Friday, February 11, 2011

The Insanity of Censorship – Ruth Roche and The Comics Code in the 1950s

Stories this post:
"Out of the Grave"- Haunted Thrills 11 (Ajax-Farrell, Sept. 1953) - Written by Ruth Roche, artist unknown

"Fair Exchange" - Strange 5 (Ajax-Farrell, Jan. 1958) - Rewriter and artist unknown


Much has been written--and debated--about the censorship and witch hunts that plagued the comic-book industry in the 1950s.

Here, we present to you a fascinating example of the same comic book story in two forms: pre-code, and then edited for a reprinting five years later in post-comics code America. In addition, both versions are quite unusual. The pre-code story is a bizarre, dreamlike concoction of horror at the inhumanity and cruelty of the Holocaust -- a rare, unflinching stare at the "true" horror of the concentration camps in comic books of the period (the famous EC story, "Master Race," by Al Feldstein and Bernie Krigstein is another, much more well-known and considerably more artful and accomplished example). The post-code version is also unique for its sheer nuttiness and dreamlike logic breaks.

As with video games today, '50s comics were criticized for their violence, and for their supposed bad influence on American youth. Comic books were publicly burned; newspapers and magazines ran think-pieces that excoriated the "funny books" while offering well-intended if wrong-minded social commentary.

With the enactment of the Comics Code, in 1955, a set of harsh strictures--much harsher than those famously placed on Hollywood in 1934--forced comic book publishers to toe the line, or go under. Distributors and news dealers, leery of public outcry, refused to sell or distribute non-Code approved comics.

This history has been the subject of numerous essays and books. What is often overlooked, in historical studies, is the actual impact the Code had on comic book stories.

Paul recently chanced upon a story--rather, a pair of stories--that exemplify the before and after impact of the Code's rules. It's a gruesome horror story from the infamous Ajax-Farrell imprint and its post-Code, much-altered reprint version. You can see the Comics Code Authority "seal" on the cover of the 1958 comic.

"Out of the Grave," first published in Haunted Thrills #11, cover-dated September, 1953, is the work of the Iger Studios. Greg Sadowski offers some compelling information on publisher Jerry Iger (left) and his partner Ruth Roche in his excellent book Four-Color Fear. Roche is listed as the editor of this comic book; I'll assume that she authored "Out of the Grave."

As with Roche's other stories, this is a blend of the loony and the compelling. Its theme is brutal, even for a 1953 horror comic. The aptly-named Col. Eric Von Grimm delights in torturing, killing and hounding "the poor unfortunates who were not of the master race." The Colonel, stationed in occupied Italy, sees to the slaughter of the "filthy partisans" who defy Nazi rule. He apparently lives in a cozy home with his wife, Helga, in occupied Italy.

The story's intro informs us they are "a loving couple," but the Colonel's is a life of inequity. He spends each day killing upstart Italians, supervising the torments of concentration camp prisoners, and intimidating cow-towing local merchants. Yet he can't afford a new pair of boots. His current pair are worn out; they hurt his feet.

Meanwhile, status-conscious Helga demands the nice things in life, including a lampshade made of human skin. As Helga crows, "they're all the rage now." Her social nemesis, "that horrible Gretchen Smutcher," has a better human-skin lampshade than hers. "Women," reflects von Grimm as he removes his battered boots. "I'll never understand them."

Using his grotesque jobsite percs, von Grimm acquires some "leather" for a new pair of boots, and coerces a local cobbler to make his new footgear.

From here, "Out of the Grave" wends an increasingly nutty path to an attempted school-of-E.C. Comics shock ending. It is a typical genre piece from the peak year of horror comics. Yet, embedded in its talk of human skin and women named Smutcher is a surprising touch of humanity. Some attempt is made to show the effects of von Grimm's cruel actions on those around him. We also witness enough of his interactions with his wife to know theirs is a horribly messed-up union.

Had this story been conceived by Al Feldstein and William Gaines, over at E.C. Comics' offices, it might have been rendered even more poignant, despite the literal mechanics of its contrived surprise ending. "Out of the Grave" is more disturbing for what it tries to be than for what it is not. It's exploitation horror with an attempted heart. Ambitious and inept in concept and execution, it is nonetheless memorable.

Cut to 1958. The Comics Code has been in power for three years. The comics biz has been neutered. Gone are ghouls, gangsters, gun molls. Carnage, murder and mayhem are suggested, if at all invoked. Careers have been destroyed in the process. Surviving publishers have conformed to the Comics Code and had each story ruthlessly scrutinized.

Interior, Ajax-Farrell editorial offices: the decision is made to reprint stories from five years prior. Among those chosen: "Out of the Grave."

With its constant sadism, slaughter, inhumanity and general affront to civil behavior, a less Code-worthy comic book story could not be found. Thus, massive alterations and re-writes befell "Out of the Grave," re-titled "Fair Exchange" for its publication in issue #5 of Strange, cover-dated January 1958.

"Fair Exchange" is a different story. It is fascinating to study each of the story's six pages, in both incarnations, as an example of pre-and post-Code comic books.

Page 1: the splash panel's text introduction is completely re-written--and is more concise than that of "Out of the Grave." It's generally well-written, save for one sentence fragment. On the right side of the splash page, note the replacement of tortured prisoners with a hastily daubed-in bush, colored pink. It appears that Antonio, the cobbler, has awakened from a massive cotton-candy spill.

Col. von Grimm retains his name, but his methods and manners have changed dramatically. Instead of an eagerness to kill the partisan rebels, von Grimm expresses passive frustration: the naughty Italians won't behave. It's really quite vexing!

The soldiers in panel 2 no longer fire their weapons. Though the Colonel still wields his rifle in panel 3, the dugout and its sitting-duck partisans are no longer there. The rifle in von Grimm's arm is now the tool of an empty gesture.


On page 2 (below): For starters, Helga's face has been extensively smoothed out, de-wrinkled and glamorized. This is in accord with one of the less-remembered edicts of the Comics Code. Faces that could be considered frightening or disturbing had to be toned down.

The von Grimm couple's dialogue, on this page, speaks volumes about the changes in the American comic book--and about the conformist attitudes of mainstream 1950s America. Note that the lampshade is now just... a lampshade--and not a fancy one at that. As new Helga complains, "I'm sick and tired of this neighborhood... the shops are bombed or out of stocks! ...I hate our furniture, and it's time you did something about it!"

More tellingly, Helga has an issue with Nazi pride. “Why must everything be stamped with the swastika? ... Lately, I wish I had other labels!” Her husband patiently explains that “it really is patriotic to stamp our personal articles.” Ironically, Code censors nixed the inclusion of the swastika on the lamp shade—wrecking the re-writer’s attempts to keep it there.

In the final two panels, Col. von Grimm muses about his wife’s desire for “imported goods,” rather than human-skin accessories. The final panel of p.2 is the first unaltered frame in this revised version. Apparently, the Code approved a man bemoaning the shoddy state of his footwear.


So, did the Nazis actually make lampshades from human skin? Where does this come from? Here's what The Straight Dope website has to say:

Shortly after U.S. troops liberated the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in 1945, director Billy Wilder made a documentary about the camp to publicize Nazi atrocities. A widely circulated still photo from the film showed a table covered with preserved human remains, including two shrunken heads; several pieces of what appears to be tattooed skin; and an ordinary-looking table lamp. The film's narration says that among the items found was "a lampshade, made of human skin, made at the request of an SS officer's wife."

It seems likely that Ruth Roche, or whoever wrote this story, had seen -- or at least knew about the Wilder film and the circulating photo and story. Here's the (in)famous photo of the horrific Nazi human souvenirs:


Page 3: The first panel is also unaltered from its 1953 incarnation. Panel 2 changes the emphasis from dead bodies to surplus boots. In both cases, the prisoners are “stupid peasants.” In ’53, they’re idiots because they refuse to die; ‘58’s citation of inanity is their lack of spare shoes.

Panel 3 is altered dramatically. Instead of von Grimm killing a prisoner, for the use of his skin, he spots a “stupid peasant” who happens to wear fine boots. Invoking the classic “seize them” line (a necessity of B-movies and other popcult detritus), von Grimm spares a life and confiscates footwear.

Angelo, the cobbler, is given a beauty makeover similar to Helga’s. Good guys have no facial blemishes in post-Code comics. von Grimm retains his shadowy furrows, as he’s the bad guy.

In the final panel, the “er, leather” is now just boots. They look suspiciously unlike boots in the soldier’s bundle, which was unaltered from the ’53 original.


Page 4 takes on a fairy-tale aspect in the ’58 rewrite. Angelo recognizes his own handiwork, instead of seeing tell-tale tattoos on the skin of his son. Now, his emotional connection is even further removed. It’s no longer his son, but his nephew.

As well, the rewrite’s admirably absurd new shock ending comes into play. Angelo raises his hammer in the air, still aquiver, as in ‘53’s version, but his thoughts are no longer of “a pair of boots that can strike and kill.” Now, the boots “can tick off the end of a career!”

In the final panel, Angelo’s vengeful thoughts are blotted out, as are the lines of care on his face. A hasty attempt at feathering sits above the poor cobbler’s head.


On page 5, feces meet fan blades. Angelo is no longer rewarded with death, as in the 1953 original, but with imprisonment and deportation. In the final two panels, Angelo no longer sweats or spits. Once again, his face is shorn of blemishes as he meets a much softer fate.


Page 6 sums up much of what was wrong with the Comics Code, and how it negatively impacted comic book storytelling. There is crude poetic justice in the ’53 original, with the explosives set in the Nazi emblems, which the Colonel will inevitably click together in salute to a superior. As with the other more complex ideas attempted in “Out of the Grave,” this is telegraphed, and loses much of its effectiveness.

The first three panels of this final page are unaltered—even Helga’s wrinkles remain in her panel 1 close-up.

Panel 5 is the one entirely new frame of this re-make. The artist apparently didn’t have access to earlier pages. Helga now looks like a prom queen, instead of the middle-aged harridan she has been.

What happens in the climax to “Fair Exchange” is laughable—and must have seemed so 54 years ago. One has to wonder if Michael Kuppermann travelled back in time to create the story’s conclusion. A ticking clock can be annoying, but it is just cause to end a military career?

This absurd twist is made sorta-poetic in the story’s closing panel, in which the same un-named “friend” kneels before Antonio’s grave and muses sagely to himself. His run-on sentence is worth savoring:

Who would think of the clever trick of putting a set clock in the heels of a Nazi colonel at a time it would ruin him!


“Out of the Grave” is no masterpiece; neither is it hackwork. The writer (Roche?) grappled with larger-than-usual themes for a 1953 horror comic. He or she didn’t have the space—or the chops—to do much with these controversial themes, but it appeared they tried.

It is inexplicable why this story was chosen for a Code-approved revision. Everything about it, in its 1953 version, is an affront to the tenets of the Code. Certainly the Iger concern had milder stories sitting in its inventory!

Ajax-Farrell was in its last days, and, like the endtimes of the Nazi regime, thrift and re-use were of necessity. It took, perhaps, a couple of hours to re-write the story and re-tool the changes needed to the artwork. No one knew the difference, and no one cared. It was just another story, to fill the pages of just another comic book, from a publisher that would soon be history.

Fifty-four years later, the comparison of original and bowdlerized remake is fascinating as a study in censorship from a social regime that was almost as oppressive as Col. von Grimm himself.

P.S.: Many Ajax-Farrell stories were reprinted—and gruesomely retooled—for Myron Fass’ super-crappy Eerie Publications. We didn’t have the energy or time to prowl through available scans of Eerie mags for a possible third version of this story. We can only hope that it was chosen for re-reprinting, due to its gruesome themes, and that Fass tarted the story up even further in his revision. If anyone is aware of a Fass-published third version of this story, please let us know, and we’ll add it to this post.

This is the first of a new series of posts on Comic Book Attic, which will now serve as a blog for Paul Tumey and Frank Young to explore facets of the American comic-book. You may be familiar with our blogs, Cole’s Comics and Stanley Stories. They’re focused on one creator and his work. Comic Book Attic affords us a chance to write about—and share—other comics material, both great and effed-up, from the tattered history of the four-color medium.

We look forward to the fun we’ll have here, and we hope you’ll enjoy our musings as well.


  1. Good L_rd! A classic illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences!

    In any case, a great illustration from you of what the code would mean in application.

    I went through Smith & Broxson, but did not find a match (by title or by description) for this story amongst any of the Eerie Publications reworkings or reprintings.

  2. Wotta fascinating post. For a long time I've thought of all the horror comics as a sublimated secular Jewish response to Auschwitz but this is one of the smoking guns that corroborates that notion! Hilarious to see that theme grafted onto 1950s consumer culture concerns. Thanx guys

  3. And yet sometimes the Code could achieve good. Apparently Richard E. Hughes felt liberated by it.

  4. I just annotated a couple of romance books for the GCD. For a much more benign, much also more convoluted story of comic code ordered cut-ups, see Harvey's First Love Illustrated #36 and #57. The first story in #36 has huge gaps in the text and some black-outs, probably to accomadate the code for this Octoer 1955 book. The 1957 reprint shows the story in it's original form... with the ending changed! The reprint seems to have been done by Joe Simon, by the way, who did this sort of thing more often. I was considering using them on my blog, but seeing the level of scholarship on this blog, I don't know if I dare.