Lowlights from Comics Censorship History

code_seal_mar1955Since the advent of the comics format, censors around the world have found varied and often illuminating reasons to suppress certain books or content. Whether government-sponsored or industry-directed, as with the Comics Code Authority in the United States, censorship naturally strikes hardest at each society’s most deep-seated anxieties. Recently Mark Juddery of Mental Floss brought together five international examples of comics censorship over several decades.

When the Comics Code was first implemented in 1954, Juddery notes, one of the main objections from anti-comics crusaders like Fredric Wertham was the alleged glorification of illegal activity in the crime genre. Indeed, titles like Crime Does Not Pay, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, Crime and Punishment and Crimes by Women enticed readers from the newsstands in the pre-Code days. But while the Code outright banned the words “horror” and “terror” from being used in titles, it was slightly more lenient where “crime” was concerned, stipulating only that “the letters of the word ‘crime’ on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title” and “the word ‘crime’ shall never appear alone on a cover.” Nevertheless, the other restrictions in Part A of the Code meant that the crime genre all but disappeared in short order.

For more on the history and demise of the crime comics genre in the U.S., check out these articles by CBLDF contributor Joe Sergi:

Juddery notes that around the same time that comics were fighting to survive in the United States, the format was also being tarred halfway around the world in Australia. In that case, though, anti-comics crusaders seized on brutal crimes committed by one creator in an attempt to prove that all comics lead to immorality. Len Lawson, creator of adventure comic and Lone Ranger knockoff The Lone Avenger, was also a serial rapist and eventually a murderer. Although the U.S. comics industry managed to avert government censorship by adopting the Code, the sensational coverage of Lawson’s crimes in Australia left an indelible mark on the industry there, leading to the formation of a government censorship board in the state of Queensland which naturally affected production and importation of comics throughout the country.

We also have several articles on the history of comics censorship in Australia:

After the Code was implemented in the U.S., Juddery notes, self-censorship made for some clunky storylines. One particularly egregious example comes from the Steve Ditko-drawn story “Masquerade Party” in Strange Tales#83 (1961). As originally created, the story shows a woman striking up a romance with the actual devil at a costume party, believing him to be a man wearing a mask but then learning the truth in a classic horror-comic twist in the final panel. Because of the Code’s restrictions on supernatural characters, however, two panels by another artist were added before publication to show that the mysterious guest really was a human in a mask after all.

Ten years later, the strictures of the Code ironically clashed with a request from a federal government agency. In 1971, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Stan Lee to develop an Amazing Spider-Man storyline that would show the dangers of drug addiction. Lee happily obliged with a plot that ran from issues 96-98–without the Comics Code Seal of Approval on the covers. Although drug use was not explicitly forbidden in the Code, the books were rejected on the basis of a catch-all provision which forbade “all elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code.” Lee convinced Marvel publisher Martin Goodman that “the United States Government somehow took precedence over the [CCA],” and the books were issued without the seal or any explanation of its absence. Shortly thereafter the Code was revised to allow depictions of drug use as long as it was presented in a negative light.

Check out Joe Sergi’s article on Spider-Man vs. drugs here:

Finally, Juddery covers the tragic story of Argentinian journalist and comic writer Hector Oesterheld, who in 1968 collaborated with artists Alberto and Enrique Breccia on a graphic biography of Che Guevara. Following Argentina’s military coup in 1976, Oesterheld was among the thousands of desaparecidos–journalists, artists, and activists who vanished into government custody. Three years later, says Juddery, a government official brazenly told another journalist investigating Oesterheld’s fate that “we did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of Che Guevara ever done.”

Check out Juddery’s full article here at Mental Floss. If you’re still hungering for more comics censorship history, take a stroll through the rest of Joe Sergi’s work for CBLDF too!

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2017 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.