Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Comic Book Menace

The Ten-Cent Plague is a new book about the crusade against comic books in the 1950s. I haven';t seen it yet but I've read a review of it and the author was on the Colbert Report last night. I'm not going to try to review a 448-page book that I haven't seen but I can talk about the period.

Most people forget but in the Golden Age of comics, during the 1930s through World War II, more adults than kids read comic books. Like the pulps, comic books were cheap, escapist entertainment. When America came back from war and the economy took off, adults left escapism behind for kids. This caused some important changes in the industry. The first was that some publishers dropped out of the business. DC had been suing Fawcett, the publishers of Captain Marvel over copyright violations. After dragging the case on for years Fawcett looked at their declining sales figures and folded in 1953, turning the characters over to DC.

DC's superhero line survived and grew by cutting back nearly everything but their core of Superman and Batman. Marvel (then known as Timely) tried to revive their superheroes a couple of times but failed.

The audience for comic books had changed. It was a new generation and they wanted something different than their parents' comic books. The new trends were in horror and crime comics. Other subjects included comedy, funny animals, war comics, westerns, and teenagers (Archie and friends). Still, it was the crime and horror comics that dominated lead by EC Comics.

In the early 1950s a school psychiatrist named Frank Wertham noticed that every child who was referred to him read comic books. He started looking at these comics and was horrified at the content. He became convinced that the comic books were corrupting the kids. Worse, he discovered that even kids whose parents didn't allow them to buy comic books knew all about the contents. Even young girls who said that they only read funny animal books could describe the contents of the crime comics.

Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent that scared Americans to death. He began by listing a number of crimes with the clincher that all of them were depicted in comic books. He suggested that reading Wonder Woman made girls lesbians and got a gay male to describe his fantasies for what Batman and Robin did in their off-hours. But Wertham's main focus was on the horror and crime comics.

There were Congressional hearings and mass burnings of comic books. There was talk of outlawing them.

The comic book industry responded by creating the Comics Code which regulated the content of comic books. EC found that nearly its entire line was outlawed. Their publisher, William Gaines responded by changing the format of his remaining book from comic to magazine and aiming it at a more mature audience. This was Mad and it continued to appeal to adults through the 1960s (the first issue I read was my parents').

The comic book industry turned back to superheroes as its mainstay. DC began introducing new characters based on ones from the 1940s starting with the Flash. In 1961 Marvel followed suit by introducing a superhero team, the Fantastic Four. All of this led to the Silver Age of comics.

Since then the Comics Code has lost its grip. Stan Lee and Marvel challenged it around 1970 with some anti-drug stories. All drug use was banned by the code, even anti-drug stories (a lot of crime comics involved drugs). Marvel published three issues of Spider-Man without the code symbol and no one cared. As a result, the code was modernized.

Today most comics are sold through specialty stores. Most independent labels don't bother with the Comic Code and the target audience is back to mainly adult.

We've come full circle.

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