The HORROR of it all!
“-That the publishers, editors, artists, and writers of comic books are degenerates and belong in jail, goes without saying."---Gershom Legman, (Anti-comic book crusader) excerpt from his critical look at popular media book, LOVE AND DEATH(1949)
Time to carve the Jack-O-Lantern. Time to gather the skeletons from the closet and put them on display. Ah, it is time for Halloween! The subject I will attempt to tackle in this article is Horror comics and the Comics Code Authority. Those last three words send chills down my spine. Not that the Comics Code means much, if it ever did. But the amount of time devoted to the research and conclusions drawn that deemed it necessary is worth examining. Back in the 1940s and 1950s the U.S. Government took a mighty dim view of comic books and vowed to right the evils that flowed from the publisher’s imaginations. Don’t believe it? The U.S. Senate launched investigations, created allegations, and forced publishers to testify before a Senate subcommittee. Do you still want to work in comics?
The Government stance was spurred on by the self-righteous rantings of starchy, ultra-conservative psychologists. The news media held a feeding frenzy over these juicy tidbits of comics gone wrong. It would hold their attention for years. In the 1940s comic book publishing was such a prosperous game that many companies sprang up and hired anyone that "…could just draw your name."---(Harry Harrison, 1950s horror comics writer and artist). It was the classic lure of the fast dollar that caused many companies to quickly lose sight of moral taste. Competition grew increasingly fierce in an industry pumping out five hundred to six hundred books a month in the late 40s early 50s and taking in millions of dollars. Over thirty-five percent of the U.S. population was reading comic books; nearly half of all its citizens. It was obviously an amazing time.
Cowboy genre comics soon gave way to a number of crime comics. Crime comics spun-off into two sub-genres: romance and horror comics. The latter would surge out of control, and become a rampant, ugly, subversive beast in need of taming. When William M. Gaines and Al Feldstein formed EC comics (Entertaining Comics) in 1950, little did they know of the mayhem they were to cause that would effect the industry for years to come. Their first three titles, ‘VAULT OF HORROR’, ‘CRYPT OF TERROR’, and ‘HAUNT OF FEAR’, would accelerate the explosion of 1950s horror comics. EC began to set horror standards and spawned leagues of imitators! EC comics’ ‘help wanted’ advertisement from a 1950s Writer’s Digest magazine: "You should know this about our horror books. We have no ghosts, devils, goblins, or the like. We tolerate vampires and werewolves, if they follow tradition and behave the way respectable vampires and werewolves should. We love walking corpse stories. We’ll accept the occasional zombie or mummy. And we relish the tales of sadism. Virtue doesn’t always have to triumph." By 1950 fifty million copies of comic books were published every month, (over a half billion a year) for an industry revenue of forty-one million dollars.
But not everyone was buying these explicit horror comics that oozed with betrayed scantily-clad young women now in a ghoul’s sadistic trust. The other sixty-five percent of the U.S. population seemed to be outraged by the scandalous content aimed at this country’s impressionable youth! Time magazine published an article in 1948 outlining several copycat crimes by children who had allegedly read these comics. These crimes reportedly included: burglary, a hanging, and a murder by poisoning. That same year ABC Radio broadcast a program named, "WHAT’S WRONG WITH COMICS?". Citizen groups were formed that pushed for removal of comics from newsstands and mass schoolyard comic book bonfires.
In 1948, several comics publishers attempted to take strides toward industry self-regulation. Publishers Levertt Gleason, (Lev Gleason Publishing), Bill Gaines (of the ready to launch EC), Harold Moore, (Famous Funnies), and Rae Herman, (Orbit), plus distributors Irving Manheimer and Frank Armer formed ‘THE ASSOCIATION OF COMICS MAGAZINE PUBLISHERS’ (ACMP). When the ACMP failed to gain industry-wide support for its standards on decency, moral taboos became industry spice. Major publishers simply boycotted the ACMP. Small publishers that needed to include cheesecake and blood to sell their books weren’t interested either. So, moral conservatives continued to prepare horror comics and comics in general for an early grave.
In 1949, PARENTS MAGAZINE printed an article showcasing the findings of the Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books. The article clearly stated seventy percent of ALL comic books contained ‘objectionable material’. From scenes of sadistic torture to suggestive and salacious actions. In 1950, Dr. Josette Frank, psychiatrist for the Child Study Association of Amercia wrote, "All children, even the hardiest, should be protected from the type of comics magazines whose pages drip with horror and blood. No good can be served by pictures or stories which exploit the appetites of a horror-loving public."
This brings us to the mightiest of all the anti-comics advocates, Dr. Fredric Wertham. Dr. Wertham was the senior psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals. In the late 1940s he held a symposium called "THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF COMIC BOOKS". Wertham closed his anti-comics rhetoric with the conclusion that comic books glorified crime and violence. He stressed that comics were, "abnormally sexually aggressive". But Dr. Wertham’s most damaging and highly critical attack on the comics industry came in 1954. Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book called, ‘SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT’. It detailed the allegedly ill effects of children reading comic books containing crime, sex, and violence. Excerpt from ‘SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT’ : "The recent output of horror comic books, a refined or rather debased form of crime comics is especially apt to interfere with children’s sleep." Another classic Dr. Wertham quote, "Outside the forbidden pages of de Sade, you find draining a girl’s blood only in children’s comics".
The list of pomposity on the part of Dr. Wertham is long. Wertham also took steps to convince a U.S. Senate Subcommittee to spend time and tax dollars to investigate the evil tendencies of the comics industry. After carefully plotted interrogations of publishers such as Bill Gaines of EC, the Senate came to this result: "This country (USA) cannot afford the calculated risk involved in feeding its children, through comic books, a concentrated diet of crime, horror, and violence." After a grueling amount of time in the Senate Subcommittee’s spotlight defending his company’s right to publish horror books, Bill Gaines took decisive action. Even though the Senate hearings failed to show that comic books caused juvenile delinquency. Nor had they proven that comic books influenced children to commit crimes or to grow up morally depraved. Gaines and his fellow publishers took another stab at self-regulation, this time with the Government’s blessing! The result was the establishment of the October 1954 Comics Code Authority. Read the following code and see how your own comics measure up to it!
"CODE OF COMICS MAGAZINE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA,
General Standards, part B.
1) No comic magazine shall use the word "Horror" or "Terror" in its title.
2) All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, or masochism shall not be permitted.
3) All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
4) 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 as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
5) Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with the walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited."
This code has been amended many times over the years and actually has very little impact today. In fact, long time publisher DC comics has recently announced that it is leaving the code. But in 1954, 55, and 56, the code’s effect was astonishing! After the Senate hearings the public and the Government pressured comics distributors to NOT carry comics that wouldn’t meet the Comic Code Authority’s standards. Strangely, EC comics had to rename and reorganize nearly its entire line of comics in order to get them distributed! Persistent distrbution problems would kill off the whole EC comics line within a year. In 1956 EC comics shut down its post-code line of comics and became a one-publication company with ‘MAD MAGAZINE’(est. 1952). The code drove many, many small publishers right out of the comics business. Stanley P. Morse, another mainly horror comics publisher shut down all four of his comic book publishing companies. Star Publications, Sterling Comics, Toby Press, United Feature, and Eastern Color also went out of business in 1955. Quality Comics sold its war and romance titles, along with ‘BLACKHAWK’ to DC comics and then went out of business too. Lev Gleason Publishing also went under. Other companies that "died" that year were: Ace Comics, Avon Publications, Premier Magazines, Superior Comics, and Premier Publishing. As a special note, for the first time since 1934 not ONE new comic book publisher could be found! By the year’s end (1955) there would be a fifty percent drop in the number of titles produced in the industry (from 650 down to just 300). Artists and Writers left the field, Publishers closed their doors, and circulation fell.
Let me leave you with a quote from that meddlesome U.S. Senate Subcommittee Report in 1955:
"The Subcommittee is convinced that if the latest effort at industry self-regulation (the 1954 Comics Code Authority) does not succeed, then other ways must---and will be found to prevent our Nation’s young from being harmed by crime and horror comic books."
Research conducted through the use of ‘THE COMIC BOOK IN AMERICA: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY’ and ‘HORROR COMICS: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY’—both by author Mike Benton
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