The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s. By Mariah Adlin. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2015. xvi + 167 pp.
For some time now, we have grown accustomed to thinking of the comic book as an American Jewish phenomenon-and one that redounds, happily, to the community's credit. Mariah Adlin's new book suggests otherwise. By her lights, comic books were not good for the Jews-or, more to the point, perhaps, not good for four teenage Jewish boys in 1950s Brooklyn named Jerome, Robert, Melvin and Jack. Taking their cue, or so it was said, from the misadventures of overly muscled, violence-prone comic book heroes like those who inhabited Nights of Horror, the foursome went on a crime spree in the summer of 1954 that ultimately landed them in jail and on trial for their lives.
The case of the "Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang," as its members were dubbed by the press, occasioned a great deal of commentary and even more head-shaking, prompting a succession of concerned citizens to account for how American-born Jewish boys from good, middle class homes-boys who played the piano and read a lot could go wrong. Explanations abounded. Some pointed to an excess of free time or to overindulgent parenting. Others attributed the boys' pathological behavior to their sexuality, claiming they were "probably homosexual and victims of drives that dethroned all inhibitions in the pursuit of the gratification of their passions" (56). Still others insisted their collective moral failings were more a matter of a limited, soul-less Jewish education. Adlin quotes often and at length from the Jewish Daily Forward, whose pages were filled with feature stories, editorials and letters to the editor about the dread deeds of these kids from Brooklyn. "Why are more crimes committed here than previously among Jews in the Old Country?" the paper asked. Its answer was a simple one: Back home, Jewish youth became "Zionists, pioneers, Labor Zionists, socialists, Bundists ..." (60) Here in Brooklyn, they became bums.
By far the most compelling, and certainly the most widely adopted, explanation favored the comic book, whose lurid depictions of derringdo captured the imagination of susceptible teenage boys like Jerome, Robert, Melvin and...