When Comics Were Killing Our Kids
We are happy to welcome guest writer David for a piece on censorship and comics for Comic Book Week!
When I think of the 1950s, I think of black-and-white sitcoms. The image in my mind is “Leave It to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy.” I think of poodle skirts, boys with crew cuts, words like “golly” and “neat.” I think of kids playing stick ball, rolled up comic books in their back pockets. While I imagine the ‘50s with the nostalgia of one who wasn’t there, I know that there was a lot of fear just under the surface of its wholesome veneer.
In the ‘50s, with Kruschev ruling the Soviet Union, the cold war was just getting started. Senator Joe McCarthy began his witch hunt against communists, communist sympathizers, and homosexuals. Children in school were practicing air raid drills and told to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack. Racial tensions were high with segregation being challenged–but still the norm–in schools, businesses and the military. America was at war again, this time in Korea.
As in every era, the fears of the nation were played out in the entertainment outlets available–movies, television, and for our purposes here, comic books.
Comic books were the natural successors to the pulp fiction magazines of the ‘20s and ‘30s. They were cheap to produce and buy, they were colorful, they were plentiful, and they were almost completely unregulated. Comics took the fears of the day and sensationalized them into lurid tales of murder, kidnapping, alien invasion, war, vampires, zombies, integration, equal rights, and any of the myriad of horrors troubling the minds of the public.
How does one describe the sheer volume of material available in the comics of the ‘50s? Think of cable TV. Look up and down the dial at the variety of channels–the genres represented, the production quality of the shows, their educational value (or lack thereof), the politics and religious views represented–all of it. Apply that image now to the newsstands and drugstores of the ‘50s. Let’s take the analogy one step further. What are some of the most popular shows on TV today? Crime shows, such as CSI, NCIS, Blue Bloods, and more; thrillers such as The Walking Dead; Fantasy shows, such as Flash, S.H.I.E.L.D., Once Upon A Time, etc. Is there anything on TV that is exploitative? Is there anything you might want to keep away from your kids? That was the comic book landscape of the day.
The most popular comics also turned out to be the most controversial, and the most prominent among them were the comics published by EC Comics. They had tiles like “Crime SuspenStories,” “Tales From the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror,” “Weird Fantasy,” “Two-Fisted Tales,” “Shock SuspenStories,” and “Frontline Combat.” They were notorious for their gruesome covers and explicit content. Parents and lawmakers were concerned that these comic books were corrupting their children and leading them down the path to juvenile delinquency.
The champion of the cause was Frederic Wertham. Wertham, already a distinguished psychologist, had seen all those comics in boys’ back pockets and spent nearly a decade researching them and their correlation with delinquency. He determined that while there might be an insignificant few “good” comics available to kids, the vast majority deserved, in his words, “close scrutiny,” and that nearly every form of trouble that led children to juvenile detention and mental health clinics could be traced back to comic books–especially the “crime” comics. He gave interviews in prominent magazines. He lectured in town halls and churches. He spoke in schools. He established himself as the authority on comic books and juvenile delinquency, and in 1953, published his findings in a book called “Seduction of the Innocent,” an exposé on the “influence of comic books on today’s youth.” Even though most of his findings have since been discredited and his methods found questionable, in the climate of the time, his conclusions were accepted almost without question.
“Seduction of the Innocent” savaged comics and their publishers. It pointed to grisly images of rape, torture, and murder. It implied homosexual connections between superheroes and their sidekicks. He cited instances of indecency in portrayals of human anatomy, particularly breasts. He noted coarse language. He vilified the publishers who would put profit over the mental welfare of the children, calling for them to be regarded as criminals themselves. Through it all, he related case studies of children who had been harmed by their interest in comic books.
In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency invited Wertham to testify to the effect of comics in relation to children committing crimes. The publicity of the hearings gave enough legitimacy to Wertham’s crusade that dozens of publishing companies closed practically overnight–the potential legal battles were too much to face, so they just got out of the business.
After that, the usual things happened. Moms and Dads threw out whole collections. Churches and youth organizations sang hymns as piles of comics burned. Pastors preached the evil of comics while newsstands and drugstores started hiding them behind the counter with the Tijuana Bibles.
The legacy of Wertham’s crusade was the creation of a self-governing board called The Comics Code Authority to monitor the content of comics. Comic books were effectively lobotomized and from that moment comics became the trivial funny books most people consider them to be. Until the 1980s, comics without the seal of the CCA on their covers were only sold in head shops and specialty stores. The Code has been revised several times, but as time went on and comics began to disappear from newsstands and appear almost exclusively in specialty stores, adherence to the code waned. Marvel abandoned the Code in 2001, and in 2011 the remaining publishers dropped it as well.
I am a lifelong fan of comic books. I love the stories, the history, the creative process—all of it. It’s in my DNA. I’ve heard the story of Frederic Wertham many times, and I’ve known about the creation of the Comics Code. I’ve railed against censorship and I’ve ridiculed the idea that comics were the source of crime and depravity in the 1950s. I only realized recently how big a part fear played.
Fearmongering is a powerful way to run a crusade. I see this all the time now as I’ve become more aware of the political world around me. It is so much easier to whip up your support if you can paint the opposition as not just wrong, but actively hiding the truth. If the opposition is perceived as lying by default, actual facts don’t even matter anymore–you’re on the good side. Now you don’t even have to think about it. Think about the chest thumping about Benghazi. Or the debates over gay rights, gun control, women’s issues, and religious issues. Does anyone want to talk about climate change? Democrats and Republicans, we all do it. We name a villain and we start shouting. It doesn’t matter all that much if we fudge a detail here or there, exaggerate a statistic, take a quote out of context–all’s well that ends with the right side winning, right?
For my purposes, it doesn’t matter if Wertham was right or wrong. He thought he was right, and he used every tool he could grab, including the United States Senate, to see his will done.
Isn’t that scary?
I’ll leave you with this, an excerpt from an interview with Herman Göring by Gustav Gilbert during the War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg, and later published in Gilbert’s “Nuremberg Diary” in 1947 (emphasis mine):
Göring: Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
I am a lifelong fan of comics, superheroes, movies, books, and TV, so I am living in a golden age. Also, I’m very near my golden age. I’m told I’m tall.