Reviewed by Martin Lund
Historian Mariah Adin’s new book tackles the story of Brooklyn’s so-called “thrill-kill gang,” a well-publicized case in 1954 involving four young Jewish Americans arrested and tried in relation to the deaths of two men in August of that year. After the trial, anti-comics crusaders used the case to attempt to outlaw violent comics in the state of New York. As someone who has studied the history of Jews and comics and New York City for years, this book sounded like a match made in heaven.
Indeed, on this point, Joselit’s words echoed throughout my reading: “A greater contextual knowledge of American Jewish history -- and, most especially, of earlier instances of malfeasance -- would also have enhanced the story she unfolds, highlighting the ways in which this gang of four both belonged to and departed from earlier generations of n’er-do-wells.” Connections to the similar 1920s case of Nathan Freudenthal Leopold and Richard Loeb, two young Jews who committed a murder to prove their superior intelligence, is referenced in passing (63) and dismissed, while Jewish organized crime is completely unaddressed. The end result is that the “thrill-kill” gang seems, somehow, and despite passing mention of others’ crimes, to stand alone.
The second half of the book’s title is also somewhat misleading. Comics play a vanishingly small part in her story. The connection Adin makes to the comic book scare is tenuous, and the importance she gives the case in the moral panics over juvenile delinquency and comics is inflated. The thrill-kill gang case was primarily used as “proof” of positions already long staked out. Granted, it is clear from the material cited verbatim by Adin that it was a factor in New York’s anti-comics legislation, but it was nonetheless just a spot in the larger picture. As Adin herself notes, all the actors had been invested in the crusade for years, and seem to have latched onto the case only because of its high media profile. The legislation that passed in the wake of the “thrill-kill” case may have had help from recent events, but the story is much longer, and much more complicated.
One notable aspect of Adin’s narrative is the revelation that psychologist Frederic Wertham was an important contributor to the linking of the “thrill-kill” crime to comic books. This is only to be expected, since Wertham, a staunch anti-comics activist and pivotal figure at every step of the comic book scare, was also a highly competent self-promoter. The “thrill-kill” case belongs in any narrative of the comic book scare, but it is in no way the centerpiece. A number of earlier works have ably demonstrated this point already. Adin uses these works to support her own claims,but also misrepresents them as dismissing the “anticomics movement as a bunch of high-brow, sexually repressed elites upset over the popularization of American culture” (xiii). What is missing is a connection to the bigger picture, a clearer explanation of why certain actors latched onto the case (only Wertham gets a sustained introduction in this regard), their interest in banning comics, and the political and personal motivations involved.
In short, while definitely a worthwhile read, the book suffers from a lack of contextualization that would have helped make it a deeper and more lasting contribution to the literature on juvenile delinquency, American Judaism, and comics history.
Martin Lund is a Swedish Research Council International Post-doctoral Fellow at Linnaeus University (Växjö, Sweden) and a Visiting Research Scholar at The Gotham Center for New York City History.
 Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A New History (:): 166.
 The prime source and villain for Adin is David Hajdu and his The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America. Adin does deserve credit for pointing out how comics history often presents the comics industry as somehow not foremost a capitalistic venture.