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EC Comics covers, artist: Johnny Craig, 1950s. © William M. Gaines Agent, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of William M. Gaines Agent, Inc.

The Comic Book Code
1954

Comic books are successful almost from their inception in the early 1930s, but also subject to attack by critics for the low quality of the art and writing, and for the emphasis on violent stories and images. These attacks come from adult critics, not the millions of monthly comics readers -- mainly children and teenagers who love the vivid illustrations and exciting stories in the books.

After World War II, readership dwindles for popular superhero titles, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Spirit, and many comics turn to gory, true-life stories, or tales of horror and the supernatural. E.C. Comics' Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror, and Haunt of Fear cram their pages with severed heads, drug use, and graphic violence. Some of the most popular of these extreme stories come from the pen of comic artist Jack Cole.

Throughout the decade, attacks against the violent comics mount. Citizens' groups and religious organizations pressure publishers and news dealers to drop the most offensive lines. Newspaper editorial pages and national magazines debate the influence of comics on the young.

In 1954 the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency holds hearings on whether comic books inspire juvenile delinquency. A lead witness, psychologist Dr. Frederick Wertham, testifies that comics "create a mental readiness for temptation" and create "an atmosphere of deceit and cruelty" for children. He even attacks Superman for "arousing fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing others punished while you yourself remain immune."

E.C. Comics publisher William Gaines speaks in the comics defense, emphasizing his stories' endings, in which the criminals always pay for their crimes. "Good taste" is his only criterion. Senator Estes Kefauver asks if an E.C. Comics' cover displaying a woman's severed head and a bloody axe is Gaines' idea of good taste. Backed into a corner, Gaines boldly answers 'yes.' The exchange makes the front page of the next day's New York Times.

The committee's subsequent report declares no proven connection between comics and delinquency. Nevertheless, the Senate calls for self-regulation by the comics industry to keep violent titles out of young hands. Seeking to diffuse the negative publicity, the comic book publishers create The Comics Magazine Association of America. The new trade group publishes a strict code of guidelines to control what content the comics will permit. The guidelines focus exclusively on crime and horror comics. Within a short time, the genre is no longer commercially viable.

The imposition of the Comic Book Code bankrupts many of the horror and crime publishers, and many of the artists and writers leave the business for good. The most notable failure is E.C. Comics, which loses every title but one, Mad, which it republishes as Mad Magazine to avoid the Code.

In the '60s, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein uses comic book images for large-scale paintings, and an underground, uncensored comic book industry flourishes, refocusing interest on earlier comics of all types. Collectors now prize the crime and horror comics of the postwar era. Jack Cole in particular is now esteemed as one of the most expressive and imaginative artists in the history of the comics. Pulitzer Prize-winning comic artist Art Spiegelman names Cole's work as a primary influence.

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