Decapitation, addiction, an ice pick in the eye, damsels in distress,
damsels armed to the teeth and bondage.
This was some of the routine stuff on the covers and story
lines of comics from the 1940s and 1950s, until the censorship
movement under the Comics Code Authority set new rules in a bid
to reduce juvenile delinquency.
The new guidelines followed a U.S. Senate hearing in 1954
and the release of The Seduction of the Innocent, a book by Dr.
Wertham, a German-born American psychologist, believed that
particular genres of comics, particularly horror and crime, caused
young people to become criminals, anti-social and loose in morals.
He was blunt about the comics that offended him, although
the study at times is contradictory and appears to be faulty
in its science.
In describing Bat-Man, Wertham wrote in 1953, "The atmosphere
About a Blue Beetle cover, he gave the name to a style of
depicting women's breasts: "Children call these 'headlights'
Wertham was particularly harsh about horror and crime comics,
describing them as
training manuals for deviant behaviour.
During the 1954 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing into juvenile
delinquency, crime and horror comics were put on the table.
And an infamous verbal exchange between the subcommittee's
chief counsel, Herbert Beaser, and Senator Estes Kefauver, with
EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines, almost caused the end of comics.
As reported in the New York Times:
"Then you think a child cannot in any way, shape, or
manner, be hurt by anything that the child reads or sees?"
"I do not believe so," Gaines responded.
"There would be no limit, actually, to what you'd put
in the magazines?" Beaser asked.
"Only within the bounds of good taste," Gaines
is your May issue" of Crime SuspenStories 22, Senator Kefauver
said. "This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a
woman's head up which has
been severed from her body. Do you think that's in good taste?"
"Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic,"
Gaines said. "A cover in bad taste, for example, might be
defined as holding her head a little higher so that blood could
be seen dripping from it and moving the body a little further
over so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody."
"You've got blood coming out of her mouth," Kefauver
"A little," Gaines replied.
Gaines entered the hearing fixing for a fight, but he lost
the war for public opinion.
The subcommittee urged the comics industry to police itself,
The code banned excessive violence, gore and sexual innuendo.
The words "Horror" or "Terror" couldn't be
used in titles and zombies, vampires and werewolves were banned.
Authorities couldn't be depicted in a negative way under
the code and that good always triumphs over the will of evil.
The censorship that followed, however, almost killed the
The strict guidelines on wholesomeness, that would stand
until the industry got fed up in the 1970s and realized the First
Amendment applied to it as well, encouraged companies to shut
down rather than complying, or shrink their product lines.
Circulation went from multi-millions per month to barely
The break from the code began in Amazing Spider-Man issues
96 to 98 in 1971
which dealt with drugs. Marvel was approached by the U.S. Department
Health, Education and Welfare, to write a story about drug abuse
and ran them without the code's approval.
A similar story line appeared in Green Lantern-Green Arrow
85 and 86, about
heroin addiction during a realism movement in comic storytelling,
but it ran
with the code label.
The racier art found on comic book covers was an extension
of what came before on the covers of pulp magazines and glossies
from the 1920s and 1930s, which were periodically subject to
(Those censors, of course, would never apply the same rules
to, say, Rembrandt and his 17th Century painting of Andromeda,
who was offered up as sacrifice to Poseidon's dragon, until Perseus
saved her and killed the beastie.)
But comic artists pushed the boundaries in comic and horror
books - and in the odd science fiction title - and the forces
of wholesomeness pushed back.
During the peak
of the late 1940s and 1950s, great artists did wonderful things
with their pencils and pens.
A very short list of examples include Bill Ward with his
hot Torchy; Will Eisner with P'Gell and Sand Saref; Milt Caniff
with the Dragon Lady and Matt Baker with, oh, so many drawings
of beautiful women, including Phantom Lady.
There were companies that thrived on the damsel in distress/damsel
with a gat imagery: Fox Feature Syndicate, St. John, Fiction
House, EC, a little bit of DC (Wonder Woman was regularly seen
bound on her covers) and Quality Comics. But all companies dabbled
in the imagery to some extent.
The genre got the nickname "Good Girl Art" by comic
dealers in the 1970s.
While Wertham wanted to warn the world about the dangers
of comics, that
they contributed to juvenile delinquency, what the Seduction
of the Innocent
would do was boost the collectibility of the comics he mentioned.
Expect to pay at least a 20% premium on books mentioned in
Seduction of the Innocent. Also expect to pay a premium for Good
Girl Art, bondage covers, headlight covers and so on for books
not mentioned in SOTI.
The Overstreet Comic Price Guide does a pretty good job of
keeping track of
which books were mentioned by Wertham and, of course, prices
for these books
are often head-and-shoulders above others in the series that
Indeed, the price guide lists values for Wertham's book,
with and without the dust jacket.
Let's Talk Comics with Rob Lamberti,
who started collecting comics when the going price was 12 cents
an issue and Peter Parker really was a teenager. He dabbled in
the comic convention circuit in the Toronto area for a while,
but stopped to concentrate on his career as a not-so-mild-mannered
crime reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, where he hoped
he managed to record a little bit of history the past three decades.
You can reach Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org