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Comic Books, Censorship, and Moral Panic

By Zachary Bampton ’20

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).

Into the 1950s, community and national organizations voiced concerns over subversive content found in comic books. In the words of Reverend Thomas J. Fitzgerald of Chicago, depictions of “crime, disrespect for law, rape, infidelity, perversion, etc.” troubled adults who thought of the impact on children (American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 773, Folder 25). While comics across the board received criticism, a certain genre stood out from the rest, aptly referred to as “crime comics” or horror comics.

“The Tormented,” July 1954. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 768, Folder 1.

These bore titles like “Crime SuspenStories,” “The Tormented,” and “Tales from the Crypt.” For example, one story involves a husband and wife plotting to kill each other through deadly gifts: her poisoned whiskey and his explosive cake. At the end, they realize the plot of the other, and swap methods. Both die at the end. This underlines a key point, often given by defenders of the genre that “crime does not pay.” The moral of these stories, inevitably, was that the villains always face justice. No one got away with evil, and often their means became their undoing, such as the elaborate poisoning and explosive-rigging in the previous example. However, critics of this genre remained unpersuaded.

Page from “Crime SuspenStories,” September 1954 (click to enlarge). American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 768, Folder 1.

Official scrutiny of comics spawned a myriad of reports, articles, and committees. For example, a joint legislative committee of the New York legislature published findings including the claims that comics disseminating bad ideas into “the keen, absorptive minds of children” were a matter of “grave public concern,” and that “Crime Comics” were a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency. Junior Libraries, a journal of “library work with children & young people,” offered another take: certain subjects may be objectionable, but the first duty was with the parents to model and regulate their own children’s media intake. The ACLU published its own pamphlets that cited a dozen experts denying any link between comics and delinquency whatsoever. However, one psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, elevated the conversation to a national dialogue. His book, The Seduction of the Innocent, allegedly proved a connection between teens reading comic books and violent, anti-social behavior. Wertham made national headlines and landed a committee hearing in Congress. It appeared that consensus was building against the free reign the CMAA had previously enjoyed.

Soon afterwards, CMAA created a voluntary organization to oversee a self-censorship effort to neutralize its negative perception. Twenty-eight of the thirty-one major comic publishers, who constituted 75% of the 60 million monthly comics published in the U.S., joined the CMAA under the banner of self-regulation (see American Civil Liberties Union Box 770, Folder 19). In a press kit, President John Goldwater of the CMAA lamented “appalling” attacks against comics, and determined the CMAA must “dispel the completely misleading opinion of our industry” and “develop an effective program of self-regulation” to remove the most egregious outliers. This new program was the Comics Code Authority, or the CCA. In its preamble, the CMAA recognized the medium “having come of age, must measure up to its responsibilities.” This meant that its members would “conscientiously adhere to [the Code’s] principles,” as well as the decisions of the Code Administrator.

Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, October 26, 1954 (click to enlarge). American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 768, Folder 1.

Much like the appointment of the first baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who corrected an industry roiled by the Black Sox Scandal, the first Administrator of the Code was chosen to become an antidote against popular sentiments. The CMAA chose Charles F. Murphy, a New York City judge to run the CCA. According to the New York Times, his policy was immediately noticeable: in the two months after his inauguration, “reviewers had studied the drawing and texts” of 440 comics, rejected 126 of them, and revised 5,656 individual drawings (see American Civil Liberties Union (MC001), Box 770, Folder 19). Murphy even attempted to introduce a new word to the industry: dior, or “to de-emphasize or reduce the dimensions of the female bust in comic book[s].” Though its tenets and administrators changed over time, the CCA stamp of approval held sway over comic production for decades after its conception.

New York Times clipping, December 9, 1954, found in American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 770, Folder 19.

Thus concludes our two-part series on comic books. From a tool for education to a source of anxiety, this medium’s storied history has much left in its pages. Come to Mudd to check out our records chronicling our nation’s changing attitudes towards a colorful industry.

CCA seal of approval, 1954. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 768, Folder 1.


American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)

For further reading:

Wertham, Frederick. The Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart, 1954.

42 responses to “Comic Books, Censorship, and Moral Panic”

  1. Not much has changed, now rather than blaming comic books they blame videogames. Which is quite funny if you think of the level of violence they got us used to on television.

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