Even as a new era of American prosperity began after WWII, the cloud of radioactive ashes drifting outward from Hiroshima and Nagasaki spread a nuclear winter across the globe that froze any hope for a lasting post-war peace dead in its tracks. As communism replaced fascism as America’s ideological opposite, bringing with it the chilling and ever-present threat of atomic annihilation, people huddled together for the warm feeling of security that comes from familiarity and conformity. But that feeling quickly vanished when the whole country soon found itself shivering under the icy stare of the Cold War’s self-proclaimed commander-in-chief.
The big chill
Senator Joe McCarthy and his Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spread paranoia like frostbite, convincing the American people that the only way to save their way of life was to cut off parts of themselves: chiefly their civil liberties and fellow citizens. Any deviation from the accepted norms of behavior was seen as evidence of communist subversion and a threat to all of society. Although McCarthy and his cronies were able to ruin hundreds of lives in a matter of just a few years, the senator finally went too far in 1954 when he attacked the U.S. Army. But just as McCarthy was losing both his credibility and his hold over the nation, a troubled doctor was enlisting the aid of another U.S. senator in an attempt to purge the comics industry of its own unwholesome elements.
Author of the anti-comic book diatribe, Seduction of the Innocent, child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had concluded that because most of the juvenile delinquents he treated in his Harlem clinic read comic books, comic books must be a primary cause of juvenile delinquency. This herculean leap of “logic” conveniently overlooked that nearly every well-adjusted boy and girl in America read comic books too. In 1948, a series of incendiary distortions by Wertham and others published in the popular press led to comic book burnings from coast to coast. Having seemingly forgotten America’s recent triumph over Naziism, communities began reenacting the Third Reich’s crimes against free expression by gathering up and incinerating the works of “deviant” comic book writers and artists they deemed unfit for public consumption.
But such acts of vigilante fascism weren’t good enough for Wertham and his supporters, who would be satisfied with nothing less than having comic book decency enforced by law. Wertham found a willing ally in Senator Estes Kefauver, co-chair of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. Wertham testified before the subcommittee as an expert witness, and the allegations he and Kefauver made about the corrupting influence of comics were latched onto by the media, which dramatized these charges with all the hysterical inaccuracy that films like Reefer Madness used to depict the effects of marijuana. In a 1955 episode of the televison news exposé program, Confidential File, host Paul Coates implied that prolonged exposure to horror and crime comic books turns impressionable boys into serial killers (the part of this dramatization I find most horrifying is graphic footage of comic books rolled up in back pockets and tossed on the ground outside). This disturbing program later inspired the title of Ron Mann’s 1988 pro-comic book documentary, Comic Book Confidential, which includes a scene from Confidential File (you can watch the entire 25-minute episode here).
Wertham and Kefauver also aimed most of their criticism at crime and horror comics, which did contain unsettling excesses of violence and were being marketed to kids. Like many real people at the time, comic book superheroes tried to protect themselves from being blacklisted by loudly proclaiming their patriotism. The Korean War gave the few superhero veterans who survived WWII the chance to prove themselves loyal Americans. They waged a full-scale assault against Soviet agents and Red Chinese soldiers who were rendered with the same sort of Mongol horde imagery that had demonized the Japanese during WWII. But readers no longer saw superheroics as a reasonable or even entertaining response to the alleged communist threat, and superhero comics were quickly crowded off newstand shelves by titles featuring G-Men and other federal agents battling against the Iron Curtain.
The only exceptions were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, whose comic books continued to be published throughout this bleak period. This trio had maintained their popularity precisely because of their wholesome, all-American demeanor and their avoidance of sensitive subjects. But that didn’t save them from Dr. Wertham, who claimed, “They arouse in children phantasies [sic] of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex.” And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Demonstrating an imagination even more vivid than that of the children he was trying to protect, Wertham saw sexual imagery in almost every comic book panel. But the good doctor’s most damning diagnosis was given to superheroes whose sexuality he thought was directed toward their own gender. Wertham proclaimed that Batman and Robin represented “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” and that their “Lesbian counterpart,” Wonder Woman, was someone who “tortures men, has her own female following, [and] is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman.” These charges were no doubt taken very seriously by parents who probably found the prospect of their kids turning out to be sissies or tomboys just as frightening as the idea of their becoming juvenile delinquents and mass murderers.
Unwilling to wait for the temporary insanity behind such accusations to subside on its own (which it soon did), in November of 1954, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) in an attempt to quell the Senate’s anti-comic book inquisition. The CMAA immediately drafted the Standards of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which placed far greater restrictions on free speech than Congress ever could—without repealing the First Amendment.
For a comic book to receive the CCA seal of approval on its cover—without which no retailer would sell it—the story inside had to adhere to the organization’s rigid list of guidelines. Primarily concerned with curtailing depictions of crime, violence, sex and the supernatural, the CCA also sought to wipe out civil unrest through its General Standards Part A: #3, which insisted that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” The lone maverick to challenge the acceptance of the status quo and expose the ugly truths behind the American dream was non-superhero publisher EC Comics, which was soon all but silenced by the severe restrictions placed on it by the CCA. This guaranteed that young readers would never be exposed to any dissenting opinion’s about the wisdom and justness of those who decided what rights they and their parents were entitled to and how and when they could exercise them.
When DC Comics began a superhero revival in 1956, heralding what would come to be known as the “Silver Age” of comics, this formula for success was repeated by a whole new generation of costumed crime-fighters. This ensured that any superhero role model readers might encounter in the pages of a comic book would be an unquestioning supporter of whatever government policy—from segregation to the draft—was in effect at that moment. But as the next decade unfolded, the attitudes of society, including comic book readers, quickly began to change, and the Comics Code Authority eventually had to change with them.
Next, Part 6: Super power to the people.
Note: For an excellent in-depth account of the Senate hearings, the creation and enforcement of the Comics Code, and the history of government attempts to censor comic books, read The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu.