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

Making Sure Grronk Doesn’t Turn Into Chuck

Have you ever read a novel or watched a TV series where a character of some prominence appears near the beginning of the story, but then never shows up again?  And, even worse, is never even mentioned again?  It’s as if they never existed in the first place.  Granted, for very minor characters, this isn’t an issue.  In fact, it would be an awkward tale indeed if we felt compelled to bring back even the most trivial of characters for an encore scene.  But if a character leaves an impression, if a character exchanges in a lengthy dialogue or does something noteworthy for the story, it’s probably a good idea to bring them back at a later point, or, at the least, mention them again.

Perhaps one of the most notorious (though often laughed-about) occurrences of this character-who-disappears-act comes from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days.  I have watched reruns of Happy Days many times–guilty as charged!  I especially enjoy the first two seasons, when the show really tried to portray a 1950s look and feel.  Of course, the story revolved around Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard).

richie

 

And one of the supporting characters during the first season was Richie’s older brother, Chuck.

chuck

 

Now, it’s true that they never developed Chuck as a character.  He pretty much just chewed gum and dribbled a basketball around everywhere he went.  He had all the depth of an eight-by-ten white envelope (non-self-sealing at that!).  Nevertheless, he was the main character’s brother.  And yet, after season one, he just . . . disappeared.  Gone without a whisper, without a trace.  It was as if he’d never existed at all.  Just a wisp, a figment of viewers’ imaginations from that inaugural season of the show.  Again, given that his character offered nothing of substance to the story line, his boot off the set wasn’t a big deal.  But not to mention him?  Not to say, “Oh, we just got a letter from Chuck.  He’s doing okay at college”?  Not to give even the smallest of details about what became of him?  That’s just sloppy, even if it has morphed into something of a pop culture joke.  They should have acknowledged Chuck’s existence post-season one.

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I wanted to make sure I didn’t follow in the same footsteps as Happy Days.  In chapter four of the novel, we meet Marc Kuslanski for the first time.  He of course is one of the four main characters in the story.  But in that same chapter, we also meet Matt Giselmo.  Or, as Joe Marma likes to call him, Grronk.  Grronk is not a major character–but he is significant in his own way, and that becomes clearer after the boys find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville.  I tried to make sure, when I introduced Grronk early on, that he was a memorable character–annoying enough to stay with the reader.  Obnoxious enough to leave an impression.  So when we see him again (or someone very close to him–I’m trying not to insert a plot spoiler here) much later in the book, hopefully we remember him from chapter four.

The key, though, was–after giving Grronk so much screen time in chapter four, I needed to reintroduce him at a later point.  Not to do so would cheat the reader.  Just like Happy Days did with their audience.  I know that I, for one, would like to know what became of old Chuck Cunningham.  Maybe he went off to star in the NBA.  Maybe he drifted around and never found a direction in life.  Maybe he settled down, got married, worked in an office.  The possibilities are endless.

What happened to Chuck? . . .  Sounds like the basis for a story.  Maybe I should go ask Grronk.  He’s bound to have some ideas.

Thanks for reading!  I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday.

–Mike

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