Those who do not remember the pastare condemned to repeat it.
Today there is much debate about the effects ofviolence in the media on children. Going back sixtyyears to the stir created by objectionable content incomic books might help us see all of this in a new light.
The attack on the comic industry in the 1950s …
…stunted the artistic development of a new medium…
…and took away the inspiration for manygreat minds of the “boomer” generation.
The comic book industry,accused of contributingto juvenile delinquencywas among the manyorganizations thatreceived intensivescrutiny during the1950’s, and some radicalchanges resulted,hampering the industry’sartistic growth.
Because of thiscontroversy,the styles andsubject matterof comicschangeddrastically,titles weredropped, andmajor comiccompaniesvanishedovernight.
First of all, we must picture the world of the early fifties…thebeginning of the BABY BOOM…we remember it as a moreINNOCENT time…and in many ways it was…
…but what isforgotten isthat there wasa tremendousrise in juvenilecrime duringthis era.
Today we can lookback on it and realizeperhaps that WWIImay have had muchto do with it…fathersgone for yearsfighting thewar…fathers thatneverRETURNED…leadingto some childrengrowing like weeds.
This was an era when the comic book industry was HUGE…titles soldMILLIONS of copies monthly…not like today…
In the fifties, almost EVERY child read comics (adultsTOO)…and they were EVERYWHERE…in everystore…not just specialty comic stores.
In the quest tofind ascapegoat forthe rise injuveniledelinquency,COMICSbecame atarget.
After much hand-wringing…comics were burned in bonfires andCongress began to investigate them.
Slightly reminiscent of similar scenes in Europe just ten yearsbefore?
“A teenaged girlposes with comicbooks andpaperbacksseized from aKitchener,Ontarionewsstand in theearly 1950’s.”
Part One…The Growth ofthe ComicsIndustry isStunted
The industry finally had to react in order to avoid legislationagainst comic books and to clear their bad name. Most of themajor publishers banded together in October, 1954 to createthe Comics Code Authority.
However, the code did irreparable damage to theindustry as a whole. Many companies folded, unable toadapt to what many viewed as the ridiculously strictstandards of the code.
This was an organization which set up an elaborate list ofrestrictions with which all subscribing publications wereexpected to comply. Comics without the seal of approval couldeasily be boycotted (or even refused distribution). The codewas designed to protect the comic book business and wassuccessful in placating members of the public.
The code, as originally written, was so strictthat it was impossible to publish a comic thatdealt with horror or crime in any way.
Some companies tried tosurvive in particularlycreative ways. E.C. reworkedtheir line of comics andstarted publishing tamermaterial about knights,pirates, and doctors. Salesplummeted. Kids were usedto reading some of thebrightest, well written andillustrated stories in thehistory of comics from thatcompany. Publishers likeE.C. Comics, Fiction House,and Gleason folded due tolack of sales.
What manyconsider a tragicthing was thatthese movesoccurred just ascomics werebeginning toachieve newheights ofsophistication inexecution andconcept.
This was a great setback for the art of comics, and the industry hasnever been able to equal the fine storytelling and exquisite artworkwhich was commonplace in comic books in the late 1940s’s andearly 1950’s.
Great artists likeFrank Frazetta begantheir careers at thistime working for EC,but quickly left theindustry.
Jack Cole,brilliantcreator ofPLASTICMAN, also leftthe industry.Countlessothersfollowed…
Author Ray Bradbury’s stories were adapted masterfully in E.C.Comics.
These Bradbury adaptations were truly a highwater mark in the history of comics.
Comics werecrushed by thepressure and forcedinto safe, sanitized,and infantilepatterns, just whenthe great potentialfor maturity incomics had onlybegun to beexplored
Clint Eastwood once said that "dont have any original art exceptwestern movies and jazz.” Others Americans have pointed out thatdistinctly American inventions include the banjo, musicalcomedy/vaudeville, the mystery story, jazz (including rock and roll),and comics.
It is interesting to note that inFrance, Italy, and Japan, comicsare not viewed as solely a child’smedium, but a format just assuited to adult storytelling asnovels, movies, TV, or any othermedium.
Part Two:The InitialResearch thatPrompted theCensorship wasProblematic
The initial research thatprompted the censorship wasremarkably shaky. The publiccontroversy over comic booksall began with the release in1953 of Dr. Fredric Wertham’sSeduction of the Innocent.
Wertham claimedthat “crime comics”(in which group heincluded Superman)were corruptingAmerica’s youth.Comic book artistswere described as“diabolic,” and comicswere referred to as a“social virus.”
Dr. Wertham had first hit on the idea that comic books were harmful whenhe noticed that his juvenile patients were reading comics in his waitingroom. He immediately deduced a cause and effect relationship butoverlooked the fact that virtually every child of that era read comics.
He mentions the case of aboy who had threatenedto break his sister’s arm,and concludes, “This is notthe kind of thing that boysused to tell their sisters.To break people’s arms, orto threaten to do so, is oneof the comic book’sdevices.” Thisunsubstantiated assertionis a good example ofWertham’s technique,which rarely offered anyconcrete proof concerningthe allegedly harmfuleffects of comic books.
Many examples are given of objectionable material in comic bookstories, but Wertham rarely gives the source (title or issue number)that they come from. Therefore, the reader has no way of verifyingthat the original comic stories are actually the way that he presentsthem. They often aren’t.
For example, Wertham blows up a panel from one comic showing theshading on a jungle hero’s biceps that supposedly resembles a woman’sprivate area and claims this to be the artist’s original intention.
In only ONE instance,did Dr. Werthamshow an entire comiccover including thetitle. This issue wasshown becauseWertham was upsetthat the publisherhad meant thepsychiatrist depictedon the cover to be acaricature of himself.Showing the title ofthe comic wouldbring more harm tothat company.
He asserted that childrenlearned more thantechniques of burglaryand violence fromcomics citing stories(possibly “urbanlegends”) about the kidswho wrapped towelsaround their necks andjumped out of windowspretending to beSuperman.
A map used by juveniles planning a crime was supposed to have been influencedby one seen in a comic book.
Werthamasserted thatSUPERMANwas a fascistideal.
Dr.Wertham also statedthat Wonder Womanand Batman weredeviant homosexual rolemodels.
Dr. Wertham wrote in theSaturday Review of Literature(April 9, 1955) that the code hadreally done nothing to removethe crime from comic books.Wertham said, “At present it is farsafer for a mother to let her childhave a comic book without a sealof approval than one with such aseal.” He went on to say that thenew comics, with their self-awarded seal of approval, mademurder seem even more like agame, disguising action with “anaura of good taste where theghastly effects of heartlesscruelty were never realisticallydepicted.”
Wertham had originally advocated, at theend of his book, a rating system, whichwould have left the serious comics on thestands, but only for sale to those oversixteen. This would have been similar tothe system recommended for rock musicin the 1980’s by Tipper Gore or the ratingsystem for movies rolled out in the late1960’s, and today’s ratings for violentvideo games.
Part three:The Comics Have aLasting CreativeImpact on aGeneration
The comics published in the pre-code era are now considered to be a “goldenage” of comics and are acknowledged as having a long lasting positivecreative impact on a generation. Many of today’s great writers and artistscite these comics as influential in their early development.
Ironically, the comic books whichWertham attacked became muchsought after collector’s items andhave been reprinted in hardcoverbook form on archival paper bypublishers considering them to be“art.”
Stephen King cites E.C.Comics as being amajor influence on hisyouth and ultimatewriting style.
Many people involved in the creativemedia today, from artists to noted writersto famous film directors, mention thesecomics as early influences that stimulatedtheir young imaginations.
Ray Bradburyabsolutely lovedthe adaptationsof his shortstories thatappeared in thecomics of thetime.
Artist RobertCrumb cherishedthese comics as achild, especiallyMAD.
This E.C. comicturnedmagazine, MAD,had beencredited as amajor force incausing the“Baby Boom”generation tothink criticallyand to questionwhat society andMadison Avenuetold them.
Perhaps comicsweren’t as badan influence asWerthambelieved.Readers learnednot to blindlyfollow authoritywithoutthinking.
Prejudice was alsoshown to beshameful in theseearly comics.
Many of the creative minds left theindustry, unable to cope with thecensorship, leaving it in the hands of the“mindless, uncreative non-talents” whomWertham had found most despicable. Theindustry was worse than it had ever been,and ironically, the public (both friends andenemies of comics) held Werthamresponsible for the Authority.
In 1972, storiesfrom E.C.Comics wereturned intotwo majormotionpictures fromBritain’sAmicusPictures.
The artdesign ofE.C. Comicsis stillinfluentialtoday…
The distinctive look and logos ofthe E.C. Comics line have becomeiconic.
In the 1990’s, E.C.Comics stories wereadapted into an HBOtelevision series…andEVEN a Saturdaymorning cartoon!Disney ‘s comic bookarm began reprintingthe original comics aswell!
A generation that wasprovided an early exposureto critical thinkingdemanded more maturityand realism in comicstories. War comics did notglamorize war and show itto be great fun.
The grim reality of war wasshown by artists and writers,many of whom had served inWorld War II. The horror ofracial prejudice and violencewas also depicted
Writer Stan Lee, in 1971, wrote aSpider-Man story in which thehero tries to save a teenager onLSD from a rooftop, but fails, andshe falls to her death. The ComicsCode Authority refused to approvethis comic, and Stan Lee foughtthem. He thought he was makingan important, anti-drug statementwith the story and doing somegood. Lee went ahead anddistributed that issue of Spider-Man without the seal. Virtually noone noticed, and the code’s powerhad been weakened.
By the late 1990s, comics companiesbegan to just ignore the code. TheComics Code died in January of 2011when the last participating publisher(ARCHIE) stopped submitting its booksto it. Marvel had stopped using it tenyears before.
Did the code help our nation’s youth during its55 year existence? Would similar self-censoringboards help in other media? There are manycritics who believe that the comic controversy ofthe fifties stunted the growth and creativity of themedium for almost sixty years. A generation wasrobbed of what could have developed into a grandmedium fusing art and writing, and it was allbased on haphazard research. We must be wary ofcensorship, the enemy of art.