History of Comics Censorship, Part 2

Below is a web-friendly version of the CBLDF presentation on the history of comics censorship, which has been delivered to audiences of scholars, lawyers, advocates and readers in the United States. Please contact CBLDF about bringing this presentation to your group.

Mad Men

After the devastating effects of the Senate Subcommittee Hearings and the adoption of the Comics Code, comic books in the United States were hobbled. More than 800 cartoonists lost their jobs after the changes wrought by the Code and public attitudes against comics cut the marketplace to a mere 250 titles by 1956, down from 650 two years earlier. Comics were reduced to an infantile state, in which stories were populated by dopey superheroes, tame romances, funny animals, and half-baked extensions of popular TV and movie brands. With few exceptions, comics for older teens and adults disappeared for more than a decade. Moreover, the stigma that drove the perception of comics as a low-value medium would last for generations. For the creators who managed to stay in the field, it was adapt or die.

William Gaines, losing ground with every comic book he published after the subcommittee hearings, decided to fold his comic book line and throw his remaining resources into making Mad a success in the magazine format.  As a magazine, Mad wasn’t subject to the regulation of the Code and was able to embody a more deeply anti-authoritarian satirical editorial slant.   Harvey Kurtzman, the magazine’s founding editor, stayed on for a time, steadily increasing the magazine’s circulation, but he had a falling out with Gaines in 1956 over profit sharing. Gaines assigned Mad to Al Feldstein, whose stewardship would make the magazine a national household name among the growing youth culture. Gaines’ deep resentment of Wertham’s assertions and the impact of the Kefauver hearings colored his attitudes towards publishing and led him to encourage cartoonists to lampoon authority, making the magazine a powerful influence on cartoonists and activists in the years to come.

Harvey Kurtzman splintered off from Gaines and brought some of his best artists to work for Hugh Hefner, establishing Trump as a glossy competitor to Mad. To cut costs, the Playboy magnate, himself a former cartoonist, shut the magazine down after two issues. Disappointed but undeterred, Kurtzman recruited Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee, and Arnold Roth to form an artists’ collective to publish Humbug! This experiment would yield some creatively fruitful work, but it failed to reap the hoped for commercial benefitsand folded after eleven issues. After a period of freelancing, Kurtzman established Help! for Warren Publishing in 1960. That publication would provide an early home for some of the brighter lights of the next generation of creative talent, with a roster including R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch, and Skip Williamson. Other notable Help! alums include Gloria Steinem and Terry Gilliam. Help! folded in 1965 after 26 issues.

 The Marvel Age

Newsstand comics had found a new normal under the Comics Code, which, for the most part, meant safe fantasies for the youngest (and some would say, dimmest) readers. DC ushered in the Silver Age of comics by reinventing older characters like The Flash and Green Lantern to appeal to the young readers of the 1950s, giving the characters new costumes and science fiction-influenced powers. The success of these characters led to a new sensibility for established heroes, such as Superman and Batman, pointing a way forward for the genre.

A combination of inspiration and desperation would provide the spark for Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a stable of greats to rethink superhero stories in a way that appealed to adolescent audiences. After the Code, poor sales and competitive disadvantages led Martin Goodman’s Atlas Comics to the brink of dissolution. In 1961, Lee, who was editor-in-chief of Goodman’s failing line, tried a new approach, collaborating with Jack Kirby on a new type of super team called the Fantastic Four. This and subsequent titles under the Marvel Comics banner ushered a new sensibility into comics storytelling, leading to series more sophisticated storylines involving the interpersonal dynamics between complex characters that captured the imagination of teen and preteen readers. It was a bold step forward from the nursery to which the medium had been relegated.

 Driven Underground

Although Marvel Comics began speaking directly to teen readers, and Mad was annoying authority figures as a humor magazine, comics were still largely beneath the notice of adult readers until the emergence of Underground Comix.

The Undergrounds emerged from the 1960s counterculture, and were characterized by an emphasis on creating work from an authorial point of view that explored topical and taboo subject matter without restriction. As an age-group, the Underground cartoonists tended to be children when the Comics Code went into effect, and many were affected by the abrupt changes to the comics they were reading. Many Underground artists recognize EC as a strong influence, alongside popular newspaper comic strips of the day, such as Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Al Capp’s L’il Abner. The Undergrounds reclaimed the art form from the clutches of the newsstand and created a generation of artists, publishers, and dealers who formed an alternative economy for this work to thrive. Unfortunately, its flowering would be short-lived.

The earliest examples of Undergrounds came out of college towns Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California. Jack Johnson, who created comics as Jaxon, released God Nose (Snot Reel) in 1963, and it is generally regarded as the first recognizable underground comic. Jaxon’s Austin contemporaries Foolbert Sturgeon (Frank Stack), who created The Adventures of Jesus, and Gilbert Shelton, who would go on to create The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Wonder Warthog, were creating comix at the same time. Over in Berkeley, Joel Beck’s Lenny Bruce inspired strip Lenny of Laredo was appearing in the University of California Berkeley satire magazine The Pelican. The uncensored and irreverent humor in the titles would prove inspirational to future artists and publishers.

By 1967, the Undergrounds began to gain momentum. Apart from Austin and Berkeley, one of the earliest Underground scenes popped up in Chicago, where Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson published The Chicago Mirror and, later, Bijou Funnies. Robust Underground communities would soon develop in New York, Milwaukee, and even London. But the undisputed epicenter of the Underground Comix movement was San Francisco, where popular legend has it, R. Crumb spent the Summer of Love standing on the corner of Haight & Ashbury hawking copies of the comic that would inspire a generation out of a baby carriage.


Zap Comix was the gold standard of Underground Comix.  Crumb established the title as a showcase for his work, and it quickly captured the imaginations of fellow artists and a vast audience within the counterculture. Crumb would soon open the series up to include contributions by greats Spain, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso, Robert Williams, and Paul Mavrides.

Zap would inspire and define the Underground Comix movement. The series’ artists exercised their unique and individualistic styles to speak to topics like class, sexuality, politics, religion, conformity, drug use, race, and economics, while often simultaneously being rude, scatological, sexually explicit and vulgar.

Zap was one of the first comics to attract unwelcome police attention. According to Mark James Estren’s A History of Underground Comics:

Moe’s Bookstore in Berkeley was busted for selling Snatch Comics and Zap Comix. The Phoenix Gallery (also in Berkeley), after developing an art show featuring the work of numerous underground cartoonists, was busted for displaying obscene material. In Encino, California, an employee of the Third Eye bookstore was arrested for selling Zap Comix No. 2.

The charges in those three cases failed to stick, but the cases did demonstrate that the material in the Undergrounds was moving into unprecedented terrain. Previously, when comics faced censorship, the publishers were targeted. Here, the censorship was beginning to happen at the retail level.

With an awareness of the exposure the title faced, Zap’s artists upped the ante with a fourth issue designed to attack social conventions and tackle taboo topics head-on. The issue’s most notorious contribution was Crumb’s “Joe Blow,” a searing, blackly humorous satire of gray flannel suit suburban reality in which an outwardly “perfect” family is shown having an incest orgy behind closed doors. Crumb’s visuals recall images from Leave It To Beaver to inspirational Communist propaganda, while also being firmly within a recognizable comics tradition. S. Clay Wilson delivered the strips “Leather Tits” and “A Ball in the Bunghole,” two outrageous tales of sexual violence executed in his trademark grotesque style. Shelton delivered a humorous Wonder Warthog strip, Williams contributed a trippy cosmic sequence, Spain produced an EC-inspired sexual sci-fi yarn, and Moscoso wrapped it all in a psychedelic cover.

Zap #4  immediately sparked arrests in California and New York. It was in New York City that the title would become infamous.

Shortly after the book was published in 1969, Peter Dargis, manager of East Side Book Shop, and Charles Kirkpatrick, co-manager of the New Yorker Bookshop, were arrested in New York City on charges of selling obscene material. They were defended by Robert Levine with the assistance of Stephen Rohde. The defense argued that Zap #4 was not obscene and called four witnesses to assert the comic’s artistic merit: cartoonist Gil Kane; Robert M. Doty, curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Steven Marks, a nursery school teacher and freelance writer who also taught at Columbia University; and Sidney Jacobson, an editor at Harvey Publications, a house specializing in children’s titles including Casper, The Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich.

The prosecution was conducted by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Richard Beckler, who Estren says “made no arguments and presented no witnesses,” and asked the judge to find the comic book obscene as a matter of law. The case was heard by Judge Joel Tyler, a moral crusader who would go on to suppress the movie Deep Throat.

The defense hinged on proving that the material in Zap #4 possessed redeeming social and artistic value and was therefore not obscene. Estren writes:

All four witnesses said they admired the work of the cartoonists in Zap No. 4, particularly Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Gilbert Shelton. Kane attributed to the cartoons, “the vitality of expressionistic paintings.” Doty told of displaying Crumb’s and Wilson’s work at the Whitney Museum’s exhibit “Human Concern and Personal Torment: The Grotesque in American Art,” and contrasted the “positive art form” of the underground cartoonists with such things as advertising and billboard art. Marks said he had used earlier Crumb strips in his Humanities course at Columbia University, and would have used some of S. Clay Wilson’s visions of Hell if he had been teaching Dante when Zap No. 4 came out. Jacobson defended the underground comics for “using the medium to enter into all sorts of adult stories and adults situations.”

Judge Tyler was unable or unwilling to accept that the comics possessed artistic merit. Throughout the trial, he displayed a dismissive posture towards the expert testimony and an overall anti-intellectual attitude, as seen in this exchange reported by Estren:

Later, when Marks said that he had brought some prints with him to show that sexual images were an important part of portraying the world of the grotesque, Judge Tyler said, “Can’t get away from the fact that you’re a professor, can you?” And later still, when Jacobson began a discussion of the “straight” comics market by saying that his firm, Harvey Publications, put out books for the lowest age group on the age ladder, Judge Tyler said, “I beg your pardon, I read these regularly.”

On October 28, 1970, Judge Tyler delivered a guilty verdict, making Zap #4 the first comic book to be declared legally obscene. In his decision, he rejected the testimony of the experts as the views of an intellectual elite and not representative of the common reader, who Tyler believed he was bound to protect. He wrote:

In the final analysis, the Court must be the expert in assessing what is the dominant theme, prurient interest, community standards, any redeeming social value, and the like…. Merely because the magazine in question does not appeal to the prurient interest of the sophisticated or other small group of intellectuals does not remove it from the prohibition [against obscenity]. To do so would permit the substitution of defendants’ sophisticated and intellectual experts for those of the average person in the contemporary community.

Judge Tyler’s analysis would echo in later cases, notably the conviction of Texas comic store clerk Jesus Castillo. Castillo was found guilty of selling obscene material when a jury rejected the testimony of expert witnesses and instead followed the prosecutor’s directive to “use your common sense. Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids.”

Judge Tyler’s decision would conclude with an indictment of Zap and the movement from which it sprang:

It is material utterly unredeemed and unredeemable, save, perhaps, only by the quality of the paper upon which it is printed. It is patently offensive (Memoirs v. Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, supra). It has gone substantially beyond “the present critical point in the compromise between candor and shame at which the community may have arrived here and now” (United States v. Kennerley, 209 F. 119, 121 [1913]). It is a part of the underworld press — the growing world of deceit in sex and it is not reality or honesty, as they often claim it to be. It represents an emotional incapacity to view sex as a basis for establishing genuine human relationships, or as a normal part of human condition. It is, what Dr. Benjamin Spock characterizes as “shock-obscenity”, representing a brutalizing trend in our society. (Spock, Decent and Indecent, supra, pp. 83-84.) The development of understanding of, or making proper comment about, sex is vitiated by its graphic and venal exploitation of sexuality. And such exploitation is an unfortunate concomitant of our times.fn31 Zap No. 4 is an exploiter; its effect is to purvey “filth for filth’s sake”. (State of Ohio v. Jacobellis, 173 Ohio St. 22, 28 [1962].) It is hard-core pornography. Perhaps that type of obscenity contains its own antidote and eventually becomes a repetitious bore — but, unfortunately by that time it has rendered its victims shock-proof, jaded and permissive to the point of indifference toward moral values and tolerable behavior. The material must fail by any legal test yet announced, including subdivision 1 of section 235.00 and section 235.05 of the Penal Law, and stands condemned as a violator of that law. The magazine is legally obscene.

Despite amicus curiae briefs filed by the Association of American Publishers and the New York Civil Liberties Union requesting the conviction be overturned, the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision by a 4-3 vote in March of 1973.

The Mainstream Fights The Code

Times were changing. While the Undergrounds were speaking to the spirit of the era, and in the process creating a dynamic where artists called their own shots, mainstream comics were also coming to grips with the world around them.

Marvel Comics had become a phenomenon that achieved popularity among all kinds of youth audiences, including the then-unheard of readership of college students. The multifaceted heroes and their equally compelling foes resonated with audiences to the tune of sales that reached 50 million comics sold in 1968. In 1971, the Nixon Administration’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare took note of Marvel’s popularity and contacted edit0r-in-chief Stan Lee to request he create a comic book story about drug abuse.

Any depiction of drug use was still forbidden by the Comics Code, which didn’t deter Lee from honoring his government’s request.  He wrote a three part arc in The Amazing Spider-Man#96 – #98, which portrayed Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborn being hospitalized after an acid trip. Marvel asked the CMAA for permission to publish the special issues and was turned down. Marvel published the comics anyway, running them without the Comics Code Seal of Approval. The absence of the Seal didn’t harm sales.

According to Dr. Amy Kiste Nyberg, in an article written for CBLDF:

According to CMAA files, Marvel had asked for permission to publish the special issues but was denied. The request, however, triggered a review of the code. Revisions were crafted in December 1970, and publishers agreed the new code would go into effect on Feb. 1, 1971.

A special meeting of the CMAA was called on that date to chastise Marvel. Charles Goodman, representing the company, promised that after publication of the Spider-Man issues (cover-dated May-July 1971), the company would not publish any comics without obtaining the Seal of Approval.

The 1971 code relaxed the restrictions on crime comics and lifted the ban on horror comics (while still prohibiting the use of “horror” and “terror” in titles). In addition, the liberalized standards on sex reflected changes in society. After the Spider-Man controversy, the CMAA added a section on how to handle depiction of drug use. The code, although it was less restrictive, represented a lost opportunity in its reaffirmation of comic books as a medium for children.

The new Comics Code guidelines opened the door for superhero publishers to tackle socially relevant issues, such as drug abuse and campus unrest.

Freedom on the Newsstand

The early 1970s saw a small explosion in black and white comics magazines that were created without the interference of the Comics Code. These titles targeted late-teen and adult audiences and provided a platform to reinvigorate the tradition of lushly illustrated horror and fantasy comics that had been wiped out by the Code.

Warren Publishing, which was best known for a publishing line that included Famous Monsters of Filmland, Help!, and Monster World, started the trend in 1964 with the launch of the horror anthology title Creepy. Under the editorial watch of Archie Goodwin, Creepy employed the best working illustrators in the medium, notably Neal Adams, Dan Adkins, Reed Crandall, Johnny Craig, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Gray Morrow, John Severin, Angelo Torres, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood. Creepy enjoyed enough success to spin off a companion publication, Eerie, in 1966. Goodwin departed the title in 1967, in part due to a business downturn the publishing company suffered during the period as well as company head James Warren’s decision to move operations from Philadelphia to New York. The horror magazines hobbled along with reprint materials for a period of two and a half years.

Warren’s fortunes rebounded in 1969 with the launch of Vampirella Magazine. The title featured the scantily clad horror hostess turned heroine created by horror fanzine legend Forrest J. Ackerman and underground cartoonist Trina Robbins. Vampirella helped bring Warren into the 1970s in a strong enough position to rehire Goodwin, and Warren Publishing once again acted as standard bearer for the tradition of sophisticated adult genre comics.

In 1973, Marvel imprint Curtis Magazines began competing with Warren’s space on the newsstands with an aggressive magazine launch that initially included the titles Crazy, Dracula Lives, Haunt of Horror, Monsters Unleashed, Savage Tales, Tales of the Zombie, and Vampire Tales. Marvel would later go on to publish heavy hitting magazines in the pulp tradition including Savage Sword of Conan and Doc Savage. Warren responded in 1974, with a burst of output supervised by editor Bill DuBay that included increased releases for the company’s three horror titles and the addition of Will Eisner’s The Spirit magazine.

National Lampoon was also experiencing its finest period between 1971 and 1975, publishing edgy satire and humor comics that were somewhere between Mad and Zap in their sensibility. The magazine included work from cartoonists such as Neal Adams, Vaughan Bode, Shary Flenniken, Bobby London, B.K. Taylor and Gahan Wilson. Marvel briefly sought to compete in that space in 1974 with the short lived magazine Comix Book, edited by Denis Kitchen, the publisher of Kitchen Sink Press who would later go on to establish the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

In 1977, Heavy Metal, an American version of the French anthology Metal Hurlant would raise the bar above even the heights reached by the Warren, Curtis and Lampoon publications.  Heavy Metal brought the then-new wave of European illustrators such as Moebius, Guido Crepax, Enki Bilal, and H.R. Geiger into a space that made room for American legends Richard Corben, Arthur Suydam, Bernie Wrightson and others to produce an anthology that would challenge established wisdom about was possible in storytelling and illustration.

The Obscenity Test

In June 1973, three months after the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Zap #4, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that would once and for all define what was obscene.

In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court created a three prong test to determine what is obscene.  In what is commonly referred to as the “Miller test,” the court stated that states can regulate material as obscene if it meets all three of the following prongs:

  1. whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  2. whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law; and
  3. whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

End of an Era

After Miller v. California, content businesses all over the country braced for combat. The Miller test gave local jurisdictions the ability to determine what was obscene, causing many businesses to pull content from their shelves that they feared could be found objectionable.

The Miller decision proved to be a fatal blow to Underground Comix. Comix were largely distributed by head shops that specialized in counterculture goods, including drug paraphernalia. In many jurisdictions, head shops were vulnerable under local paraphernalia laws, or at least found themselves being subjected to police scrutiny and intimidation. If the local community was now determining what was obscene, and if New York City, of all places, had decided that Zap, the movement’s high-water mark was obscene there, what chance did a shop in a less liberal locality have? Many of the dealers who carried the material decided it was too risky to continue supporting. The comix movement went into free fall, and the movement soon ended.

Less than twenty years since the Senate Subcommittee hearings whipped up a moral panic that led to the decimation of the comics business at the hands of a censorship regime established in large part out a sense of self-preservation, another purge was now to take place. This time, the dealers who sold Underground Comix stopped buying them out a sense of self-preservation in the face of a new obscenity standard that threatened not just their business, but their very freedom. The tide of censorship had turned from the publishers to the retailers.

Continue to History of Comics Censorship, Part 3 ☞