the world my services. So I did what socially conscious girls did in those days: volunteered for social service." 4
For much of the following decade, Frank worked in a variety of positions, mainly with organizations having a socially progressive mission. She taught English to newly arrived immigrants, aided social workers at Bellevue Hospital and served on the publications staff of the National Child Labor Committee helping to edit THE AMERICAN CHILD magazine. A frustrating turn as a vocational counselor in a Lower East Side school preceded her employment in 1923 with the Federation for Child Study as part-time editor of their new monthly magazine. The publication soon had its title changed to CHILD STUDY and the organization that published it eventually changed its name, too, to the Child Study Association of America.
The original Federation of Child Study was formed by five women
from the Ethical Culture Society in 1888. This group of Jewish women
were followers of Felix Adler, founder of the ethical culture movement
which believed in a morality based not upon religion, but social
activism. Adler's motto, "Deed, not creed", led to the
organization of a number of social welfare programs and the establishment of a cooperative kindergarten. From
this simple beginning, the group's scope expanded to not only include the study of children, but to also aid in their
educational, societal and moral development.
Frank's part-time position at the CSAA led to additional responsibilities as staff liaison to the Children's Book Committee and as contributor to various publications.
"We can best guide our children's reading if we let our children's reading guide us," she wrote in a 1936 issue of PARENTS MAGAZINE, "Instead of trying to mold them into preconceived patterns of 'what the well-read child should read,' let us rather encourage them to find their way to real experiences of their own in the vast world of books." 5
Frank's growing expertise in the area of children's literature prompted the organization's director, Sidonie Gruenberg, to suggest that Frank author a book recommending children's books. The result was WHAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN?, first published in 1937, providing the basis for Frank's growing reputation as an authority on the subject. Despite her notoriety, though, her views on independently thinking children flew in the face of many contemporary beliefs and were not always well received.
An appearance at a NEW YORK TIMES sponsored book fair promoting her book led to an angry letter to the editor attacking Frank's progressive views. She in turn responded with her own letter.
"It is true that there is much good literature today, and we, as parents, must see to it that our children have ready access to plenty of it, and the best of it," she wrote, "But this is not to say the we can keep them from reading much that is less than good."
Frank goes on to acknowledge that children cannot be protected from reading material that, "is fraught with danger," since they are surrounded by it. Trying to stop them from reading such things that adults may consider "unwholesome" is pointless since, "...we know that prohibiting has ever had the effect of enhancing the allure of the forbidden." 6
It was a chapter added to the 1941 edition of WHAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN? that carried Frank's most controversial views. Views that she stated in no uncertain terms.
"We may have to climb down from pleasant ivory towers and concede the possibility that children's books need not be saturated with sweetness and light, that writing for children may be fine and still deal in good red meat."7
Fortunately, for all concerned, the Superman radio program was a hit.
After achieving reportedly record numbers (for shows broadcast 3-times per week) in the April, 1940, Crossley Ratings, 'Duke' Ducovny parlayed that success into the July 3rd "Superman Day" at the 1940 New York World's Fair. And though a deal with Republic Pictures for a live-action movie serial fell through, another with Paramount for a proposed cartoon series would result in the classic Fleischer Brothers productions a year hence. Along with the myriad number of licensed Superman products hitting the market, the hoped-for multimedia exposure of Superman seemed to be complete.
But not all observers were taken with the Man of Steel's growing popularity.
"Virtually every child in America is reading color "comic" magazines--a poisonous mushroom growth of the last two years," read the first line of Sterling North's May 8, 1940, editorial titled, "A National Disgrace".
"Ten million copies of these sex-horror are sold every month," he wrote, "One million dollars are taken from the pockets of America's children in exchange for graphic insanity."
The Wisconsin-born children's book author and literary critic, North would seem to be a likely kindred spirit to Josette Frank. Instead, his beliefs were perhaps more reflective of prevailing deeply-rooted American values; of slowly changing attitudes and fear of the new. He withheld no vitriol as he continued his hyperbolic attack
"Save for a scattering of more or less innocuous 'gag' comics and some reprints of newspaper strips, we found that the bulk of these lurid publications depend for their appeal upon mayhem, murder, torture, and abduction--often with a child as the victim. Superman heroics, voluptuous females in scanty attire, blazing machine guns, hooded 'justice' and cheap political propaganda were to be found on almost every page."
North went on to further castigate comic books for being, "Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed--a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems--the effect of those pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil a child's natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories."
And then his coup de grâce.
"Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the 'comic' magazine." 8
The gauntlet had been thrown down and though he may not have realized it at the time, North had established the talking points for the comic book debate to come.
North's editorial was widely reprinted (claims were that requests for copies numbered in the millions) and DC knew that had to do something. There had to be outwardly signs that they were a concerned organization.
Someone came up with the idea of an editorial advisory board; a group of
upstanding citizens, impressively credentialed, with notable names. Even before the official formation of the advisory board, Managing
Editor Whitney Ellsworth had been tasked with developing an in-house
of editorial conduct that reined in some of the more objectionable
behaviors appearing in comics.
"I sat down with several of the editors and the public
relations people to work out a set of standards for the guidance of all
of the artists and writers who were engaged on these magazines," Frank later told an interviewer,
"A number of these standards were of course on the negative side--things
not to do. They contained such obvious prohibitions as "no kidnapping
of a child" -- "no derogatory attitudes toward parents or toward
constituted law enforcement", etc.
"There were, however, some positive suggestions having to do with social attitudes and educational values." 9
In mid-April of 1941, Ellsworth sent out a memo.
TO: All Editors, Associate Editors, Writers and Artists preparing material for DC Comic Magazines.
It is our desire to publish our magazines in strict adherence to
accepted standards of decency and good taste. The following code must be
followed both as to spirit and to letter; there are no exceptions.
Writers and artists are advised to confine their contributions to
material that is completely above any possible criticism. Our
requirements are rigid, and much time and effort will be saved if they
are strictly adhered to.
rapidly growing field, many recent comic books have fallen far short of
our standards. We have no intention of catering to that fringe of the
public which forms the market for vulgar, obscene or vicious literature.
Our obligation to the youth of America and parents requires us to
publish only wholesome material.
We wish to point out that this code of editorial practice has been prepared with the advice and assistance of:
Dr. Robert Thorndike, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Miss Josette Frank, Staff Advisor to the Children's Book Committee, Child Study Association of America.
Dr. Ruth Perl, Associate Member, American Psychological Association.
Dr. C. Bowie Millican, Department of English Literature, New York University.
Ellsworth's memo came with the attached editorial code. It was very specific, quite restrictive and sporadically enforced.
No profanity of suggestion of profanity (such as "Who th'--", What the '--", etc.)
No reference to the Deity.
No sex. Relations between the sexes must be kept casual.
Female characters used as little as story exigencies permit.
NO FEMALES ON COVERS OF MAGAZINES. Covers must stress clean action.
No sadism. Use of whip and hypodermic absolutely forbidden.
No pictorial horror. The borderline here is difficult to define. A
certain amount of shooting and such may be necessary if stories are to
pack any "punch" whatever. There must also be a definite an strong
menace for the hero to overcome. Yet by careful and judicious editing,
the violent action angle must be played down, and details of death are
not emphasized either in story or picture. Battered or bloody figures
must never be shown. This angle is approached very much as the movies
approach similar problem under the restrictions of the Hays Office.
"Heroic" heroes (the type of hero who has superhuman or extra-human
powers) never use firearms or other lethal weapons. If a menace loses
his life in an adventure with such a hero, he loses it through his own
machinations. For example, a menace may fire a shot at SUPERMAN; because
of the fact that SUPERMAN has impenetrable skin, the bullet merely
bounces off him and back to the menace, destroying him. Thus the death
of the villain can in no way be blamed upon the hero, who was merely a
passive agent to the act.
Ordinary "detective" heroes generally "get their man" by ingenious brain--and footwork. However, such a hero, because he is ordinary in the sense that he possesses no extra-human powers, must sometimes use firearms to get him out of trouble.
The overall general policy is to point up the phrase "Crime Doesn't
Pay". Every story hammers home this same message. Further, it pictures
regular law-enforcement agencies and agents as capable and
on-the-job--never inept or ridiculous.
Wherever women are essential for plot purposes, they must be properly and decently clothed.
Except where characterization requires it (as in the case of hoodlums), grammar must be correct. Check this carefully.
Captions and dialogue must be large enough for easy reading and must appear on white and light shaded background only.
Patriotism and the manifold merits of democracy shall be emphasized wherever possible.
The good neighbor policy shall be maintained--individual and national
villains shall not be Mexicans, Central or South Americans.
Humor, gauged to childhood levels, is a desirable attribute.
Physical fitness, learning and moral integrity are essentials for all heroic characters.
Weapons, such as revolvers, automatics or machine guns, incidental to
plot, shall not be over-emphasized or their operation described.
The four individuals credited with helping write this code, along with the honorary membership of former heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney, formed the Editorial Advisory Board that came to be prominently displayed on the inside front cover of DC and the affiliated All-American (AA) comics. It seems, though, that the writing of the editorial guidelines preceded the official formation of the editorial advisory board.
Frank's inclusion was likely the easiest to secure. She was already working with Maxwell on the radio show, reviewing scripts and making suggestions, and had even recently started writing book and movie reviews that were appearing in some of the AA/DC comics.
She was also recently widowed. Her husband, Henry, passed away on September 30, 1940, leaving her with two small children. The opportunity to work for AA/DC came, "...shortly after (Henry's) death and life was at a low point," daughter Judith recalled years later, "I think
she found this interesting and stimulating, and it, literally, gave her
a new lease." 10
Curiously, Frank's invitation to serve on the advisory board didn't come from Ellsworth or another member of the editorial staff. It came from Harry Childs of the Juvenile Group Foundation.
The Juvenile Group Foundation was in reality an arm of DC's publicity department, headquartered at a different address to give the impression of independence. The appropriately named Childs was yet another publicist, probably working under Ducovny's direction.
Frank's response to Childs' invitation dated June 17th, 1941, was decidedly friendlier than her earliest correspondence with Maxwell's office. And she was certainly more willing to offer her approval backed by her name.
Dear Mr. Childs,
Thank you for your invitation to serve on the advisory board of your magazines, comprising, as I understand it, Superman, Bat-Man [sic], Detective Comics, Action Comics, More Fun Comics, All-American Comics, and Flash Comics.
I shall be very glad to serve on the advisory board, especially since I am confident, from my conversations with you, that you are as concerned as I am with standards which will safeguard your young readers, and that any criticism or constructive suggestions which I may have to offer toward that end will be welcomed by you.
You may, if you wish, use my name along with other members of your advisory board on your editorial page, listing me as "Staff Advisor to the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association of America".
In practice, enforcement of the editorial guidelines meant no killing (sorry Spectre), no overt
sexuality (sorry boys), no use of chains or torture devices (we will get
back to that...). The curiously misogynistic ban on women would soon prove to be a particular problem.
DC and AA weren't the only ones hoping to secure Frank's nod of approval.
In a letter dated June 21, 1941, coming less than a week after Frank's agreement with AA/DC, George J. Hecht, President of Parents' Magazine Press, courted her as well.
Dear Miss Frank:
The snowball has started to roll.
For some time past parents and teachers have worried about the trashy, lurid ("comic") magazines which boys and girls insist on buying, literally by the millions. Nagging and scolding were of no avail; prohibition of "comics" only resulted in deceit.
Now they find the solution in substitution wholesome, educational reading matter that the children like. The campaign has started. Educators, mothers and fathers are actively promoting the new idea in "comic" magazines..."comics" that provide all the thrills and action told in colorful picture-stories, but "comics" that educate, in the right way, even while they entertain.
This solution of the "comics" problem was created by the publishers of PARENTS' MAGAZINE. Now the Parent's Magazine Press, Inc. is bringing out REAL HEROES, a brand-new 64 page "comic" publication, built around the heroic deeds of famous and little-know real people. Instead of fantastic, impossible "comic" characters, REAL HEROES deals entirely with the men and women who have made or are making history, heroes and heroines who really lived and performed important deeds of bravery or of service to the world. I am enclosing a copy of the first issue together with additional data about the magazine.
This forward step in popular juvenile reading has the endorsement and support of leading teachers and psychologists, as well as parents. We believe REAL HEROES merits your attention, and we shall appreciate any editorial mention of it that you see fit to make.
Hecht didn't even try to conceal his contempt for the dominate trend in contemporary comics (a term he disdainfully confined between quotation marks). Hecht was founder of the Parents' Institute and, like Frank, had long history of involvement with social welfare.
While he had already put together his own illustrious board of editorial advisers, Hecht apparently hoped for Frank's blessing via her position at CHILD STUDY magazine. And he wasn't the only publisher so inclined. In a letter dated two days later, the publisher of CHILD LIFE also sought to gain Frank's favor in regards to a new comic book-style feature it was running in its magazine.
"CHILD LIFE believes that the "comic" form of story telling need not be objectionable to parents," wrote A. A. Belford to Frank, "In fact, we believe that a method of story telling which appeals so completely to children can be effectively used to increase the interest of a child in a magazine which provides good literature and wholesome entertainment."
Frank had to be conflicted. While she certainly shared their view that comics could be used as an entry point to "good" literature, Frank also believed that the current superhero genre that they found so objectionable was a positive release for children. And she wasn't the only one who thought this way.
In a research paper published in the July 1941, issue of a psychiatry journal, Dr. Lauretta Bender and Dr. Reginald S. Lourie concluded that their study of the effect of comics upon children had shown that,"The comics may be said to offer the same type of mental catharsis to its readers that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of drama." 11
Even the efforts of DC were being noticed.
Catherine MacKenzie, columnist and parent-child editor of the NEW YORK TIMES, wrote in an opinion article on October 12, 1941, "Parents who haven't been keeping up with Superman may not be aware of the high moral tone pervading his exploits, or aware that a serious-minded committee, including educators and psychologists, advise on editorial policy." 12
Still, Frank's agreement to work for DC/AA posed an ethical dilemma. How could she maintain objectivity when she was being paid by them? This connection was only to get closer when she also agreed to work on Superman, Inc.'s latest venture: the radio dramatization of an ALL-AMERICAN COMICS feature.
"Your invitation of me to serve in an advisory editorial capacity in the preparation of the HOP HARRIGAN radio program is at hand," Frank wrote to Bob Maxwell on June 23rd, "and I more than welcome the opportunity to be of assistance on this program."
Frank's closeness to the companies she was advising was evident in the correspondence she had with All-American Comics president, M. C. "Max" Gaines. In an October 15th missive, Gaines included copies of her book reviews that were to appear in upcoming issues of his comics, along with his note that, "I am arranging to get two more tickets for your Association's theatre party, and hope to have Mr. and Mrs. Dvorkin join our party on October 30th, at which time we can arrange for a get-together sometime in November."
This letter also contained an interesting paragraph hinting at something more.
"I had a talk with Mr. Childs yesterday, and as he pointed out to you Dr. Marston's name will be eliminated as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board on all issues which will come out during the month of January."
Was this removal of Marston's name coming at Frank's request? If so, what objection did she have against his inclusion on the board?
A letter from Gaines dated just one day later accompanied copies the latest issues of FLASH and SENSATION comics and concluded with, "I am also sending you an advanced copy of "All-Star Comics" #8, which contains the introductory episode of "Wonder Woman".
Gaines seemed to grow increasingly dependent upon Frank. In early November, he wrote her asking, "Can you arrange to have with me Friday? I would like to tell you about our visit with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and at the same time take up some other matters with you." Fisher was an early women's rights activist and it can be speculated that Gaines' meeting with her concerned the character, Wonder Woman.
The public reception of Wonder Woman appears to have been a major preoccupation for Gaines. His letter to Frank dated November 22nd touted a report by another advisory board member, Dr. Thorndike, that the Wonder Woman feature received a "readability" rating of, "...17, which is 3 or 4 points higher than any other comic strip in either "Sensation Comics" or any of the others of our publications."
"Incidentally, a preliminary check up just received from our distributing company indicates a very favorable reception to "Sensation Comics" insofar as the sale on the first issue is concerned."
His postscript surprisingly referred to an earlier letter he received from George Hecht of Parents' Press.
"I believe you will be interested in knowing that our good friend, Hecht, has not yet replied to my last letter to him of November 14th," Gaines noted cryptically.
The letter to which Gaines was referring was itself part of a series of letters that were exchanged by him and Hecht over several months. A November 10th letter was representative of their subject matter.
Dear Mr. Hecht;
My attention has been called to an item in the New York Times of Thursday, November 5, reporting the proceedings of the first Children's Book Week luncheon.
As the originator of he monthly comic magazine, and publisher of an important group, I was, of course, very much interested in the account of your address at that luncheon.
The TIMES article cited was wholly given over to an account of Hecht's remarks criticizing the amount of time children spent reading comics in lieu children's books.
"There are approximately 125 different comic magazines and they are featured on more than 100,000 newsstands in the country," Hecht said, contrasting that number with, "I am told that a publisher is pleased if 1,000 book shops sell his children's books and an edition of 5,000 copies is a good sale." 13
It was another quote, though, that caught Gaines' attention.
"The publisher declared," read the article, "that he would be glad if "all comics, including our own, were put out of business." 14
Gaines reminded Hecht of his earlier letter to TIME magazine that was more specific in its criticism.
"You will recall that in your letter to TIME, you specifically mentioned "Superman", "All-American Comics", and, I believe, several others of our group as not being in a class with those which you wholeheartedly condemned."
"It seems not that you put all comic magazines, including your own and the "DC-Superman" Group, with such a distinguished Editorial Advisory Board as Dr. Thorndike of Columbia University, Dr. Sones, Professor of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, Josette Frank of the Child Study Association, Dr. Millican of New York University and others, in the same category."
"I have tried to analyze the reasons for your statement as reported in The New York Times and have come to the conclusion that there is a possibility that you may have been misquoted."
Gaines went on to propose a symposium about comics under the auspices of Hecht's Parents' Institute and funded by Gaines.
Hecht's letter of reply came back quickly. He assured Gaines that he, "...was in part misquoted by THE NEW YORK TIMES," and he readily agreed to Gaines' proposal.
"I gladly accept your proposition," wrote Hecht, "and will be glad to publicly debate the problem of the comic magazines with you and with other members of your editorial advisory board."
While Gaines' November 22nd letter to Frank refers to his reply to Hecht, it's not clear if the symposium ever occurred. What is clear is that Gaines didn't appreciate Hecht's opinion of comic books, a medium which Gaines frequently took credit for creating and the main source of his income. Less obvious, but no less likely, is that Gaines didn't appreciate Hecht's previous attempt to recruit Frank to extol his comics.
A blurb in the NEW YORK TIMES of Dec. 14, 1941 may have gone overlooked in all the war news so soon after Pearl Harbor, but it was an announcement that would have a significant impact on the comic book industry.
"The Child Study Association of America has embarked on a study of the comics and Miss Josette Frank has this to say about it:
"Because our children are reading comic books literally by the millions it seems important for us to find out wherein lies there peculiar fascination and to help children to develop discrimination in their comics as in their other reading."" 15
With the probable input of Bob Maxwell, Frank had come up with the perfect public relations tool. A "scientific" study of comic books, conducted by a respected institution, with a likely positive result. Given Frank's favorable predisposition toward the comic book medium, and not to mention her connection to DC/AA, there was little chance for it to turn out otherwise.
Despite the sincerity of Frank's research, this delicate dance between unbiased advisor and paid consultant complicated the perception of her impartiality.
By the time of the TIMES mention, Frank had already gone about contacting the various comic book publishers for copies of their products for the study.
"I am sending you two copies of each of our comic magazines under separate cover. The titles are: Walt Disney's Comics, Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies Comics, Super Comics, Popular Comic, and The Funnies, which are published on a monthly basis," wrote Helen Mayer of Dell Publishing in her response of Nov. 25th.
"At the request of Robert Maxwell," scribbled Leo Greenwald in his short handwritten reply, "I will send you the latest issue of "Champ Comics"."
"Mr. Max Grossman suggested that we send up copies of each of our comic magazines to used in your study of current comic books," was the answer of Timely Comics' Abraham Goodman.
Not surprisingly, her former correspondent, George Hecht of Parent's Magazine Press, was enthusiastic about the study.
"We are, naturally, tremendously interested in the findings of your Children's Book Committee and should like very much to see any report they publish on their study of the effect of comics on children's reading," was his reply along with current issues of TRUE, CALLING ALL GIRLS and REAL HEROES. Notably missing was his condescending inclusion of the word "comics" within quotation marks.
Frank seemed a bit confused about the difference between comic publishers and the comic shops that created many of them. In a January 6, 1942, letter to Lloyd Jacquet of Funnies, Inc., Frank thanked him for his offer of the use of his files of comics, but, "I am not quite clear, from your letter, whether you are publishers of certain comic magazines--you mention True Comic[s], which we already have--or whether you are a production agency, creating strips for many publishers."
In point of fact, this wasn't the first comic book study undertaken. In the months leading up to the CSAA announcement, Frank asked for and received help from librarians, educators and social workers, from the Smith Memorial Library in Chautauqua, New York to the State Board for Vocational Education in Boise, Idaho. Each had also conducted their own research into the effects of comics. Frank's study was going to be as thorough as possible, even though the outcome was in little doubt.
December 4, 1941
Dear Mr. Childs:
I have been going over very carefully all of your magazines that are now coming to me regularly and I am impelled in my capacity of "advisor" to make one or two suggestions.
The first has to do with the type faces in several of the magazines both in the captions and in the balloons. For example, in the current issue of FLASH the type is in places almost unreadable. I realize that in each of the magazines there are spots where it is good and others where it is not, but I do wish that something could be done in all your magazines to bring them up to a good standard in this respect. I think the best of them right now from this point of view is the STAR SPANGLED COMICS which I received this morning.
The reason I stress this matter of print so strenuously is because this is always the very first point which parents make when they complain about the comics. Invariably the statement runs something like this: "I wouldn't care if my children read the comics if the only had different print so that they would not ruin their eyes." I always assure them that in our group of comics we are working on this problem seriously and sincerely but I must confess when I look at some of your books after I have given them this assurance I have some misgivings.
I want also to ask again whether I may be assured that I will see proof of all copy which appears in my name. Recent issues have carried perfectly appalling errors which seem to me most unnecessary especially considering the fact that our original agreement provided that I should see all proof. I am sure that I could forestall most of these errors.
I should like to ask also by what process you check the grammatical correctness of your own copy. One of the "standards" which you have thrown up and of which you are pardonably proud is a demand for correct grammar. I have found grammatical errors from time to time that I have always hoped they were isolated slips of editing. Can you find some satisfactory way for handling this?
I am sorry if I seem to be taking my responsibility of "advisor" too seriously, but I assume that this is one of the things you want me for. Incidentally, while I am on this subject, I note that the Advisory Board as it appears in the February issue of STAR SPANGLED COMICS remains unchanged. As long ago as August, 1941 I was promised that there would be changes in this Editorial Board and only a few weeks ago I was told that the changes would take place after the January issue. This is something about which I am seriously concerned and I would appreciate some immediate word from you about it.
There was no doubt that Josette Frank took her position with DC/AA seriously. As well as her detailed advice to Harry Childs, Frank was compiling lists of children's books to run in the comics. She came up with a contest that paid five dollars for the best review submitted by a child based on her published lists. "That ought to get 'em!", she wrote hopefully to a correspondent.
1 De Haven, Tom, OUR HERO: SUPERMAN ON EARTH, pg. 95 (2010).
2 "Radio's Effect on Youth", NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 13, 1938.
3 "Parents Criticize 'Newer Education'", NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 19, 1939.
4 Frank, Josette, THE YEARS AFTER SCHOOL.
5 "Book Expert Makes Plea for Child Deciding What to Read", MIAMI DAILY NEWS, Oct. 21, 1936.
6 Letters to the Editor, NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 28, 1937.
7 Frank, Josette, WHAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN?, pg. 82 (1941).
8 North, Sterling, "A National Discrace", May 8, 1940.
9 Josette Frank interview with Mrs. Charles Liebman, Jan. 28, 1947.
10 Judith Rosen email, April 4, 2013.
11 Bender, L. and Lourie, R. S., The Effect of Comic Books on the Ideology of Children, AMERICAN JOURNAL OF ORTHOPSYCHIATRY, 11: 540–550 (July, 1941).
12 Mackenzie, Catherine, "Movies--and Superman", NEW YORK TIMES, Oct. 12, 1941.
13 "Comics' Effects on Youth Scored", NEW YORK TIMES, Nov. 6, 1941.
15 "Notes", NEW YORK TIMES, Dec. 14, 1941.