Photo by Steve Graue
Mark Pracht’s trilogy about the golden era of comics began with last year’s The Mark of Kane, about the man who actually invented Batman but received no credit. Pracht is back with a production of The Innocence of Seduction, the second in the series. The play tells the story of the industry’s adoption of the “voluntary” Comics Code of 1954—voluntary in that the publishers chose to follow it (because not doing so risked their livelihood). However, while more theatrically polished than Kane (which I liked a lot), the new play lacks the emotional power of its predecessor, and its choppy structure is less easy to overlook.
In Kane, Pracht focused his attention on impoverished comics writer Bill Finger and his relationship with “Bob” Kane, whose machinations stole all of the credit for the character and story of Batman. Kane made for a fitting supervillain, and Finger was easy to root for, so that even the fact that the villain ultimately emerged victorious didn’t detract from the audience’s experience. In Innocence, though, Pracht (who also directs) focuses on the Code, a totally abstract adversary. He tries (without complete success) to humanize it by using two real people as its standard-bearers, but in this play he has forgotten the need for a hero we care about.
The main character of Innocence is Mad Magazine publisher Bill Gaines, played by Sean Harklerode. Gaines, who also published successful horror comics (Tales From the Crypt), has to fight for his professional life when the Code, in a totally ridiculous 1950s effort to “protect” young people that is sadly echoed today by anti-LGBT laws and book bans in many states, outlaws pretty much every title in his catalog. For a modern audience—at least for one in a blue state—the entire thing is absurd, so Gaines should be a worthy protagonist. Unfortunately, that is not the case. When we meet Gaines, he is basically an empty man. Following his father’s death, he has had to give up his dream job (teaching) in order to run Max Gaines’ comic book publishing company, a niche business if ever there was one, since his dad mostly published comics based on Bible stories—not exactly destined to set sales records. Now only an animate lump in the publisher’s office, he shrinks from his churlish secretary (Laura Coleman), a woman who has grown to detest him because she knows what a waste of space he is, and from visions of the ghost of his father (Ron Quade) berating him for letting his beloved company sink lower and lower.
Sharing the “villain” role with the Code are two real people of the era, Dr. Frederic Wertham (Frank Nall) and Judge Charles Murphy (Chuck Munro). Murphy is the straight-laced jurist in charge of implementing the Code, which (as played by Munro) he did with militaristic, right-wing precision. Even more cartoonish is Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist whose 1954 book (which inspires the title of this play) says that reading comic books leads to juvenile delinquency. Nall doesn’t have to caricature the man in his performance (though he very much does) because Pracht has turned Wertham into a Bond Villain. In his brief appearances—which Pracht allows to become awkwardly interruptive—Nall does everything but pet a white cat. (He does, however, stroke a disembodied heart.) Perhaps, with the Code as the major villain, Pracht felt that he needed a couple of cartoonish men we could detest. As I said before, though, he might have been better off tweaking his protagonist, who becomes a real-life cartoon in his utterly ineffectual (and totally unnecessary) testimony before a Senate committee.
Knowing that there is nothing about Gaines (even though Harklerode goes all-in on his performance) that we can latch onto, Pracht instead focuses our emotions on a couple of minor characters. Brian Bradford plays Matt Baker, a gay man who could really use a time-travel subplot as he cannot find love in the repressive 50s. (His love interest, well-played by John Blick) is even more closeted than he is.) Also, multiple scenes feature Janice Valleau (Megan Clarke), a likable up-and-comer in comics illustration who up-and-comes at probably the worst possible time. With these two characters to engage our empathy, Pracht (who has two very appealing actors to play them) seems to feel more comfortable with the mostly broken Gaines. He even gives him the play’s ultimate joke line as a nod to the publisher’s long and actually quite successful career.
In an era when censorship has once again reared its ugly head, it’s important that playwrights continue to highlight the problems we face when we seek to censor. The title “The Innocence of Seduction,” when Wertham wrote it, was a paean to those who would circumvent freedom of speech. Today, when Pracht uses it, it comes across as a warning: those who favor such things already have one foot in the darkness of demagoguery.