Know Your Comics Censorship History!

November 23, 2012

The history of comics censorship is a sordid saga of misguided censors, self-imposed silence, criminal prosecutions, and suppression of free expression that led to the obliteration of thousands of careers, more than a few publishers, and even an entire country’s comics industry.

CBLDF blogger Joe Sergi has broken down some of the specific instances of comics censorship, from the attacks in on what is widely accepted as the first comic book — attacks that predate the comics code by almost 60 years — to a side-by-side visual comparison of how the Comics Code led to the nonsensical editing and revision of thousands of books.

Let’s take a quick stroll through comics censorship history…

Richard Felton Outcalt and The Yellow Kid

Many people know about the great comic book scare in the late ’40s and early ’50s. You know the one that started with individuals like Dr. Fredric Wertham and Senator Robert C. Hendrickson and ended with the creation of the now defunct Comics Code Authority. But what many people aren’t aware of is that comics had come under fire long before Dr. Wertham conducted his juvenile delinquency case studies in the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, New York. This is a tale that goes back to very creation of the medium in the late 1890s, and starts with what many people consider the first comic: The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Alley, published in 1897. keep reading…

1948: The Year Comics Met Their Match

The year was 1948 and change was in the air. World War II was over, but the Cold War was just beginning. President Truman manages to sign the Marshall Plan into law, which authorizes $5 billion in aid for 16 countries, and he beats both Thomas Dewey and Strom Thurman to stay in office. The United Nations forms the World Health Organization and adopts the Declaration of Human Rights. Columbia introduces the 33 1/3 record (ask your parents). Scientists publish a new paper announcing something called “The Big Bang Theory.” Olivier’s Hamlet and The Music Man are top box office earners and are shown along with the first color news reels. Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate opens on Broadway, and Nat King Cole was crooning on the radio. While all of this progress and growth was happening in the world, well intentioned parents and citizens were convincing their children to burn all their comic books in the United States. keep reading…

How Much Did Things Change After the Enactment of the Comics Code of 1954?

On October 26, 1954, the comics industry adopted the Comics Code Authority and began almost 60 years of self-censorship. The industry formed a self-regulatory body, which would impose and self-police a “code of ethics and standards” for comics. This was done by requiring that each comic book published have a seal of approval. Although the Comics Code Authority had no official control over publishers, most distributors refused to carry comics that did not carry the seal. On December 24, 1954, The New York Times reported “NEW COMIC BOOKS TO BE OUT IN WEEK; First ‘Approved’ Issues Put More Clothing on Heroines and Tone Down Violence.” keep reading…

The Man of Steel and the Psychiatric Censor

There are a few things in life that everyone should know: Look both ways before crossing the street. Always eat your vegetables. If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But, most important of this sage wisdom, is that you should never ever tug on Superman’s cape. In the 1950s, Fredrick Wertham did just that as part of his attack on the comics industry. However, unlike the many other combatants that fell victim to Wertham’s attacks, the Man of Steel not only continued to thrive under the scrutiny, but his creators attacked back. As a result, Wertham was humiliated and forced to join the likes of Lex Luthor, Metallo, and Brainiac on the list of many opponents who have been defeated by the greatest and most beloved hero of all time. keep reading…

The Incredible True Story of Joe Shuster’s Nights of Horror

In 1938, Superman took flight from the drawing board of a teenage boy named Joe Shuster into the pages of Action Comics. However, by 1954, Joe had fallen on hard times: He was no longer drawing Superman; he had lost a lawsuit to get his creation back; and his latest book, Funny Man, was a miserable flop. That is where the story takes a strange turn — one that leads to bondage, censorship, the Boy Hitler of Flatbush Avenue, the Supreme Court, and a German-born psychiatrist named Wertham. What follows is the amazing true story of Joe Shuster’s Nights of Horror and the Brooklyn Thrill Killers. Beware: It is not for the faint of heart. keep reading…

Wonder Woman Bound by Censorship

The Comics Authority changed the face of comics forever. People are aware how horror comics were virtually abolished, romance comics were toned down, and jungle princesses forced to fade into the background, but they may be unaware how the CCA affected the mainstream superheroes of the time. Superman was already governed by a stricter internal governance and, thus, was unchanged. Batman, on the other hand, fended off a homophobic public by getting a Batwoman named Kathy Kane to help establish heterosexuality, which, if you are reading current DC comics, is pretty ironic. But it is the third member of DC’s trinity that is the focus of this posting — the Amazing Amazon known as Wonder Woman. The post-Code world was not a friendly place for the Amazon princess, who was already having a hard time dealing in the post WWII world. keep reading…

The Sordid Tale of The Lone Avenger’s Rise to Infamy

In examining the history of comic book censorship, sometimes it is difficult for people to separate the creator from the creation. A clear example of this is the sad tale of Australian comic creator Len Lawson and his creation, The Lone Avenger. Some commentators speculate that Lawson’s The Lone Avenger was probably as popular as Superman back in the 1940s and 1950s. However, today most people are unaware of the activities of the character or crimes of his creator. Still more are ignorant of the effect these actions had in causing the demise of the Australian comics market. keep reading…

Spidey Fights Drugs and the Comics Code Authority

Of course, one can’t mention comic book censorship without thinking of Fredric Wertham or his book, Seduction of the Innocent. In one of those great Stan Lee stories, Stan recounts, in his 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!, his frequent debates with Wertham. “He once claimed he did a survey that demonstrated that most of the kids in reform schools were comicbook readers,” Stan writes. “So I said to him, ‘If you do another survey, you’ll find that most of the kids who drink milk are comicbook readers. Should we ban milk?’ His arguments were patently sophistic, and there I’m being charitable, but he was a psychiatrist, so people listened.” keep reading…

For more about comics censorship, visit these posts in the CBLDF Resources section:

History of Comics Censorship, Part 1: From comic book burnings to the arrival of the Comics Code.

History of Comics Censorship, Part 2: From Mad Magazine and the birth of Marvel Comics through the Underground Comix era, the Zap #4 obscenity trial, the revision of the Comics Code and the arrival of the obscenity test.

History of Comics Censorship, Part 3: From the birth of the comics specialty market to the establishment of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

History of Comics Censorship, Part 4: Legal attacks on artists, including Paul Mavrides, Mike Diana, and the creators of DC Comics’ Jonah Hex: Rider of the Worm & Such.

History of Comics Censorship, Part 5: Legal attacks on retailers and publishers, including Planet Comics’ obscenity bust for horror comics; Texas’ prosecution of Jesus Castillo for manga; Top Shelf’s dispute with U.S. Customs, and Georgia’s battle with a retailer over a depiction of Picasso.

History of Comics Censorship, Part 6: Library bans and prosecutions of readers over manga.

This holiday season, The Will & Ann Eisner Family Foundation is encouraging everyone who believes in the CBLDF’s important work protecting the freedom to read comics to become a member or give a gift membership in the organization. When you do, they will contribute $10 for each new membership and $5 for every renewing membership made from now until December 31, so join today!