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Comics as Education, 1950s-1980s

By Zachary Bampton ’20

From the 1950s onward, comics and their bright colors, bold drawings, and interesting stories have captivated a young American demographic. However, their popularity drew in other eyes, too. Civic and political groups took notice of this market audience and attempted to reach them by utilizing the medium as a teaching tool. The goal was education, not entertainment. Pulled from our Public Policy Papers and University Archives here at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, these comics demonstrate a mass market approach to education by unconventional means.

Materials for an unpublished comic book found in the Fund for the Republic Records (MC059) provide insight into the motivations and decision-making process for these publishers. In 1955, Dan Barry proposed a comic to Fund for the Republic provisionally titled “Our Civil Liberties, Their Meaning, and the Threats They Face”. Noting the “70 million regular readers” of comics as well as the disparity between 43% of the “newspaper public” reading the editorial versus 83% reading the comic strips, Barry articulated the potential and “great need for free-minded liberal material in this powerful medium”.

“Heroes of the Highway,” 1952. This comic book served as proof of concept to Fund for the Republic for the 1955 proposal. Fund for the Republic Records (MC059), Box 93, Folder 21.

Barry’s proposed story follows the fictional Korean War veteran, Dan Franklin, bringing Socrates back to the United States from ancient Athens, and Socrates’s subsequent criticism of the American treatment of civil liberties, such as freedom of the press. In an era of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, this comic would have served to call attention to American ideals, and how vigilance is necessary to secure liberty. An internal memo between Fund for the Republic administrators Edward Reed and W.H. Ferry suggests a warm reception of the “general line and theme” of the plot and a willingness to “try an experiment on this,” the use of comics as tools. Barry was given a $1000 dollar advance, but no final product appears to have been produced.

Below are five examples of this type that actually made it to the printer, and each exhibits a distinct take on the idea of comics as education. First, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” examines the life, philosophy, and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading up to the historic display of non-violent protest in the form of a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Citing his profession as a preacher and his influences from Gandhi, the comic presents King and the “Montgomery method” as a model for affecting change in the struggle for civil rights. It culminates with a step-by-step methodology for how to prepare for and implement non-violent protest.

“Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” 1957. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 2035, Folder 4.

Second, “Sir Arthur Lewis” chronicles the life of famed economist and professor Arthur Lewis, who was born in St. Lucia, served in the British war effort in WWII, taught at West Indies College and Princeton University, and eventually won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1979. The comic was part of a “National Heritage Series of Caribbean Heroes”, whose purpose was “developing respect and admiration for outstanding Caribbean personalities” in schools. In this way, the medium was intended to be viewed as an inspirational document and to benefit Caribbean youth by showcasing exemplar figures. (W. Arthur Lewis Papers, MC092, Box 1, Folder 8)

“Sir Arthur Lewis,” 1981. W. Arthur Lewis Papers (MC092), Box 1, Folder 8.

The third example of this type, “The Incredible Rocky vs. The Power of the People,” introduces a new element: political subversion. Writer and illustrator Joel Andreas uses satire and humor to lampoon, and educate against, the Rockefeller family’s business empire and political dealings. Whereas the previous comics employed relatively simple stories, the text of “The Incredible Rocky” is dense and skewed towards a more educated audience. It reads like an essay—or a tirade—with drawings interpolated between sentences and paragraphs. Because of its controversial subject matter, as well as information-density, it is likely “The Incredible Rocky” was intended for a more niche and selective audience.

“The Incredible Rocky vs. the Power of the People,” 1973. H. Hubert Wilson Collection (AC167), Box 5.

These last two examples, shown below, illustrate a secondary purpose: to win votes. Both were part of a sample set provided in a letter by Commercial Comics, Inc. to George McGovern ahead of his 1962 senatorial campaign. The letter touts other famous politicians, such as President Truman, “the first to use this medium in a national elections,” as previous customers, and asserts that comics could be a “real vote-getter.” Substantively similar to the Martin Luther King and Arthur Lewis texts, the sample booklets about Wayne Morse and Farris Bryant chart their formative experiences, but go further by laying out political achievements as reasons to vote for them.

“It’s Time for Bryant,” ca. 1960. George S. McGovern Papers (MC181), Box 64.
“Wayne Morse: The Man,” ca. 1956. George S. McGovern Papers (MC181), Box 64.

In sum, all these selected comics show a commitment to the educational capacity of the medium and the time, money, and effort that funneled into their production. Just as much, they show recognition of the positive contributions their producers thought comics could make. Underlying these texts is an acceptance of the fact they can change the minds of its readers, which is viewed as a positive element. But what if comics weren’t used for good? Tune in next semester for the second part of this project: Comic Books, Moral Panic, and the Fight against Censorship.

Selected comic books from our collections are currently on display in the lobby of Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library.


American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)

Fund for the Republic Records (MC059)

W. Arthur Lewis Records (MC092)

George S. McGovern Papers (MC181)

H. Hubert Wilson Records (AC167)

One response to “Comics as Education, 1950s-1980s”

  1. […] Previously on this blog we covered the educational and political aspirations of comic books in American popular culture. Keen interest in comics as teaching tools–or as propaganda–reflected a public awareness of the power of the medium. However, Americans did not always receive comics well. In the 1950s, creative expression came into the crosshairs of public officials wishing to tamp down on juvenile delinquency. Library book banning and film censorship occurred throughout the country. With regard to comics, many felt concerned by the disturbing and deviant subject matter, particularly in “horror” or “crime” comics. With materials selected from the American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), we will chronicle the move towards self-censorship by the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA). […]

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