Why you should care
Because hysteria, not Kryptonite, nearly killed Superman.
The students of St. Patrick’s parochial school stood beside their parents, trying to warm themselves on that cold December day in Binghamton, New York, back in 1948. The source of the heat was a pile of more than 2,000 burning comic books that had been collected in a door-to-door campaign, snatched from bookshelves and beneath beds.
The residents weren’t the only ones inflamed by debates over comics and their influence. In 1940, the genre had been villainized by literary critic Sterling North as “a national disgrace” and a “strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems.” Today, movies adapted from comic books are raking in hundreds of millions at the box office. But 75 years ago, they were raking in boxloads of grief.
Burnings ignited across the U.S., due to fears that comics were transforming readers from potential Supermen into Lex Luthors.
Burnings ignited across the country in the 1940s and 1950s, from Missouri — where Girl Scouts put the comics on trial before destroying them — to New York and West Virginia, prompted by fears that they were transforming readers from potential Supermen into Lex Luthors. There was “moral panic” that comics were ruining young minds, says Scott Cunningham, co-author of Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!
Comic books were a new product in the 1940s, thanks in large part to the work of Maxwell Gaines, founder of EC Comics, who took the Sunday funnies and collected them into a cheaper, magazinelike form in the mid-1930s. Those early reprintings evolved into the material we know today as comic books, and the industry took off. “There was something for everyone: superheroes, gags, funny animals, Westerns, romances, jungle comics, true crime,” says Carol Tilley, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Simultaneously, Americans were struggling to pinpoint the source of a growing juvenile delinquency problem. It didn’t take long for psychiatrist Fredric Wertham to find his scapegoat: comic books. With pen and ink, he drew up a paper-thin argument against comics in 1954. In The Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham targeted superhero series like Superman as well as true crime and horror comics. Testifying about the negative influence of comic books before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, Wertham attacked the “Superman complex,” or what he referred to as the sadistic joy of “seeing other people punished over and over again, while you yourself remain immune.”
After the hearings, the comic book industry predicted the government might soon take action, and beat them to it by devising a censorship branch called the Comics Code Authority (rendered defunct as recently as 2011). The CCA enforced the 1954 Comics Code, which gutted and defanged the industry with 19 bullet points prohibiting everything from nudity to lurid images to “unsavory illustrations.” As a result of new rules and bad press, the industry reeled as if punched by a criminal henchman. In 1948, monthly sales of comic books averaged between 80 million and 100 million copies; between 1954–56, 18 publishers stopped printing comic books and 650 titles dropped to 250, according to David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague. Some 800 creators lost their jobs or quit because of the industry’s blackened reputation.
The irony was that Wertham, the man who deplored comic books, had created perhaps a more dangerous fiction, changing the ages of his case studies, embellishing their stories and even making up entire testimonies, according to Tilley. The psychiatrist, whose tirade against comics was just one part of a career that also focused on fighting segregation in schools and providing help to impoverished neighborhoods like Harlem, eventually saw the “error of his ways,” says Cunningham. Turning a new leaf with his 1973 book, The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication, Wertham hailed fanzines as a positive force, although comic book fanatics still remembered the ’50s and booed him off the stage at what is known today as Comic-Con.
Comic books were hardly the only entertainment censored in the name of children’s well-being. In the mid-’30s, the National Legion of Decency — armed with a name scary enough for a comic book villain and the support of millions of American Catholics — pushed Hollywood to censor itself by the rules of an earlier milquetoast production code. “In a film like Casablanca, you think there’s a possibility of Rick and Ilsa flying off together, but it’s never going to happen, because she’s the lawfully wedded wife of Victor Laszlo,” says Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University.
More recently, censorship movements have taken a page from older eras, attacking forms of entertainment from video games to rap music. But while the comic book industry was nearly destroyed because it lacked “any sophisticated apparatus” to claim First Amendment rights, says Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, other industries have enjoyed greater protections because they learned from the comic industry’s downfall.
As we all know, comic books survived their trial by fire, an ordeal that gave rise to alternatives like Mad magazine, underground comix and graphic novels. All of which have left a burning impression on American culture.