Criticism of comic books hit a high point in 1948, but it by no means started in this year. The first major attack against comics came in May 8th, 1940 when Chicago Daily News book reviewer Sterling North wrote an editorial. Here is an excerpt:
"Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed - a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems - the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child's natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic' magazine."
These kind of backlashes against the comic industry caused National Periodical Publications (DC) to put together their own editorial boards in 1941. They used the board to show parents that comic books were being held up to standards of wholesome entertainment. These editorial boards were formed with psychiatrists, child welfare experts and some famous, well respected citizens. The board members' names were printed on the inside cover of all DC books. This action did help to relieve some of the criticism that comic books had come under, but not for long. In fact it would later hurt DC when it was revealed that the people on the advisory boards were getting paid by DC. The critics used the payments to write off their credibility. They were labeled as "paid apologists" and their opinions were ignored. I guess they expected them to work for free. Among the advisors would be Josette Frank, who would continue to be respected among children book critics. In 1997 the Children's Book Award was renamed to the Josette Frank award. Publishers Marvel and Fawcett had similar Advisory Boards.
Throughout the media there were a number of sensational crimes by juvenile delinquents. Crime rates by kids were on the rise and this greatly concerned many in the country. An element in some of these stories was that kids were apparently copying the crimes they’ve read in comic books. As more and more of these appeared people began to question the content found in comic books.
At first there were local newspaper stories about how 'bad' comic books were and the negative effects they had on children. Then in February 1947 Marya Mannes wrote an article critical of comics in the New Republic magazine. In March of 1948 ABC radio did a program called 'What’s Wrong with Comics?' and it too criticized unwholesome comics. Marya Mannes, Al Cap and Publisher Magazine’s George Hecht were among the debaters. The show created massive response of 6,000 letters, a record for ABC at the time. Reporting on the program appeared soon afterwards in Newsweek and Saturday Review of Literature. You can hear this radio program online thanks to American Voices. Here is Part 1 of 2 and Part 2 of 2. You will need Real Player to listen to them.
Also in March of 1948 Fredric Wertham M. D. created a symposium called 'The Psycho-pathology of Comic Books.' While there, Wertham would blame comic books for the crimes and also said they were abnormally sexually aggressive. The symposium was held in New York and he would call for legislation against the crime comics. Some people working in the comic industry showed up to give their side, among them were Harvey Kurtzman and Charles Biro. Wertham denied them a chance to speak and was unapologetic about it. Reports from this symposium were reported in several national magazines. Dr. Wertham also did an interview for Collier's Magazine. It was titled Horror in the Nursery. In this interview, Dr. Wertham would state that:
"The number of `good' comics is not worth discussing, but the great number that masquerade as `good' certainly deserve close scrutiny.
Wertham would spend the next 7 years doing a study on the effects of comic books on children. He would write a book about it that would gain much attention from mainstream America and the United States Government.
With the flurry of nation wide bad press parents and teachers, who at one time encouraged comic book reading, were now denouncing it. In more than 50 different cities, the police got into the act and tried to restrict the sale of bad comic books to kids. One month after the symposium, in the April issue of Time magazine a story appeared about Detroit Police Commissioner Harry S. Toy, who examined all the comic books available in his community and stated they were; "Loaded with communist teachings, sex, and racial discrimination." In May of 1948 he also presented his views in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature.
Henry E. Shultz talked about the conditions in the December, 1949 issue of the Journal of Educational Society:
"In towns, villages, and municipalities throughout the country.. law makers were goaded and prodded into action, and many did their best to please and appease the angry torment which had been unleashed. Laws and ordinances, committees on legislation, censors, indeed every device to bedevil and confuse dealers, wholesalers, and publishers of comics, were created and enacted - books were banned, and finally, to cap the climax, mass burnings of comic books were publicly held in several communities."
Mass comic book burnings did occur in Binghamton, NY (1948) and Cape Girardeau, Missouri (1949). An attempt was made in Rumson, New Jersey but once the plan got out people and some media questioned the decision. Instead the organizers opted to donate the comics as scrap paper for the Salvation Army. This wouldn't be the last time Comic Book would be rounded up and burned.
Comic Publishers did fight back in the press, but they were not effective. As Amy Kiste Nyberg points out in her Seal of Approval book, those criticizing comic books were doing it from a child welfare stance. They said the books were bad for kids and this was generally accepted without question by the public. The American public were naive about psychology and what makes juvenile delinquents tick. They believed those making the claim because they were respected people from the community. When the comic industry responded to complaints by pointing out the first amendment, it made them look bad. The community leaders would say the first amendment doesn’t allow for corporations to hurt children for greedy commercial reasons. During this period the juvenile delinquent rates were rising, the media were reporting sensational crime stories that tied comic books to the delinquents. The community leaders and authority figures were saying the comic books were responsible. The public were convinced comic books were guilty and had to be proven innocent. Invoking the first amendment and saying in effect, "We are allowed to keep doing this" was not an answer the public would tolerate. Especially when the reason they were "hurting children" was to make money from them.
In 1948, some of the comic publishers formed the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers (ACMP). Its goal was to set out guidelines under which comic books would be published. They did this hoping that it would reduce the amount of criticism they were under. The ACMP set up a board of people that had to approve a comic before it would see print. But because some big companies like DC and Dell comics had their own internal approval boards, they didn't join the ACMP. As well, some of the partners involved had disagreements over parts of the approval guidelines which caused them to quit the ACMP. Those that went a head with the plan included Bill Gaines of EC, Leverett Gleason of Lev Gleason (Crime Does Not Pay), Harold Moore of Famous Funnies, and Rae Herman of Orbit. There were also some distributors involved as well. They created a code with stated the following:
Code of the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers, 1948
The A.C.M.P. organization and the people behind it was advertised to the general population.
In order for a comic to be published with the ACMP Star of Approval it had to meet those guidelines. The star would be printed in the top corner of the cover to show parents the comic was "wholesome." The publishers that were in the group (most were not) didn’t like the guidelines or the cost and headache in getting people to pre-approve their comics prior to publication. They quickly left and continued to publish what made them money, the same stuff parents and teachers didn’t want kids to read. By 1954 only three publishers were still using the star, they were Lev Gleason, Famous Funnies and Atlas Comics (Timely/Marvel). Not that the star did anything to help matters. Fredric Wertham called the ACMP Star a farce and dismissed it.
The State(s) vs. The Comic Book Industry.
In 1948, a 7 year long court case against crime publications came to a head. There were prose & picture crime magazines that contained all the "bad stuff" that crime comic books did. Those magazines were confiscated by police in New York City because they considered them illegal. Winters, a book dealer was charged under a law forbidding publications dealing wholly or mainly in crime content. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and they overturned the New York court’s decision. The Supreme Court said the law restricted free speech and was unconstitutional. It was believed among decency crusaders that this decision would also apply to the crime comic books they were trying to get off the newsstands via the same legislation. So they then set out to make new restrictive laws that may pass the Supreme Court.
After New York lost the Winters case the New York legislature wrote an amendment to the Crime law they thought would pass the Supreme Court. The new bill passed in both the New York House and Senate but was vetoed by Governor Thomas Dewey. The ACMP also fought this law and wrote letters to Dewey requesting that he veto the bill. Then the New York lawmakers tried to drive the publishers out of their state by introducing regulations to publishing comics. Among them were that a newly created New York Comic Book Division would have to read and review every comic book to be published at the cost of the $3,000 per book. If they rejected the book, they could appeal to the Board of Regents. If the Board still disapproved of the comic then the publisher could still sell the comic, but only with a notice on the cover saying the permit for that comic was denied. Also, all comic books being published had to have a copy sent to every New York District Attorney’s office 30 days prior to publication.
The press in general attacked the proposed law saying it infringed on the freedom of the press. The bill did pass the Senate but died in the Committee of the Assembly. New York would follow up by doing a Joint Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comic Books. They spent a year examining comic books and restrictive laws pertaining to them. Within the study they interviewed Fredric Wertham, members of the Comic Book Industry and others involved in the issue. After a year of study they concluded there was no way to write a censorship law that didn’t infringe on the freedom of expression or freedom of the press.
The New York law makers settled for giving the comic book industry a verbal tongue lashing and hoped the industry’s attempt at self regulation would work. A year later they revisited the issue because self regulation did not change things. The law makers recommended laws similar to what had been attempted before, despite their previous failure. Those laws were again killed by committee or by veto from Governor Dewey. New York finally gave up trying to restrict or censor comic books in 1952.
New York wasn't the only state coming down on comic books. During this time more than 17 different states also attempted to make laws restricting comic books. Those laws would also fail to be passed or be overturned. In 1949, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a law giving a detailed description of what crimes could not be shown in comic books. They included murder, rape, robbery, theft, assault with weapons or chemicals, kidnapping, mayhem, manslaughter and others. City Council members would display comic books along with nude girl magazines to equate the two. Anybody caught selling a crime comic to someone under the age of 18 would be fined up to 500 dollars or given a 6 month sentence. The ACMP fought the law and it was struck down by California Supreme Court.
With ACMP not toning down comics as much as opponents wanted, comic book criticism continued. Especially as publishers learned violence and gore sold and produced more of it. Also helping them a great deal was the courts shooting down all laws restricting the sale of comic books. Getting national exposure was the Cincinnati Committee on The Evaluation of Comic Books. Their report was published in a 1949 issue of Parents Magazine saying "70 percent of all comic books contained objectionable material, from scenes of sadistic torture to suggestive and salacious actions." The Cincinnati Committee had 130 reviewers reading comic books they were a mix of parents, teachers, librarians, clergy, juvenile court workers and business men. They rated them by their emotional, cultural and moral tone. The reviewers would mark if the comic was very objectionable, objectionable, some objection or no objection. It was run by Jesse L. Murrell, a Methodist minister from Kentucky.
Some people were a little more extreme in their views against comic books. In 1949, Gershon Legman wrote a book called Love and Death where he claimed that comic books train kids like animals, by breaking their spirit. He also claimed that comic books distort real life and give kids violent images (or as he puts it, blood) to "feed" upon.
Also in 1949, The Canadian Government enacted a broad law that sought to control 'crime' comics (any comics that dealt with crime, which included Superhero comics). Here is the law as it stands today in the Criminal Code:
CORRUPTING MORALS ...163. (1) Every one commits an offense who
This law was easily worked around. The crime comics from the US were no longer allowed over the border, so they sent the artwork to Canadian publishers. They would print them and get them distributed internally within Canada. This way they avoided the censors at the border. Then due to a very strong economy the Canadian government would lift all economic restrictions on foreign product. The issue of crime comics were no longer a hot media topic and border guards just let the US comics go through without censoring them. Everything went back to normal.
The U.S. Federal Government jumped into the fray in 1950. A U.S. Senate special committee was doing an investigation into organized crime. A part of this investigation looked into the 'effects' that crime comics had. One judge on the committee stated that he had cases where boys had committed a crime that was patterned after one depicted in a comic book. Blaming comic books for their crimes suddenly became an easy way out for kids. The kids would be given sympathy, for it was the comic book that made them do it.
The United States Government saw what was happening in the various States and the difficulty they had in passing legislation against crime comic books. In 1950 they contacted Fredric Wertham and with his help, created a questionnaire for people working with juvenile delinquents and the comic book industry. These included judges, probation officers, psychiatrists, public officials, organizations interested in comic book decency, comic book publishers and cartoonists. They asked 7 questions about the relationship between comic books and juvenile delinquency. The results came back saying 70% felt banning crime comics would have little effect on fighting juvenile crimes. 60% didn’t see any relationship at all between comic books and crime.
The politicians and decency crusaders now knew their arguments linking comic books and juvenile crime did not persuade most of those actually involved in dealing with juvenile crime. They continued fighting but focused their arguments on a less educated group of people, parents. With New York giving up on comics in 1952, Fredric Wertham would take his writings against the comic industry and put them together in a book. This book was aimed squarely at parents and was very successful, more on this book later.