The introduction of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 lobbed restrictions onto comic-book creators and companies following a moral panic induced by the release of the book “Seduction of the Innocent” by psychologist Frederic Wertham, which labeled comic books as a corrupting influence on young readers.
Wertham’s targets included Batman and Robin, labeled as being in a homosexual and pederastic relationship, Superman as a fascist, Wonder Woman as containing allusions to bondage (which contained a kernel of truth), and especially horror comics, such as “Tales from the Crypt,” “The Vault of Horror” and “The Haunt of Fear,” produced by publisher Entertaining Comics, which contained buxom women sexually assaulted and gruesomely murdered by garish nightmare creatures.
“The Innocence of Seduction,” the second in a comic-book-themed trilogy written and directed by Mark Pracht, begins just before the implementation of the Comics Code. In a small office the publisher of EC Comics, William “Bill” Gaines (Sean Harklerode), experiences horrific hallucinations about his dead father, Max Gaines (Ron Quade), the former head of EC who only published religious-themed material. Under his guidance, Gaines’ business is going under and he’s searching for something to set his books apart from all the rest. Enter writer and artist Al Feldstein, whose rendition of “headlight girls” nearly knocks Gaines out of his chair. Combined with werewolves, vampires and the walking dead, EC Comics soon have a hit on their hands.
Two other narratives develop: that of Janice Valleau (Megan Clarke), known for her artwork on the “Betty and Veronica” backup stories in “Archie” comics, and Matt Baker (Brian Bradford), a respected comic-book artist and closeted gay man with a heart condition. Valleau is having a hard enough time working in a male-dominated industry, made even more tenuous by downsizing following the moral panic. Baker, though successful, must hide his sexuality at the risk of losing his job, the stress of which sends him into debilitating seizures. In an industry where murderous clowns shoot acid at men dressed as winged animals, both Valleau and Baker have trouble being taken seriously.
In between the storylines are interstitials by a narrator, none other than Frederic Wertham (Frank Nall) himself. Wertham is portrayed as a ghastly mad doctor-type supervillain, with a gravely German accent, long, white lab coat and cast in eerie green light reminiscent of the horror comics which he profusely fought against. Nall, a fantastic character actor with a Shakespearean tone, plays Wertham with captivating camp and gratuitous growl, a fitting epitaph for the man who many consider almost singlehandedly tanking the comic book industry.
Further reinforcing the comic book aspect are sets and lighting designed by G. “Max” Maxin IV, whose drab offices juxtapose with towering painted skyscrapers and a large, two-knobbed television that shows the real-life comic book source material. All of which receive the occasional splash of neon green and red lights, capturing both the realistic and artistic styles of the era.
“The Innocence of Seduction” is a love letter to comic books, featuring characters based on the actual creators, their work and how they were affected by the repercussions of overregulation. A fun time for the average fan of theater, comic book “true believers” will shout “Excelsior!” at the level of research put into this production, brought to life by a more-than-capable troupe of actors.