The Horror Honeys: Comics Honey History Lesson - 1950s Crime Comics

Comics Honey History Lesson - 1950s Crime Comics

Comics Honey History Lesson by Shannon

Crime Comics Scare of the 1950s

Due to an upcoming podcast regarding comics and horror films (Episode #36). I just thought I'd give a quick history lesson about comics and one of the things it has in common with horror films: moral panics and censorship.

In 1954, a book was published titled, Seduction of the Innocent, by German-American psychologist Dr. Francis Wertham, who argued that comic books were the cause for rising violence and crime among children and adolescents.

Yes, before horror films and video games were the bane of parents existence, it was COMIC BOOKS that were the downfall of humanity! They were blamed for violence, sexual promiscuity, subliminal messages, drug use, homosexuality (Oh hello, Batman!), BDSM and a whole plethora of other immoral activities with the youth of those days.

Horror and Crime comics were some of the most popular genres in comics through the 30's, 40's and 50's and one of the most popular publishers was Entertaining Comics (aka: EC Comics) who published these famous horror comic serials – Tales from the Crypt, Tales of Terror, The Vault of Horror, etc. - basically the format of the modern horror film anthology were from these titles. 

Among Horror, other genres such as Crime Thrillers, Westerns, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Superheroes were scrutinized for objectionable content.

When Seduction of the Innocent came out, it created a moral panic in United States and Canada regarding comic books, youth and crime. Several states were lobbying for banning of comics and even started Book BURNINGS in retaliation to the comic publishers “corrupting” their children.

The Senate Subcommittee of Juvenile Delinquency, headed by Anti-crime crusader Estes Kefauver, was created to investigate the link presented in the report, with testimony from Dr. Wertham and comic publishing companies. 

The Editor of EC Comics, William Gaines (son of EC founder, Maxwell Gaines) was brought to the Senate to defend his work. His testimony on tasteful depiction of violence did not go over well and the Senate concluded that -while comic books are not responsible for violence- they were too violent for youth and the publishers need to tone down their content or face consequences.

Fearing further censorship from the government, the comic publishers created the Comics and Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and came up with the Comic Code Authority (CCA) – a set of rules for content in comic books to be approved before it can be published.  

Some of these rules included:

No Vulgar language or innuendos
No Nudity or suggestive sexual content
No use of “Horror” or “Terror” in the magazine titles
No scenes or reference to Vampires, Werewolves, Walking Dead, torture and cannibalism
All crimes must be depicted as evil and criminals unsympathetic
Government officials/institutions should never be depicted in a way that's disrespectful or immoral
With these rules in place, the United States government was satisfied with the actions made to protect youth. However this cause a huge rift in comic publications, for the rules of the CCA made it nearly impossible to publish horror comics (or anything with interesting content) and thus many publishers, including EC Comics went bankrupt.

As for Dr. Wertham, his book and his research were found to be fraudulent or sensationalized. Many of his studies suffered from small sample sizes, no control group, equating correlation and causation and even fabrication and exaggeration of evidence to fit his hypothesis.

Even though Dr. Wertham himself did not want comic books to be banned, his book had changed the comic book publishing industry for over 60 years. Only until January 2011 when the last publisher, Archie Comics, stopped participating in the Comics Code Authority, rendering the system defunct.

To give an idea of how much of an effect this code was: The Hays Code, a similar system used for films, was dropped in favour of the MPAA ratings system, in 1968.

Further Reading
1948: The Year Comics Met their Match (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund)

Dr. Francis Wertham: 

The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America 

The Horror, the Horror: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read