Religious leaders, civic groups, educators, the press, and government officials have voiced concern since the 19th century over supposed deleterious effects on children of popular culture, from dime novels and motion pictures to comic books, and television. Anxiety over comic books grew as the pulp fiction crime and horror genre developed at the end of World War II. In 1948, psychologist Fredric Wertham advocated the prohibition of comic books to children under the age of 16, claiming that all of the delinquent children he studied had read them. Although the industry’s trade organization devised a Code that year to regulate content, only one-third of the publishers subscribed to it. During the next few years many states debated, but did not adopt, bills to ban or regulate comic books, in part because of a 1948 Supreme Court decision that overturned a state statute banning the sale or distribution of crime literature. After the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency conducted hearings on comic books in 1954, the industry formed a new trade association and formulated a new Code to self-censor content. The Code symbol subsequently appeared on approved comic books, curtailing the crime and horror genre. In the following excerpts from the Subcommittee’s report, Congress warned the industry that if self-regulation did not prove to be effective, “other ways and means” would be found to protect children. The Code, refined in 1971 and 1989, remains a regulatory instrument for association members.
The Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, pursuant to authorization in Senate Resolution 89, 83d Congress, 1st session, and Senate Resolution 190 of the 2d session of said Congress, has been making a “full and complete study of juvenile delinquency in the United States,” including its “extent and character” and “its causes and contributing factors.” In addition to a number of community hearings that have been held in major cities, the subcommittee has undertaken studies of various special problems affecting juvenile delinquency.
Over a period of several months the subcommittee has received a vast amount of mail from parents expressing concern regarding the possible deleterious effect upon their children of certain of the media of mass communication. This led to an inquiry into the possible relationship to juvenile delinquency of these media.
Members of the subcommittee have emphatically stated at public hearings that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not at issue. They are fully aware of the long, hard, bitter fight that has been waged through the ages to achieve and maintain those freedoms. They agree that these freedoms, as well as other freedoms in the Bill of Rights, must not be abrogated.
The subcommittee has no proposal for censorship. It moved into the mass media phase of its investigations with no preconceived opinions in regard to the possible need for new legislation.
Consistent with this position, it is firmly believed that the public is entitled to be fully informed on all aspects of this matter and to know all the facts. It was the consensus that the need existed for a thorough, objective investigation to determine whether, as has been alleged, certain types of mass communication media are to be reckoned with as contributing to the country’s alarming rise in juvenile delinquency. These include: “crime and horror” comic books and other types of printed matter; the radio, television, and motion pictures. . . .
Not all comic books were considered in this investigation. The subcommittee was concerned only with those dealing with crime and horror. It was estimated that by the spring of 1954 over 30 million copies of crime and horror comic books were being printed each month. If only 50 percent of that number were sold by the retailers, the annual gross from crime and horror comics had reached $18 million. These constituted approximately 20 percent of the total output of comic books. The inquiry was not concerned in this phase with the comic strips that appear daily in most of our newspapers. . . .
II. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY
The first comic strip to appear in a newspaper was Outcault’s “Yellow Kid” which was introduced in the New York World in 1896. The concept, however, of an entire publication devoted to comics was not developed until 1911 when the Chicago American offered reprints of Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff in pamphlet form as a premium for clipping coupons from six daily issues.
FIRST COMIC BOOK APPEARED IN 1935
The pattern for present-day comic books was set in 1935 when New Fun, a 64-page collection of original material printed in four colors, was put on the newsstands. Action Comics were put on sale in 1938, and Superman Quarterly Magazine appeared in 1939. The number of comic book publishers has increased and the circulation figures have risen astonishingly since that time.
It has been estimated conservatively that in 1940 publishers of at least 150 comic-book titles had annual revenues of over $20 million. Ten years later, in 1950, about 300 comic-book titles were being published with annual revenues of nearly $41 million. The upswing in the next 3 years brought the number of titles to over 650 and the gross to about $90 million. Average monthly circulation jumped from close to 17 million copies in 1940 to 68 million in 1953.
In the years between 1945 and 1954, two striking changes took place in the comic-book industry. The first was the great increase in the number of comic books published and the number of firms engaged in their publication. The second was the increased number of comic books dealing with crime and horror and featuring sexually suggestive and sadistic illustrations. This increase of materials featuring brutality and violence is being offered to any child who has the 10-cent purchase price. That these examples of crime and horror are aimed at children is clearly evident from the advertisements with which each issue is replete. . . .
III. THE NATURE OF CRIME AND HORROR COMIC BOOKS
It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. These depraved acts are presented and explained in illustrated detail in an array of comic books being bought and read daily by thousands of children. These books evidence a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable. Many of the books dwell in detail on various forms of insanity and stress sadistic degeneracy. Others are devoted to cannibalism with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women.
SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF MATERIAL DEALT WITH AT NEW YORK HEARING
To point out more specifically the type of material being dealt with, a few typical examples of story content and pictures were presented at the New York hearings on April 21, 1954. From the few following examples, it will be clearly seen that the major emphasis of the material then available on America’s newsstands from this segment of the comic book industry dealt with depraved violence:
STORY NO. 1
BOTTOMS UP (STORY COMICS)
This story has to do with a confirmed alcoholic who spends all his wife can earn on alcohol. As a result their small son is severely neglected. On the day the son is to start in the first grade in school the mother asks the father to escort him to the school building. Instead, the father goes to his favorite bootlegger and the son goes to school by himself. En route the child is struck and killed by an automobile. Informed of the accident, the mother returns home to find her husband gloating over his new supply of liquor. The last four panels show the mother as she proceeds to kill and hack her spouse to pieces with an ax. The first panel shows her swinging the ax, burying the blade in her husband’s skull. Blood spurts from the open wound and the husband is shown with an expression of agony. The next panel has a montage effect: the husband is lying on the floor with blood rushing from his skull as the wife is poised over him. She holds the bloody ax, raised for more blows. The background shows an enlargement of the fear-filled eyes of the husband, as well as an enlargement of the bloody ax. To describe this scene of horror the text states that—“And now the silence of the Hendrick’s apartment is broken only by the soft humming of Nora as she busies herself with her ‘work’.” She then cuts his body into smaller pieces and disposes of it by placing the various pieces in the bottles of liquor her husband had purchased. She then returns the liquor to the bootlegger and obtains a refund. As she leaves, the bootlegger says: "HMMN, funny! I figured that rye would be inside Lou by now!“ The story ends with the artist admonishing the child readers in a macabre vein with the following paragraph, ”But if Westlake were to examine the remainder of the case more closely he’d see that it is Lou who is inside the liquor! Heh, heh! Sleep well, kiddies!" We then see three of the bottles—one contains an eye, one an era, and one a finger.
STORY NO. 2
FRISCO MARY (ACE COMICS)
This story concerns an attractive and glamorous young woman, Mary, who gains control of a California underworld gang. Under her leadership the gang embarks on a series of holdups marked for their ruthlessness and violence. One of these escapades involves the robbery of a bank. A police officer sounds an alarm thereby reducing the gang’s “take” to a mere $25,000. One of the scenes of violence in the story shows Mary poised over the wounded police officer, as he lies on the pavement, pouring bullets into his back from her submachinegun. The agonies of the stricken officer are clearly depicted on his face. Mary, who in this particular scene looks like an average American girl wearing a sweater and skirt and with her hair in bangs, in response to a plea from one of her gang members to stop shooting and flee, states: “We could have got twice as much if it wasn’t for this frog-headed rat!!! I’ll show him!” . . .
STORY NO. 4
HEAD ROOM (ENTERTAINING COMICS)
The female keeper of a decrepit hotel gives special attention to one of her male boarders. She attempts to win his affection by giving him lower rates, privileges, etc. Since he is in his room only at night, she rents the same room for daytime use to a gruesome-looking man, shown on the first page of the story. There are repeated reports over the radio of a homicidal maniac at large, the “Ripper.” She comes to suspect the daytime boarder and is shown searching his room and finding seven gruesome, bloody heads hanging in his closet. Her privileged boarder comes into the room and she tells him of her findings. He is then shown transformed into the gruesome daytime boarder. The last picture shows him as he decapitates her. . . .
It is appropriate to point out that these were not the only, nor the worst, pictures and stories gathered by the subcommittee during the investigation. In fact, they constitute a small sampling of the total array of crime and horror comic books available to the youth of the Nation. . . .
IV. CRIME AND HORROR COMIC BOOKS AS A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR IN JUVENILE DELINQUENCY . . .
CRIME AND HORROR COMICS AND THE WELL-ADJUSTED AND NORMALLY LAW-ABIDING CHILD
Attention has been given by some experts to the influence of crime and horror comics on well-adjusted children who normally are not in conflict with society. Majority opinion seems inclined to the view that it is unlikely that the reading of crime and horror comics would lead to delinquency in a well-adjusted and normally law-abiding child.
A different view is held by Dr. Frederic Wertham, consulting psychiatrist, Department of Hospitals, New York City. He maintains that it is primarily the “normal” child upon whom the comics have their greatest detrimental effects, and thus it is this type of individual who is “tempted” and “seduced” into imitating the crime portrayed in the story. Dr. Wertham has been termed the “leading crusader against comics.” Although stating that he does not adhere to a single factor theory of delinquency causation, he does attribute a large portion of juvenile offenses to the comics.
A critique of the position that has been held by Dr.Wertham for many years is found in an article by Prof. Frederic M. Thrasher entitled, “The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat.” This article, which appeared in 1949, pointed to alleged weaknesses in Dr. Werham’s approach, the major one being that his propositions are not supported by adequate research data. Professor Thrasher asserted that Dr. Wertham’s major claims rest upon a selected group of extreme cases. Although Dr. Wertham has since declared that his conclusions are based upon a study of thousands of children, he has not offered the statistical details of his study. He says that he used control groups, i.e., compared his groups of delinquents with a similar group of nondelinquents, but he has not described the groups to prove that the difference in incidence of comic-book reading is other than a selective process. . . .
CRIME AND HORROR COMICS MAY APPEAL TO AND THUS GIVE SUPPORT AND SANCTION TO ALREADY EXISTING ANTISOCIAL TENDENCIES
Dr. Harris Peck, director of the bureau of mental health services for the New York City Court of Domestic Relations, indicated in his testimony that there is a possible relationship of crime and horror comic books to juvenile delinquency through appealing to and thus giving support and sanction to already existing antisocial tendencies. While pointing out that it is unlikely that comic books are a primary cause of juvenile delinquency, he stated that it should not be overlooked that certain comic books may aid and abet, as it were, delinquent behavior which has been set in motion by other forces already operating on the child. . . .
There exists a minority opinion that suggests a possible cathartic effect can be achieved by reading about or looking at violent action; that is, a period of calm, or relaxation results. The possibility was suggested that this effect may become desirable for certain individuals and may develop into a mechanism by which they can relieve everyday tensions which cannot otherwise be coped with satisfactorily. However, even among authorities in the field of child development who agree that such material does have a cathartic effect, some believe that the same kind of effect might be achieved more safely through other means for the vicarious expression of aggression. . . .
VII. WHERE SHOULD RESPONSIBILITY FOR POLICING CRIME AND HORROR COMIC BOOKS REST?
The subcommittee believes that this Nation cannot afford the calculated risk involved in the continued mass dissemination of crime and horror comic books to children.
Where does the responsibility rest for preventing the distribution of such materials?
With the comic book industry?
With the parents, assisted by educational campaigns of civic organizations?
With governmental censorship either at the Federal, State, or local levels?
COMIC BOOKS AND AUTHORITY
The subcommittee flatly rejects all suggestions of governmental censorship as being totally out of keeping with our basic American concepts of a free press operating in a free land for a free people. . . .
Legislation has been enacted by three States, New York, New Jersey, and Idaho, to prohibit what is known as tie-in sales practices. There was testimony before the subcommittee that some newsdealers handle crime and horror comic books because they fear they will be penalized by the wholesaler if they refuse to do so. This penalty frequently takes the form of withholding more popular periodicals from the newsdealer who refuses to sell crime and horror comics or other objectionable publications. Evidence heard by the subcommittee indicated that such practices are geographically widespread but scattered.
Testimony was also presented to the subcommittee that these restrictive practices did not exist.
It was suggested to the subcommittee that Federal legislation prohibiting tie-in sales on all printed matter involved in interstate commerce would be of marked assistance. However, while the subcommittee is of the opinion that such a Federal statute is not needed at this time, this matter has been brought to the attention of the Attorney General to determine if the charges of tie-in sales, if substantiated, constitute violations of the antitrust laws as presently enacted. . . .
RESPONSIBILITY OF THE COMIC-BOOK INDUSTRY FOR SELF-REGULATION
The subcommittee believes that the American people have a right to expect that the comic-book industry should shoulder the major responsibility for seeing to it that the comic books placed so temptingly before our Nation’s children at every corner newsstand are clean, decent, and fit to be read by children. This grave responsibility rests squarely on every segment of the comic-book industry. No one engaged in any phase of this vast operation—from the artists and authors to the newsstand dealers, from the publisher to printer to distributor to the wholesaler—can escape some measure of responsibility. A few persons engaged in this business have it within their power to do more than others to insure that this reading matter is suited to children. But many of those in the comic-book industry who had the opportunity to act to prevent abuses harmful to children have failed to do so.
In short, neither the comic-book industry nor any other sector of the media of mass communications can absolve itself from responsibility for the effects of its product. Attempts to shift all responsibility to parents are unjustified. Claims of the absolute right of an industry to produce what it pleases unless it is proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” that such a product is damaging to children, are unjustified. Parents have a right to expect that the producers of materials that may influence their children’s thinking will exercise a high degree of caution. They have a right to expect the highest degree of care. And the American people have a right to demand that this degree of care be exercised at all times, in all ways, and with respect to all mass media. . . .
PUBLISHER HAS PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY FOR SUBJECT AND TREATMENT
Within the industry, primary responsibility for the contents of each comic book rests squarely upon the shoulders of its publisher. The publisher can be discriminating. He is the creator of the comic book and he shapes his own editorial policy. The writers and artists who work on the contents are employed by him and are under his direction. The attitude of the owners is reflected in the tenor of the work of the writers and artists.
Vast differences exist between they types of comics produced by publishers in this field. The largest single publisher of comic books does not list crime or horror comics among its nearly 100 comic-book titles, and never has. At the other extreme is the publisher who at the time of the New York hearings specialized in crime and horror and whose only standard regarding content was in terms of “what sells.”
It has already been indicated that a large number of undesirable comic-book titles have been discontinued or revamped. Initiative for this change has come from the individual publisher as well as from the distributor. Several publishers have written to the subcommittee regarding their desire to be absolved of the criticism of in any way contributing to juvenile delinquency through their publications. One publisher has notified his readers that he is discontinuing his crime and horror line in favor of other less controversial themes.
Again the subcommittee feels that this is progress in the right direction. As in the case of the distributors, however, the subcommittee also feels that the publishers of children’s comic books cannot discharge their responsibility to the Nation’s youth by merely discontinuing the publication of a few individual titles. It can be fully discharged only as they seek and support ways and means of insuring that the industry’s product permanently measures up to its standards of morality and decency which American parents have the right to expect. . . .
CURRENT EFFORTS AT SELF-REGULATION
Following the hearings of the subcommittee on the effects of crime and horror comic books and intensified community action throughout the country in protesting to objectionable comic books, establishment of the Comics Magazine Association of America was announced. A code was adopted on October 26, 1954. Charles F. Murphy, formerly a city magistrate in New York, was named code administrator. John Goldwater, president of the Comics Magazine Association of America, said that a staff of professional reviewers will be selected to assist the code administrator in inspecting all comic books before they are printed. The code provides for a ban on all horror and terror comic books but not on crime comic books. A seal of approval will be printed on all comic books approved by the code administrator.
It is the consensus of the subcommittee that the establishment of this new association, the adoption of a code, and the appointment of a code administrator are steps in the right direction. This effort at self-regulation on the part of the comic book industry is in accordance with suggestions made by the subcommittee. Whether the fact that not all publishers of comic books are members of the association will impair the effectiveness of this latest attempt at self-regulation, as it did in the previous attempt, remains to be seen. However, since the association and the code authority have so recently been organized, it is still too early to form a judgment as to either the sincerity or the effectiveness of this latest attempt at self-regulation by the comic book industry. The subcommittee intends to watch with great interest the activities of this association and will report at a later date on this effort by the comic book industry to eliminate objectionable comic books. At any rate, the subcommittee is convinced that if this latest effort at industry self-regulation does not succeed, then other ways and means must—and will—be found to prevent our Nation’s young from being harmed by crime and horror comic books. . . .
Source: Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency, Interim Report, 1955 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1955).