In the 1940’s and 50’s comic books were incredibly popular. During this time, 95% of children and 85% of teenagers regularly read comics, but comic books were read by all ages. By 1945 there were 100 different comic book titles and were selling over 25 million issues a month in the US.
At the same time the 50’s were a time where adolescence became to be a thing of its own. Teenagers started acting and socialising in different ways — worrying their parents that they had lost their way. This lead to a panic about juvenile delinquency — the common-place habit of law breaking by teenagers. This gained a lot of sensational attention in the media.
Comic books at the time were changing as well. After the war, superheroes weren’t as popular and darker stories in genres such as horror and true crime began to rise in popularity. These stories could be incredibly graphic.
Fredric Wertham was a Psychiatrist in New York City that worked with young convicted felons. Wertham found in his conversations with these children that they had one thing in common, - they all read comic books, especially crime, horror and superhero comics. His conclusion from these discussions was that the overt and convert depictions of violence, sex and drug use encouraged similar behaviour in children. He believed that comic books were a contributing factor to delinquency. He believed that even well adjusted children could be corrupted by comic books, could lead to deviant sexuality and even termed the phrase ‘comic book syndrome’ in which suggested that comic books leads to children lying and stealing about their comic book habit.
Wertham had a wide range of issues with comic books. He was also worried about the negative representation of women as too negative and also pointed out what he saw as racist representations in comic books. Also in his radar was supposed gay subtext between Batman and Robin. Wertham’s studies into violent comics was mainly content analysis based where he would describe the themes and actions within the pages.
Although Fredric’s claims were largely anecdotal, his articles on the subject as well as his book “Seduction of the Innocent” (1954) helped lead a crusade against comic books through the media of the time and ultimately led to a senate inquiry, which happened at the same time as the McCarthy hearings.
The outcome from Wertham’s involvement with the enquiry and his book forced the comic book industry to implement an industry regulatory body, the “Comics Code Authority”. They did this to stop the government regulating the industry themselves and was based loosely on the 1930 Hollywood Production Code.
The code meant that all comic spreads to be sent to the CCA to be approved before publishing. The code criteria is below:
Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, the gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
No comic magazine shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in its title.
All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Rape scenes, as well as sexual abnormalities, are unacceptable.
Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.
While many publishers quickly adapted to the new code, many were forced to close business because of it — not being approved by the Authority meant that effectively nobody would distribute the comic book. The code drastically changed the whole industry overnight, changing the perception of comic books primary for children and starting a resurgence for superhero comics.