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Welcome to the two-hundred and thirty-fifth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous two hundred and thirty-four.
Comic Book Legends Revealed is now part of the larger Legends Revealed series, where I look into legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can check out here, at legendsrevealed.com. I’d especially recommend you check out this installment of TV Legends Revealed for a whole Wacky Races edition of TV Legends Revealed!
This week’s a special theme week – all legends involving the Comics Code!
COMIC LEGEND: Frederic Wertham supported the Comics Code.
Comics were investigated after a certain Doctor Fredric Wertham brought out a book called Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, calling for the introduction of a self-regulating body known as the Comic Code Authority, that had such ridiculous rules as, you could not use the word “flick” in a comic for fear that the “l” would run into the “i”? and Spider-Man would be saying, “Look, he’s got a fuck knife!”
It is kind of funny to debunk a statement TWICE, and I mean no disrespect to Ross in doing so, it’s just an easy quote going to the whole “Wertham pushed for a Comics Code” belief.
In any event, as you likely know by now, Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, was a media darling upon its release (Wertham was already popular for articles he had written about the influence of comic books upon juvenile deliquency).
Estes Kefauver (the famed anti-crime Senator) was the head of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, and the media attention Wertham stormed up led to comic books being investigated by the Senate.
The committee ended up concluding that they could not demonstrably link comic books with causing crime, however, they did feel that comic books should clean up their content.
Taking this as a veiled hint at possible government oversight if they didn’t act quickly on their own, a group of major comic book publishers got together and formed the Comics Code Authority which effectively censored their own books.
Wertham, however, was NOT a supportor of the Comics Code Authority.
For one, he thought that letting comic book publishers determine for themselves what was appropriate was a fool’s endeavor. Even though more than one comic book company went out of business due to the effects of the Comics Code (making their comics unsellable), he felt that there was still too much unsavory business going on in comics. He wrote articles months after the Code went into effect going through comics to show that “Code-Approved” comics were still bad. His analogy was that if you discovered that there was a brothel operating in your neighborhood, you wouldn’t put the brothel in charge of regulating itself, would you?
But more importantly, Wertham was not in favor of censoring comics, per se (he was actually quite anti-censorship, oddly enough). He instead felt that there should just be age limits for reading comic books, similar to the age limits for motion pictures. While that might sound almost reasonable, do note that his idea of age limits was that no one under the age of 15 could buy a “crime comic” (and “crime comics” should not be displayed where younger kids could see them – and note that Wertham considered horror, crime AND superhero comics as “crime comics”).
So yeah, Wertham’s arguments against comics were not particularly good ones, but it’s good to at least note what they actually were, ya know?
David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America is a great resource on all of today’s topics. In addition, Jamie Coville has also written extensively on the topic.
COMIC LEGEND: EC and other comic companies stopped making horror comics before the Comics Code banned them.
If the previous legend is a matter of semantics, this one is even more so, but at the same time, it keeps getting reported the other way, so I think it’s worth noting it for the record.
People often cite the Comics Code Authority as the reason why EC stopped making horror comics.
Similarly, Dick Briefer’s horror revamp of Frankenstein is also quite often referred to as being shut down by the Comics Code and its ban on various horror comic tropes (such as walking dead, ghouls, etc.).
However, in all of these cases, the comics ceased publication PRIOR to the Comics Code going into effect!
Again, though, much like the previous legend, we’re talking about a matter of scale more than anything else.
Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, published by Prize Comics, was, for a time, a wacky Frankenstein comic…
But in 1952, after a publishing break of a year or so, it went back to being a traditional horror comic.
Knowing that something along the lines of the Comics Code WAS coming down the pipeline (and dealing with difficulties getting their books distributed), Prize Comics ceased publication a few months before the Comics Code came into effect.
Around the same time, the last issue of EC’s Haunt of Fear came out.
EC, though, as the poster child for the “the content in comics is way too graphic” movement, was even more plugged in. Bill Gaines had a very good idea what his fellow publishers had planned, but even more so, he knew that his distributors would no longer distribute his horror and crime comics.
So in mid-September, more than a month before the Comics Code came into existence, Gaines put out the last issues of Shock SuspenStories, Crime SuspenStories, Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror.
These specifics might not seem all that important, but I think it’s worthwhile placing everything in the proper historical perspective.
COMIC LEGEND: The Comics Code was not only not the first Comics Code to be created, but earlier concern over the content of comic books helped lead to the creation of Wonder Woman (in a round about way)!
While the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was clearly the high water mark of anti-comic book sentiment in the public, it was far from the first time that comic books came under fire from the media.
In fact, one of these occasions even led to a Comics Code and anothe earlier one helped lead to the creation of Wonder Woman (in a roundabout fashion)!
In May 1940, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, Sterling North, wrote a scathing anti-comics article that was eventually syndicated in a number of newspapers around the country.
As he said, comics were “badly drawn, badly written and badly printed – a strain on young eyes and nervous systems.” And that their’ “hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter stories.”
North’s main point was that kids shouldn’t read comics, they should read good “real” books.
Any negative attention was a problem for comics, so when a psychologist wrote about the educational potential of comics in October of 1940 in Family Circle (an actual respectable magazine), the comics world paid attention. Max Gaines soon hired the psychologist to work as an “educational consultant” for All-American Comics and National Periodicals (effectively DC Comics).
Along with a few other respectable folks on an “educational committee,” they would issue reports talking about how comics were not trash, but actually were GOOD for kids!
Well, Gaines and the psychologist talked some more, and the psychologist had an idea for a female superhero to serve as a positive example for young girls.
That hero was Wonder Woman, who debuted at the end of 1941.
And yes, that psychologist was William Moulton Marston – I can’t get anything past you folks!
Later in the decade, though, that’s when comics became a hot topic once again, particularly with the rise in popularity of horror comics and crime comics.
This is when Frederic Wertham first began to make a name for himself as an anti-comic book writer, with a series of articles published in 1948.
Well, Lev Gleason and Bill Gaines were the two biggest crime comic publishers out there, so they thought that they needed to do something to protect themselves from the outrage.
So the two, along with Harold Moore (publisher of Famous Funnies) and Rae Herman of Orbit Publications formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in July of 1948. They formed their own Comics Code.
Here it is…
Association of Comics Magazine Publishers Code of 1948
1. Sexy, wanton comics should not be published. No drawing should show a female indecently or unduly exposed, and in no event more nude than in a bathing suit commonly worn in the United States of America.
2. Crime should not be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy against the law and justice or to inspire others with the desire for imitation. No comics shall show the details and methods of a crime committed by a youth. Policemen, judges, Government officials, and respected institutions should not be portrayed as stupid, ineffective, or represented in such a way to weaken respect for established authority.
3. No scenes of sadistic torture should be shown.
4. Vulgar and obscene language should never be used. Slang should be kept to a minimum and used only when essential to the story.
5. Divorce should not be treated humorously or represented as glamorous or alluring.
6. Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.
This is basically the same thing that companies such as DC and Fawcett had been using in house for years (there had been in-house codes as early as 1941, with stuff like “try not to kill little children, threaten them if you must, but don’t actually kill them”).
Atlas Comics (later Marvel Comics) also had their own in-house oversight system in 1948.
But this was the first time that a group of comic book publishers got together, although even that fell apart a bit when Gaines pulled out over a disagreement about the Code. And really, without the backing of other major companies like Archie, DC or Fawcett, the ACMP was not all that effective. Especially since their Code did not do much to quell anything, especially because it was not exactly strictly enforced. After a little while, it was just slapped on all books by the member publishers.
So if you saw the following…
it wouldn’t be much different than this…
But the clearest demonstration that this Code did nothing was the continued public outcry.
Heck, in December of 1948, there was a public comic book burning in Binghamton, New York, for crying out loud!!
By 1950, the ACMP Code was basically defunct.
Although Gleason kept using it until very late 1950, when they dropped it as well…
The next few years would sadly be a steady step towards the end of the Gleason and Gaines lines of comics.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
As you likely know by now, at the end of April, my book finally came out!
Here is the cover by artist Mickey Duzyj. I think he did a very nice job (click to enlarge)…
If you’d like to order it, you can use the following code if you’d like to send me a bit of a referral fee…
See you next week!
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