These days, comics challenges usually take the form of an individual trying to get a particular title removed from a library or school. There was a time, though, when would-be censors waged battle with the entire medium. With Banned Books Week 2014 (September 21-27) celebrating graphic novels, what better time than now to bring you a brief history of censorship in comics and graphic novels?
The first comic book sold at retail was Famous Funnies (1933), a collection of newspaper strips compiled by Harry Wildenberg, a sales manager at the Eastern Color Printing Company, as a way to keep the presses running. The medium caught on fast. Among 2,500 children aged eight to 14 quizzed about their reading habits in the early 1940s, 95 percent read comics, along with 65 percent of teens from 15 to 18, according to researchers. After World War II, comics for adults also flourished in a number of genres—adventure, horror, mystery, romance, and more.
Comics, the “seduction of the innocent”
Comics were truly a mass medium, and like other forms of media, they drew fire from opponents. In 1940, writer Sterling North inveighed against comics in a Chicago Daily News editorial:
Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed—a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems… Their crude blacks and reds spoil the child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with [sic] better, though quieter, stories.
While some educators at the time advocated using comics in schools—the Journal of Educational Sociology devoted an entire issue to the topic in 1944—various self-appointed guardians of the public good claimed that comics corrupted youth, impeded their ability to read and appreciate art, and led to delinquency.
As author David Hajdu documents in his book The Ten-Cent Plague (FSG, 2008), Catholic organizations linked superheroes to fascism, while others linked comics to violent acts by juveniles. In several communities, church and local organizations collected comics and burned them in public bonfires.
Matters reached a head in 1954 with the publication of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart & Co, 1954), which led to a wave of censorship and a stigma against the art form that lingers to this day.
Wertham asserted, among other claims, that Batman and Robin were romantically involved, that Wonder Woman’s strength and independence gave little girls the wrong idea about women’s place in society, and that crime comics taught children how to commit crimes. In recent years, research by Carol Tilley, associate professor of information science at the University of Illinois, suggests that Wertham falsified the many anecdotes in his book by combining several people he interviewed into a single character, omitting important factors in their lives such as sexual abuse and gang membership, and simply making things up.
For instance, Wertham writes of a young man who fantasized about being Robin and having sex with Batman, due to the supposed corrupting influence of comic books. In fact, Tilley discovered, Wertham’s case notes show that he interviewed two men who were already in a relationship and that they preferred Tarzan and the Sub-Mariner to Batman.
The Comics Code Authority and the rise of underground comics
During the 1940s and 50s, however, Wertham’s influence was strong. In April 1954, the anti-comics crusader appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. After two days of hearings, during which senators heard from child psychologists, comic book publishers, and cartoonists about whether government regulations guiding the publication of comics should be mandated, the industry bowed to government and public pressure. In order to avoid government regulation, the Comics Magazine Association of America established the Comics Code Authority (CCA), with standards for self-regulation. Publishers submitted comics to the CCA, and those that complied with its regulations were permitted to release their titles with a seal saying, “Approved by the Comics Code Authority.”
This censorship code was so strict—banning violence and sexual innuendo— that it completely sanitized the content of American comic books for decades. Companies publishing horror, crime, romance, science fiction, and other genres that appealed to more sophisticated readers were put out of business almost overnight. For the first time, all comics really were written with only children in mind.
In an attempt to adapt to this new landscape, comics publishers began reinventing their classic heroes to fit within the new rules. In 1961, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the “Fantastic Four” for Marvel Comics, focusing their story as much on the characters themselves as on the action and adventure, which helped make the stories more attractive to older kids and teens and generated a new fan base.
As readers grew older, authors such as Robert Crumb began creating comics outside the confines of the Comics Code, using their art to challenge authority. Since these “underground comics” were not sold on newsstands, they were not subject to the code. Nonetheless, they caught the attention of censors.
Bookstores and art galleries featuring artwork from the underground comic Zap Comics (Apex Novelties, 1968) were served papers for displaying obscene materials. In October 1970, Zap Comics #4 became the first comic book to be declared legally obscene.
Nixon and Spider-Man’s anti-drug message
Around the same time, the Nixon administration’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare approached Marvel Comics about creating a story focusing on drug abuse—the idea being that a character as popular as Spider-Man would convey a strong anti-drug message.
However, the Comics Code banned any discussion of drug use at all. The organization refused to give its seal of approval to “Amazing Spider-Man” issues 96–98 (1971), featuring the drug story. Marvel published them anyway, marking the first time a mainstream comics publisher had bucked the system and resulting in the reevaluation of the code. The rules were loosened considerably, and an era of darker and more sophisticated storytelling began.
Meanwhile, children’s publishing experienced its own high-profile censorship case when Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (HarperCollins, 1970), a picture book with comic book formatting, was challenged because the child protagonist, Mickey, is shown in the nude as he floats through a dream. This angered many adults, librarians included, and several of them censored the book.
In a letter to SLJ, a librarian from Caldwell, LA, wrote, “Maurice Sendak might faint, but a staff member of Caldwell Parish Library, knowing that the patrons of the community might object to the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen, solved the problem by diapering the little boys with white tempera paint. Other libraries might wish to do the same.” SLJ printed the letter in the December, 1971 issue with the headline “Three-Cornered Censorship” but did not endorse the practice. Most librarians stood by Sendak, as Kathleen T. Horning wrote in a 2012 SLJ article.
The rise of comic fandom and graphic novels; ongoing challenges
The comics market changed again in the late 1970s and early 1980s as publishers moved from newsstand distribution to specialty comic shops, known as the direct market. As comics evolved from a mass medium to more of a niche product catering to a tight group of fans, publishers began to put out increasingly sophisticated stories targeted to that audience.
When the CCA refused to approve Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing #29 (1984), publisher DC Comics chose to skip over newsstands and supermarket spinner racks entirely, releasing the series without the Seal of Approval—exclusively to the direct market. The authority of the Comics Code Authority weakened with each subsequent comic published without the seal. Finally, in 2011, “Archie Comics” and DC both dropped the seal altogether, and the CCA ceased to exist.
However, the challenges have not ended. Books are frequently challenged in libraries and schools, and graphic novels are increasingly singled out for examination. Ongoing attempts have been made to chip away at the First Amendment’s freedom to read, both passively (when books with frequently challenged content “go missing” from library shelves) and aggressively (when cases go to trial). While the bonfires may be a thing of the past, the threat to comics and comics readers continues to be real—and frighteningly strong.
Brigid Alverson is SLJ’s “Good Comics for Kids” editor and Eva Volin is a “Good Comics for Kids” blogger and children’s librarian. The authors thank for Charles Brownstein and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for their help with this article. Read more about the history of comics censorship at CBLDF.org.