When Comic Books Were Controversial

It’s an issue that still rages from time to time.  What is “acceptable” content for entertainment geared toward a young adult or teenaged audience?  Even in the 21st century, it’s debated how graphic the violence, sexuality, and language should be.  Where is the cut-off?  Is anything and everything okay?  Or should there be stricter guidelines for YA fiction, for instance, than for fiction targeted for a more general audience?  Whatever side of the fence you stand on, this is an argument that can get heated.  And it’s not new.  Within the comic book industry, it goes all the way back to the early 1950s.

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant is a comic book collector.  Even Joe Marma has a few older Spider-Man issues.  Neither of them, though, has what we now call “pre-Code” issues.  Pre-Code issues refer to comic books published prior to March/April 1955.  The Code stamp, back then, was a large eyesore on the upper right of every comic cover.

Marvel_Tales_Vol_1_148

In subsequent decades, the Code stamp slowly decreased in size, as it became less and less of a concern.  But in the mid-1950s, it was all the rage.  In the mid-1950s, in fact, comic books, as an industry, nearly went out of business.

It’s funny to think of old comics as anything but corny.  Certainly post-Code, from the mid-50s on, they were.  But in the early 1950s, there was no industry standard dictating what could and could not be used in a story or on a cover.  And the writers and publishers in the comics industry pushed the envelope as hard as they could.

In the 1940s, especially during World War II, superheroes were the name of the game.  Captain America, The Sub-Mariner, The (Original) Human Torch fought alongside America’s soldiers.  Even Batman and Superman got into the act.  After the war, many of these heroes had nothing left to fight.  We think of Captain America as always having been around.  The truth is–Captain America Comics number 1 debuted in 1941, and Cap then went defunct in the early ’50s.  It was only in 1964 that he was “reborn.”  Apart from Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, the post-War years were lean ones for superheroes.  ‘

So what did the comics publish in their place?  Crime stories.  Suspense stories.  And horror stories.  Lots and lots of horror stories.  And they weren’t corny.  They weren’t cute.  They were graphic.  They were much more graphic than any movie out at the time.  In fact, the HBO series Tales from the Crypt was based on the horror stories that EC Comics published in the early ’50s.  From 1950–1954, 1,650 issues of horror comic books made it to the newsstands.  That translates to approximately 25 every month.  And with each passing month, the issues became edgier, the covers more graphic, more daring.  Here is a sample of what you’d have found at your local drugstore back in the early ’50s . . .

shock07

mister_mystery12

crypt28

crisus07

crypt27

lawbreakers

For the most part, until 1954, any controversy about these comics was scattered, not well organized, and in no way a threat to the industry.  But then a book called Seduction of the Innocent, by Dr. Fredric Wertham, was published in 1954, and the death knell on horror in comic books had arrived.  Wertham was a respected child psychologist.  His words held merit to parents.  And parents, for the first time in many cases, were now alerted to what their kids were reading.  And it sure wasn’t Superman.

Parents all across America united.  Entire cities boycotted comic books.  A firestorm anti-comics movement raged.  Even the United States government got involved.  The Senate Judiciary on Juvenile Delinquency basically handed the comic book industry an ultimatum:  Clean it up, or pack it in.  The comic book controversy reached the pages of Time magazine, Newsweek, and the front page of the New York Times.

The end result was the industry self-censoring itself, stripping away much of the “pre-Code” feel of comic books.  Nearly every horror comic magazine went out of business virtually overnight.  They could not continue to publish the kinds of stories they wanted under the new, strict guidelines of the Code.  The industry was on the brink of collapse.  It needed something entirely new–and it would get it.  But that’s a story for another day.

Back in the mid-1950s, when the comic book debate raged, the term “young adult” was hardly used.  “Juvenile” was the preferred term then.  And Wertham, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, made sweeping assertions that the comics industry was contributing heavily to juvenile delinquency.  Many parents agreed with him.

Terms change.  Society moves on and evolves.  But certain points of debate still persist.  They likely always will.

The Eye-Dancers is not a young adult book that would be considered to contain any “objectionable” material.  Hopefully it contains a lot of thought-provoking and imaginative material, though!  But for all the YA books that do indeed delve into or close to the “objectionable”–you’re not alone.  Decades ago, the comic book industry was right there alongside you.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cynthiadumarin
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 20:28:33

    This was very interesting to me. I never gave much thought to the content of comic books and how they’ve changed over the years, so it was a bit of a history lesson for me. As a parent I did not spend time censoring what my daughter read or watched. Instead I read or watched along with her and we had an open dialog about the content. It taught her that no subject was forbidden between us and resulted in us having a very close relationship. I think it’s impossible to protect children from the world. We try, of course, but we can’t expect comic books, movies or school to teach them about life or human nature. We as parents need to take an active role there. It’s a lot of work. A LOT of work. So censorship is a loaded issue. I know there are many people out there who would disagree with me. Our kids do lose their innocence too young these days. But putting our heads in the sand by showing them only a G rated Disney world is unrealistic. That said, I personally would many times prefer less graphic content both in books and movies. But I don’t think censorship is the answer. Perhaps an honest rating system, that would let the potential reader or watcher know if the content was graphic, full of gore, violence, explicit sex, etc. Then we could more effectively choose what we looked at. I think the age rating systems in place are not terribly helpful. Age alone doesn’t mean much, especially today when you have 12 year olds out there with sexual experience. Clearly lack of parental involvement, not comic book content was the problem there.

    Reply

  2. Purnimodo
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 00:40:22

    Violence or no violence.. I feel like shopping now. Ages since I’ve read a comic book!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 22, 2013 @ 15:15:07

      This brings up an interesting point. Those old pre-Code horror comics? If you wanted to purchase an original copy, you’d be out a lot of money! Most cost hundreds of dollars today if they’re even in passable condition. If you want a really beat-up copy, you might still need to spend a minimum of twenty or thirty dollars. Of course, there is always the “reprint” option–far less expensive.

      Reply

  3. collecty
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 14:34:40

    Reblogged this on Collecty.net.

    Reply

  4. nymuse88
    Jan 22, 2013 @ 16:34:28

    That first comic looks like something “The Twilight Zone” might do. The last one…EWWWW! I’m not much on gore or horror at all for that matter. I think I would have stuck with the superheroes. Interesting post though.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 22, 2013 @ 19:21:13

      I’m with you–I prefer the Twilight Zone approach for sure over the graphic, gore-fest approach! And as you know, just by reading this blog, I am a big fan of the corny superheroes.:)

      Reply

  5. Sheryl Wright Stinchcum
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 05:25:55

    It’s been eons since I’ve read a comic book. I remember Marvel Comics, but as a young girl, the only superhero I was interested in was Superman–the original Superman. I watched the series on TV during the 1950s. I don’t think I’ve ever read a superhero comic book though, not even “Superman.” The only comics I read were the romantic ones. Those comics combined with fairy tales like “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Sleeping Beauty” were not graphic, but they scarred me for life. I’m still looking for the knight on the white horse. I’ve actually found a few–but all of them are fictional.

    In my youth, I enjoyed watching the original “Twilight Zone” series as well as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” I could hardly wait for each new episode. Great programs–and come to think of it, they were not graphic. They left a lot to the imagination. I guess that’s why I prefer silent films and early talkies to contemporary movies, although Hugh Jackman and Johnny Depp are easy on the eyes.

    Speaking of comics, you must be familiar with Japanese comics. Manga style. I don’t know much about them, but one of my grandsons really likes them. The Bible is even available in Manga now.

    As i enter my twilight years, I think I’m actually living in the Twilight Zone–i.e. telephones that take pictures and videos, digital cameras, iPods [what are they?!], Skype, and the like. Even fax machines intrigue me. Fortunately, I know how to use a computer (although others may disagree). Thank you for visiting my blog and helping me find yours.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jan 31, 2013 @ 20:52:14

      Thanks for your comments! The Twilight Zone is my all-time favorite show and Alfred Hitchcock Presents is great too. I am just now watching Season One of that series on DVD. Speaking of Romance comic books, they were big back in the ’50s, too–there were dozens and dozens of them. Many, many comic books, of all genres, were published back then.

      Reply

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