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How much comic book violence is too much?

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  • Some of '50s horror-crime comics definitely not for children
  • Impact of media violence and horror on children hotly debated for decades
  • Today's version of comics: perhaps "CSI," "Hostel"
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- In one of EC's most infamous early '50s horror stories, "Foul Play!" a group of baseball players gets revenge on an opponent by playing a game with his dismembered body parts. The cover of one issue of "Crime SuspenStories" pictures a hanged man; another cover, a beheaded woman.

Tough stuff to stomach, author David Hajdu says.

"There's no question that some of it's extreme and not appropriate for young readers," he said. And at least EC's work was often done with some humor or a bit of social commentary, he adds; other comics publishers, such as Stanley Morse, "depicted gruesome acts as play. ... These comics were vile."

However, comics serve a purpose, says artist Rick Veitch, a veteran of such titles as "Swamp Thing" and creator of the current "Army@Love."

"One of the things comics do is penetrate the id, where all the repressed stuff is," he said. "That's what scares people about them. Now people are much more open about it, but then, people were more afraid."

Veitch credits the EC titles, which he stumbled across in the 1960s in paperback editions, with inspiring him: "I was struck by their intensity and good humor, and they scared the pants off me."

Though the argument that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, as promoted by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, has been discredited, the jury is still out as to what effect viewing horror and violence has on children.

Even as new ratings scales are developed -- in addition to the Comics Code Authority, introduced in the mid-'50s by the comics publishers, the movie industry introduced ratings in 1968, the music business created "parental advisory" stickers in the '80s, and TV and video games added ratings more recently -- each medium has had people pushing limits, inspiring an ongoing battle between ideas of free speech and responsibility.

And the material, no matter how deplored, has remained popular.

"There's a whole subgenre on TV of profilers and serial killers, 'CSI.' ... There are a lot of ways the EC experience permeated society," Rollins College history professor Julian Chambliss said.

Hajdu notes the popularity of the "Saw" and "Hostel" films, works he describes as "anesthetizing" the impact of violence.

"Good Girl Art" author Ron Goulart adds that such popularity creates a double standard. People may complain about violence in comic books and other media to the point of censorship, but when you look at the most mass of mediums -- television -- the most graphic shows are rewarded with high ratings and little protest.

"Ninety percent of the things people bitch about," he said, "you can see every night on TV."

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