John Fulce has all the fervor of a man reformed. Only in his case it's not cigarettes. Or booze.
John Fulce has sworn off comic books.
Fulce used to sell comic books. Actually, he lived comic books. He owned 30,000--a whole garage full--of them. There wasn't room for the family car.
Then Fulce watched a television movie about Jesus that led, he says, to his being born again. After that, he began to look a little more closely at the content of the comic books he sold over the years.
And that's when he sold his comic book shop, The Land of Oohs and Ahs in Fountain Valley. Out went his private comic book collection. His kid even sold his comic book collection.
What caused this reformation?
"When I started reading comic books, they had heroes you could look up to," fumes Fulce, 40. "Now they're telling kids it's OK to curse, to commit adultery."
Today, caped heroes have sex before marriage, occasionally sleep with somebody who's married and seem to be a lot less reluctant to slice up a villain or drill him full of holes.
"We're poisoning our culture, not just with comics but with movies and TV too," says Fulce.
Like all serious collectors, Fulce was aware of comicdom's most famous book. The book, "Seduction of the Innocent," was written in the early 1950s by a psychologist named Frederic Wertham. In it, Wertham said comic books caused juvenile delinquency.
A Senate subcommittee heard about the book and hauled some of the comic book companies into hearings that the subcommittee was holding on juvenile delinquency. The companies were grilled about subverting America's youth for profit.
Chastened by the bad publicity, the publishers vowed to go and sin no more. They adopted the Comics Code, which prohibited all the usual sorts of sex and mayhem and went even further in making the comics an uplifting experience. You couldn't, for instance, portray a police officer or a government official in an unflattering light.
Last year, Fulce wrote a sequel to Wertham's book called "Seduction of the Innocent Revisited." It was published in August by a Christian publishing house that specializes in exposes of the New Age Movement and other bugbears of the Christian right.
All of this might seem like a tempest in a teapot to most adults, except that comic books are widely regarded as a children's medium, even though the comic book companies say the majority of their readers are young adults.
But since kids are also reading them, Fulce says parents should at least take a look at what their offspring are reading.
At one end of the scale, Fulce objects to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saying damn.
At the other end is stuff that most people would probably agree ought not be sold to children.
Fulce carries a stack of them around in a plain brown envelope when going on Christian talk shows. They are underground comics that depict sexual acts.
This stuff isn't being sold to kids, comic book shop owners insist. It's kept behind the counter and sold only to adults.
As for the more traditional comics--the super heroes like Batman and Spider-Man--shop owners say, each family should decide what its children can read.
What Fulce is doing, the shop owners say, is really trying to censor what can be read by adults.
Fulce is careful to dance around the "C" word. He's done enough interviews to have acquired a pocketful of euphemisms for it. But question him far enough and his views are plain: "If the comic book industry can't clean itself up, I'll do everything in my power to see that they will. I'll do whatever it takes--boycotts, lawsuits, whatever."
Comic books started out life in the 1930s with a lot of adult readers. During WWII, millions of adults in uniform chuckled over them. But after the war, those people went home, got jobs, bought houses, started families and drifted away from comic books.
The publishers, desperate to hold onto their adult readers--people with the most cash--juiced up their product. There were horror comics and violent detective comics with sexy dames and crooked cops.
Then along came "Seduction of the Innocent" and the Senate hearings. The comics got tamer. They became, for the first time, almost entirely written for children.
Wholesome comic books--Fulce remembers Mighty Mouse fondly--were the ones he started reading in 1957, when he was 7 years old and laid up in the hospital for months with a ruptured spleen. His family was a blue-collar one in Dallas with seven children and a father who drove a truck.
Fulce wasn't particularly religious.
He landed in Southern California with a wife and two children--a third would come later--in 1976. He worked for a landscape designer. In 1978, he became a born-again Christian. In 1980, he turned what was by then a hobby of more than 20 years into a business and opened the comic book shop.
It lasted seven years.
Until he began to believe that the old Comics Code of old was in the trash heap.
In 1987, he sold his store. Then he went home and wrote the book.
What's in the book? Mostly a lot of panels taken from mainstream comics that, Fulce says, advocate abortion rights in Batman; revel in magic and nudity in the Books of Magic, which isn't labeled--as some comics are--for mature readers only; espouse New Age philosophy in Thor; and portray fundamentalist Christians unflatteringly in several different comic books.
"If the porno industry were to use a vehicle to lure kids in, it would be comic books," says Fulce.
Fulce has lately made the rounds of the Christian talk shows while studying to become a minister in the Church of God and dealing in antiques to keep body and soul together. His wife is a preschool teacher.
He lives in a comfortable house on a side street in Fountain Valley.
On a recent morning, he was dressed in an open-necked plaid shirt, slacks and loafers. He leaned forward in an overstuffed chair to make a point, an attach e case on the floor next to him crammed with a marked-up calendar, papers and newspaper clippings.
He was responding to a rumor that was making the rounds of the local comics shop owners, who say he started this crusade after his own comic shop began going down the tubes.
"Comments were made that I was so conservative I ran off my customers, that the shop was not doing well," he said. "That's a blatant lie. I made a very good living out of that shop until I couldn't stomach the stuff the publishers were putting out anymore."
It was shops like his that gave the comic book industry a new lease on life after the mom-and-pop stores that used to be where most people bought their comics were finished off by chain convenience stores. Comics sales went downhill for a while but started coming back as the comics shops proliferated in the 1970s and 1980s.
Now some of these shops have been swept up in the backlash against sexually explicit lyrics and pornographic videos. Little of the backlash has been seen in more liberal California, but in Illinois a few years ago a comic book shop owner was convicted of selling obscene materials and lost his lease; about the same time an owner in Calgary, Canada, was convicted on an obscenity charge.
What would Wertham, author of the original book, make of all this? He might be amused to find that in the world of big-time comic book collecting, where a 1940s-era Batman comic can sell for $10,000, copies of his book are now collector's items at $60 to $300 a copy.