Blam! Pow! Sock! Comic books have long purveyed action, action, and still more action. Their plot lines do not simply progress, they are raging torrents of emotion, violence, and drama.
Comic books were a part of the mass commercialization of leisure during the twentieth century. Initially newspapers used comic strips to boost circulation. The humorous comic strips relied upon slapstick and ethnic caricatures; the action strips relied upon outlandish feats of derring-do. Critics naturally assumed that comic strips exerted deleterious effects upon children and immigrants.
Comic strips evolved into comic books, with much of the material aimed at young readers. Children of the 1940s and 1950s adored comic books with their bold colors, pungent dialogue, and constant action. Their descendants flock to motion pictures based on comic books of yore. Professors even deconstruct comic books. The current interest in comic books by responsible adults represents a dramatic shift in attitudes towards comic books.
The popularity of comic books, though, initially attracted disapproving scrutiny from adults. In the wake of World War II, some Americans worried that juveniles were becoming delinquent. Comic books allegedly contributed to the demoralization by crowding out wholesome reading material.
Comic book publishers found it challenging to appeal to youngsters’ fickle tastes. Crime comics, horror comics, romance comics, and other genres paraded by as the 1940s ended. Compared with what children can view on television and motion picture screens today, comic books of the mid-century seem almost quaintly innocuous. A severed head in a comic book is very different from showing the undead feasting on simulated human flesh.
With the uproar over comic books, Congress began holding hearings. The hearings were biased. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who harbored presidential aspirations, may have conspired to discredit moderate witnesses, including two female librarians bold enough to say they thought the comic books were basically harmless.
Kefauver enlisted the help of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Wertham had impeccable Progressive credentials; his basic thesis that juvenile violence reflected larger social aspects was probably accurate. Historian James Gilbert suggests, though, that Wertham, “deliberately and effectively used comic books as a way to draw attention to his broader agenda of social reform.” Wertham, moreover, was unwilling to restrain his comments and resorted to innuendo and false statistics (including an uncited survey claiming that seventy-five percent of parents were against comic books). He painted an over-wrought depiction of comic books’ effects upon impressionable young minds.
Whether these genres affected children’s behavior was and remains controversial. Some researchers suggested that the generation born during the 1930s and 1940s suffered from greater incidence of parental neglect (dad was in the military; mom was working in a factory), and it was this neglect that triggered teenage antisocial behavior.
Publishers of controversial comic books, however, were not helped by fellow publisher William Gaines’s flamboyant testimony:
Senator Kefauver: “This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”
Gaines: “Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.”
Comic books and, later, rock’n’roll were convenient targets for crusaders. Established producers of comic books were more than happy to sacrifice William Gaines and other independent comic book producers. Gaines, ironically, had earlier suggested a comic book association to police content, but his publications were the ones destroyed as the words “weird, horror and terror” were banned from any comic magazine. Gaines lamented, “those were my three big words.” The leading publishers also agreed to ban walking dead, vampires, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolves (imagine the chagrin of the social crusaders at the popularity of today’s The Walking Dead, and The Vampire Diaries). The independents had often introduced new genres that pushed the bounds of taste in order to gain a niche in the market. With public clamor to suppress the more outrageous comic books, the biggest producers were able to knock out some independent publishers and to increase their market shares.
Ultimately, though, comic books may have been displaced by the new entertainment Goliath: television. The Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, and other children’s shows siphoned off much of the youth market. As with most entertainment options, though, comic books did not disappear; in some cases, comic book characters migrated to television and, later, to motion pictures.
The hysteria surrounding comic books demonstrates that what people fear may someday seem harmless in the future. This is a lesson present-day Americans might heed in the recurring culture wars.
Featured Image Credit: Planet Comics, July 1948 (art by Joe Doolin). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.