The following is a guest post by Emma Brodfuehrer Hastings, a summer intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current student of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America.
Well, I hate to say that, Senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger.
-Dr. Frederic Wertham, April 21, 1954
Dr. Frederic Wertham delivered this inflammatory statement during a 1954 Senate hearing before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. In the 1950s, worry that reading comic books was turning children into criminals swept America, afflicting parents, law enforcement, and congresspersons alike. Fear of the “Comic Book Menace” was so intense that the Senate convened hearings on April 21, April 22, and June 4, 1954, to determine whether comic books were corrupting the nation’s youth. The Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, Inc. was announced to the public on October 26, 1954, 68 years ago today. The result of those hearings would impact the comic book industry for decades.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the number of comic books on the market was skyrocketing. By 1954, publishers were selling about 1.2 billion comic books each year. At the affordable cost of ten cents per issue, children purchased most of these comic books.
During this period, the genres of “crime” and “horror” comic books were flourishing, with titles like “The Vault of Horror,” “Weird Tales,” and “Crime SuspenStories.” Rather than the humorous stories of newspaper comic strips, these comic books were filled with gory crimes and grotesque supernatural creatures. About one quarter of all comic books, or 20 million issues a month, fell into the crime and horror category (Comm. Hrg. April 21, 1954, page 4).
Meanwhile, America was being rocked by a “rising tide” of juvenile delinquency (Comm. Hrg. April 21, 1954, page 2), a crisis that Senator Robert Hendrickson of New Jersey called “the fifth horseman of doom.” In 1953, the Senate established the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency to investigate the causes behind juvenile delinquency.
Prominent psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham insisted that comic books were a significant contributing factor to the rise in juvenile delinquency (Comm. Hrg. April 21, 1954, page 79). While most other experts disagreed (Comm. Hrg. Exhibit No. 2, page 23), in the minds of many Americans the connection between comic books and youth crime was self-evident. Newspapers across the country reported instances of juvenile crime allegedly linked to comic books, including burglary, torture, murder, theft of a plane, and racketeering.
Even J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, warned that “a comic book which is replete with the lurid and the macabre” and “which ridicules decency and honesty” may corrupt “susceptible” children. In response to this upswell of concern, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency turned its attention to comic books.
The subcommittee met in New York City, “the heart of the comic-book industry,” for their hearings. From the beginning, the senators were aware that action taken to restrict comic book contents could infringe upon the freedom of the press, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “We are not a subcommittee of blue-nosed censors,” Chairman Hendrickson declared (Comm. Hrg. April 21, 1954, page 1).
At the time, federal obscenity laws (18 U.S.C. §§ 1461-1464) outlawed sending “obscene or crime-inciting matter” in the U.S. mail, and prohibited interstate commerce in obscene literature. However, the precise definition of obscenity was unclear, and the Supreme Court would not rule that obscenity was not constitutionally protected speech until Roth v. United States (354 U.S. 476) in 1957.
Throughout the hearing, the subcommittee pored over the lurid details of crime and horror comic stories and debated their potential impacts on children. The hearing focused on a story in the comic book “The Haunt of Fear,” in which an orphaned boy is placed in a home with foster parents who reveal themselves to be vampires. Richard Clendenen, executive director of the subcommittee, added: “It might be said that right triumphs in the end, however, since the boy turns into a werewolf and kills and eats his foster parents.” (Comm. Hrg. April 21, 1954, page 8)
A contentious exchange occurred between the subcommittee and William Gaines, the publisher of Entertaining Comics, who claimed to have created the genre of horror comics. When Gaines defended his comic books, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee confronted him with a gruesome comic book cover (page 7) depicting a woman’s decapitated head. The two debated whether the depiction of blood on the cover was in good taste. (Comm. Hrg. April 21, 1954, page 103)
The subcommittee also considered how comic books ended up on the newsstands from which children purchased them. Several witnesses decried “tie-in” sales (Comm. Hrg. April 22, 1954, page 177), in which multiple publications, including both crime and horror comic books as well as respectable publications such as Time and The Atlantic, were tied together into bundles before being distributed to newsdealers. Newsdealers alleged that these bundles were “literally thrown” (Comm. Hrg. April 22, 1954, page 184) at them by wholesalers “probably sometime when we are busy” (Comm. Hrg. June 4, 1954, page 215), so that they could not sort out and decline to accept inappropriate comic books.
While the majority of the hearings focused on crime and horror comics, not even Superman escaped attention. Dr. Wertham declared that Superman comics were “particularly injurious” because they encourage children to experience “sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again” (April 21, 1954, p. 86). However, another psychiatrist, Dr. Lauretta Bender, testified that she made Superman capes with her child patients during occupational therapy, and observed no harm beyond children suffering “bumps” while playing as the beloved hero (Comm. Hrg. April 22, 1954, page 158).
On March 14, 1955, the subcommittee submitted its findings as Senate Report No. 84-62. In the report, the subcommittee declared that “this Nation cannot afford the calculated risk involved in the continued mass dissemination of crime and horror comic books to children.”
However, the subcommittee also rejected “all suggestions of governmental censorship,” arguing that the “grave responsibility” of reining in comic books rested with the comic book industry itself. The subcommittee declined to recommend federal legislation on the issue of tie-in sales, suggesting that the practice constituted a violation of existing antitrust laws.
By the time the subcommittee issued its report, the comic book industry had already begun policing its own content. In response to media condemnation and the threat of federal legislation, major publishers formed the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) to self-regulate their industry. On October 26, 1954, the CMAA adopted a lengthy Comics Code restricting comic book content.
Regulations in the 1954 Comics Code included:
- “No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.”
- “Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
- “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.”
- “All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.”
The Comics Code administrator Charles F. Murphy, a former New York city magistrate, led a team of reviewers to scrutinize all comic books before they were printed. The Comics Code Authority bestowed the seal of approval upon those he deemed acceptable.
The impact of the code was immediately apparent. The code prohibited the use of “horror or terror” in comic titles and banned the depiction of “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.”
William Gaines, referred to in the subcommittee report as “Gaines, who published some of the most sadistic crime and horror comic books with monstrosities that nature has been incapable of,” was soon driven out of comics publishing by the code’s restrictive requirements. He converted his comic book Mad into what would become the long-running and influential humor publication, MAD Magazine.
The code also had a considerable impact on the art in comic books. On December 29, 1954, the Evening Star reported that code administrator Murphy had already demanded the alteration of 5,656 comic book drawings to bring them in line with the code’s regulations. According to Murphy, “changes were made in 25 per cent of the drawings to de-emphasize feminine curves.”
Multiple laws banning or restricting comic books were passed at the state and municipal level following the release of the report in 1955. Connecticut passed 1955 Conn. Pub. Acs 498 prohibiting the sale of crime and horror comic books to people under the age of eighteen. California outlawed tie-in sales of horror comic books, defining horror comics as those which featured crimes such as theft, mayhem, and “assault with caustic chemicals.”
The legacy of the 1954 Senate Hearings and the subsequent Comics Code continued to define the comic book industry for nearly 60 years. Most major publishers abided by the code, with some revisions, into the 21st century. Marvel withdrew from the Comics Code in 2001, while DC Comics and Archie Comics continued to sport the seal of approval until 2011.
If you want to see for yourself how the Comics Code changed comic books, check out the Library of Congress’s voluminous comic book collection in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room.
HV6534.N5 A66 2015 Adin, Mariah. The Brookyln thrill-kill gang and the great comic book scare of the 1950s.
PN6725 .H65 1991 Benton, Mike. Horror comics: the illustrated history.
PN6725 .B3832 1993 Benton, Mike. The illustrated history: Crime comics.
PN6725 .H33 2008 Hadju, David. The ten-cent plague : the great comic-book scare and how it changed America.
PN6725 .J29 1972 Jacobs, Frank. The Mad world of William M. Gaines.
PN6726 .H67 2010 Trombetta, Jim. The horror! The horror!: Comic books the government didn’t want you to read.
KF31.I8 1955a United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Comic books and juvenile delinquency.
HV9076.5 .U522 1969 United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Juvenile delinquency: Comic books. Motion pictures. Obscene and pornographic materials. Television programs.
HQ784.C6 W4 1954 Wertham, Frederic. Seduction of the innocent.
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This is such an interesting topic and very well researched. Great job Emma!
Very interesting and fun to read. The Congressional Record excerpt is hilarious.