Looking Back on Oklahoma’s War on Comics

With the conclusion of Wizard World Tulsa, local news outlet Tulsa World took a look back on the war Tulsa and neighboring Oklahoma cities waged against comics in the mid-1950s.

From book swaps exchanging comics for perceived “higher literature” and independent review committees organized by local communities to fines for selling “objectionable” comics in retail stores, Oklahoma and its concerned citizens — like many other parents and professionals around the country — were not impressed by the crime, horror, and romance comics dominating the newsstands in the 1950s. For a quick 10 cents, children could buy what KTTV television host Paul Coates once called “excellent manuals” and “regular do-it-yourself pamphlets” in juvenile delinquency, and Oklahomans weren’t having it.

“Kids were wasting time, sitting in front of the stands reading funny books and we couldn’t tolerate it,” McAlester retailer Otis Woods once said. He retaliated against comics in the 1950s by simply pulling them all off of his shelves. “We had been culling out (objectionable) books for a long time, but it got to a point where we didn’t have time and we couldn’t cull out the ones we didn’t want.” His response: to stop carrying “romance, horror, and murder” comics entirely.

Oklahoma’s attacks on comics closely mirrored those happening across the United States at the same time. Comics were smut, Anti-American, and dangerous, and they needed to be stopped by any means necessary. Fueled by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s alleged scientific and social evidence, broadcasted television specials, and shocking headlines in newspapers and magazines, citizens agitated themselves into a mass panic, creating in their minds what pop culture writer David Hajdu appropriately titled The Ten-Cent Plague.

“Ideally, parents would have been monitoring what their kids were reading and either allowing them to read them or not,” comics creator Danny Fingeroth tells the Tulsa World, adding:

There was a great degree of overreaction, so that if there were a few comics that were over the top, people just treated every comic like it was over the top, even if it was just a Superman or a Batman story. So I think there needed to be more discernment about what was the actual content. But people just reacted in a panic and they saw, oh, it’s a comic book. It must be bad no matter what is it and no matter who is reading it.

In 1954, comics were taken to trial and shortly thereafter the self-regulatory Comics Code was enacted, resulting in the near destruction of the comics industry. Although the code dissolved in 2011 and CBLDF officially obtained the rights to the seal, as Fingeroth points out, comics are still fighting many of the same censorship battles now as they were back then. “I think comics are still always fighting against that,” he notes, adding:

And, although so-called geek culture has become very popular, I think in many circles it is still looked down on or just tolerated or looked at as sort of eccentric or cute. In terms of people being able to express themselves creatively in comics, I think that battle has been won. I think the battle for cultural acceptance is still (ongoing), even though it is taught in colleges and there are hundreds of college professors who study and teach and research comics.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!