When the Comic Industry Almost Died: The 1950s War Against Comics

In Arts and Culture, Columns, Comics, Spring 2015 by Dan SpinelliLeave a Comment

In November, Under the Button (Penn’s humorous student-run blog) went through Van Pelt Library looking for strange book titles. One of the gems uncovered during UTB’s trek through the library was none other than Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham, a nasty-looking tome published in 1954. For UTB’s snarky writers, the book simply provided a bizarre title. For legions of comic fans and creators, however, this 448-page book nearly crippled an entire industry.

It’s important to remember how vastly different the comics industry was in the 1950s, especially in regard to the makeup of readers. Children constituted the majority of comics readers then,with most titles marketed exclusively to adolescent boys. While these comics would look tame by today’s standards, their graphic violence and immoral characters were shocking next to Bonanza or Tom and Jerry. Batman, who was eventually neutered into the Adam West-caricature in the eponymous 1960s TV show, originally wielded a gun and coldly let criminals die. Superman, now often decried as a do-gooder Boy Scout, began as a populist champion of the oppressed who would viciously interrogate corrupt officials and wife-beaters. Outside of traditional superhero comics, upstart publisher EC Comics produced crime and horror comics with gory covers like this. These comics, which involved instances of cannibalism, among other scenes cringe-inducing to parents, drew incredible backlash in the conservative 1950s. Compounding the problem of unsuitable content was the medium’s undeniable popularity. Successful comic titles top out at around 100,000 units a month today. In 1953, Walt Disney’s best-selling Comics & Stories series sold 3 million copies. The rise of comics, combined with their exploitative content and stigmatization as lowbrow art, created a perfect storm for Dr. Fredric Wertham in 1954.

Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist, was by all accounts sincerely interested in helping children. His progressive views against racial segregation were used as evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the same year of Seduction of the Innocent’s release. He also provided a low-cost health clinic in Harlem, working toward racial harmony. And when it came to those pesky word-picture hybrids, Wertham spared nothing that he considered harmful to young readers.

In Seduction of the Innocent, he amalgamated anecdotal evidence, including interviews and representations of certain popular comics, to fit his anti-comics thesis. Wertham attacked Superman as un-American and fascist and classified Batman and Robin’s cohabitation as the “wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” He reserved special venom for the gruesome violence in EC Comics, linking violent images to violent crime much like critics of battle-heavy video games do today. His study produced a storm of criticism and even lead to a Senate hearing on the deleterious effects of comic books. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency opened up a hearing on violent comic books on April 21, 1954, inviting Wertham to testify as a key witness. At the Senate hearing, Wertham famously presented evidence of the gruesome immorality of comics in the form of a legendary “zombie baseball” scene from an EC Comics title. The hearings were a bloodbath: comics creators were accused of having a “peculiar abnormality or twist in [their] mind[s].”

Wertham’s crusade had two lasting effects. First of all, it crippled the commercial viability of comics. With their already precarious reputations now decidedly trashed, comics were hardly purchased for children anymore. The key demographic for comics was now officially diluted. More problematic, however, was the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, which essentially robbed comics of their ability to be mature, creative works. The Code, which lasted until well into the 2000s, regulated obscene content in comics to a near-laughable extent. The Code operated in a much harsher manner than a tiered rating system such as that of the Motion Picture Association of America. Instead of giving ratings to particular comics, the CCA gave an “up or down” vote to put a seal of approval or censure on each comic. The standards to meet this approval were often draconian. The word “crime,” for example, could no longer be larger than other words on the cover of a book. Police and other authority figures could not be presented as immoral or villainous. Cannibals, vampiresand zombies were outlawed, as was the use of illegal drugs and profanity. Adhering to the Code was voluntary, but most companies did so anyway out of fear of losing their advertisers, most of whom would only partner with companies following the Code. The advent of the Comics Code Authority led to bland, silly and — we shouldn’t be shy to say — lame comic plots. Take this Batman comic, where the Caped Crusader is wholly perplexed by which color outfit to wear.

Though the Comics Code eventually crumbled in the 21st century, it left a terrible smear on the growth of comics in the latter half of the 20th century. Most accusations against comics as being juvenile and immature fell at the lap of Code-approved books, which were severely restricted in artistic creativity. Comics that did not abide by the code, like R. Crumb’s underground comix, failed to garner sales high enough for mainstream appeal.

It wasn’t until later that archival researchers discovered that this plight of comics had come from a reckless, false agenda. When Wertham’s research became public in 2010, assistant professor at the University of Illinois’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science Carol L. Tilley reviewed his work. She found that in many places, the psychiatrist misconstrued or exaggerated data. Of Seduction of the Innocent, Tilley said, “There are no citations, no bibliography. He quotes a lot of people, refers to lots of things, but there’s no really good way of knowing what his basis is for any of this.” Tilley went on to debunk specific interviews Wertham had with comics readers where he deliberately took their words out of context. In an interview with the New York Times, she criticized Wertham for getting“carried away with his own preconceptions, his own agenda, that became perhaps disconnected from the kids that he was treating and observing.”

Despite modern reappraisals of Wertham’s research, its disastrous effect on the industry remains. Circulation numbers still haven’t recovered from that first plummet, and comics remain widely stigmatized as grotesque art forms. His title seems ironic in retrospect. Who was really doing the “seducing?” Was it the comics luring in impressionable children? Or was it Wertham, noble-hearted as he may have been, seducing the mainstream culture against comics?

Dan SpinelliWhen the Comic Industry Almost Died: The 1950s War Against Comics

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