You might say comic book characters are back with a vengeance these days, with TV shows and movies topping the popular charts. Comic book characters are nothing new to Baby Boomers, of course — we grew up with them. The world of comic characters expanded mightily during the 1950s and ’60s, and publishers found a receptive audience in boomers.
Boomers loved their comics so much that it got some adults worried about what effect these “books” would have on their children. It was the early 1950s, and horror and crime comics were popular. In the 1930s and pre-War ’40s, adults had been the primary buyers of comic books, though comics were also aimed at the children’s market, especially superhero and crime fighting titles. Educators became the first group to object to children reading comics, followed by church leaders. After the War and into the Baby Boom, children were the top consumers of these colorful narratives. Parents voiced concerns over the graphic violence, gore and sexual innuendo in some comics, which led to public comic book burnings in some areas, and even a ban on horror and crime comics in Oklahoma City and Houston.
In 1948, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham began speaking and writing about the negative effects, according to his research, that comic books were having on children. In 1954, Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, was published. Wertham wrote that comic books were a cause of juvenile delinquency. He argued that reading comics about violence, crime gangs, murder, drug use and sex influenced young minds toward this type of behavior. His book was not only taken seriously, it helped galvanize the growing parental opposition. Wertham did not exclude the expanding pantheon of superhero characters in his critique: he labelled Wonder Woman a lesbian with bondage tendencies, Batman and Robin as gay partners, Superman as un-American and stated there were hidden drawings of nudity on many comic book pages.
The publishing of his book led to Wertham being called before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver, the Subcommittee decided to begin its investigation of mass media with comic books specifically. Hearings were held in April and June of 1954. Wertham testified in accordance with his findings, that comic books were a major cause of juvenile crime, and therefore he believed they should not be sold to children. It was only recently revealed that Wertham’s research was seriously flawed; he had falsified some of his findings and exaggerated his sample size. In other words, his conclusions did not measure up to scientific research standards.
Meanwhile, back in 1954, The Senate Subcommittee ultimately did not blame juvenile delinquency and crime on comic books, but did recommend that the publishing industry tone it down. The industry, believing it was on the verge of being censored by the government, established the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in October of 1954 to self-regulate its content. The Code set guidelines, prohibited some depictions, and warranted that good always had to triumph over evil. Evildoers, then, would always be punished. Membership and compliance was voluntary, but failure to comply could mean losing distribution deals.
Among the things the CCA prohibited:
- Ghouls, vampires, werewolves and zombies.
- Seduction, rape, sadism and masochism and illicit sexual relations, as well as vulgarity.
- Excessive violence.
- Kidnapping and concealed weapons.
In addition, the Code set restrictions on:
- Depictions of people in a position of authority (police, government officials, judges, etc.). They could not be portrayed in a manner that would be disrespectful to their office.
- Love and romance. It could only be portrayed in the context of the sanctity of marriage.
- limiting the use of crime and terror in titles.
- Exaggeration of character body attributes.
- Grammar and slang.
For the most part, this self-imposed code worked throughout the boomer era. Comic publishers voluntarily submitted their comics to the CCA for their approval. In most instances, changes were required in both drawings and story. If a comic followed the guidelines of the CCA. it could display the CCA Stamp of Approval — a logo made to look like a stamp — on its cover. By displaying the CCA logo, publishers were reassuring parents that their comics complied with industry standards, so were “safe” for their children.
In response to the CCA, the 1960s saw the growth of underground comics by independent publishers. They were designed to be the very antithesis of CCA-approved comics. Most boomers recall seeing them in their “countercultural” days. Mister Boomer remembers reading Zippy the Pinhead (1970), Mr. Natural (1970) and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers (1971) in high school and college.
Marvel was the first major company to defy the CCA in 1970, with a drug story in a Spider-Man comic. By 1971, some of the code had been relaxed, and the ban on horror comics was lifted. By the late ’70’s and early ’80s, only four companies still complied with the CCA: Archie, Marvel, Harvey, and DC. Direct market distribution deals at that time helped to render the Code meaningless, as comics were no longer controlled by distributors who demanded compliance.
Marvel decided to drop out of submitting to the CCA in 2001. In 2011, only two companies remained, and when DC announced they were dropping the seal in 2011, Archie followed, marking the end of the era.
Comic books were actually even more popular before the Boomer Generation. Television was considered a prime factor in reduced readership, though the injection of new superheroes beginning in the 1950s through the 1970s gave the industry a boost that propelled them to the stratospheric success they have today. For this reason, it is often called the Silver Age of Comics.
Mister Boomer loved almost all comics, but didn’t know a thing about the Comics Code Authority. If his parents were ever concerned about what he was reading, they never voiced it to him. Mister B had a real affinity for the sci-fi and superhero titles of the late 1950s and early ’60s. The Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman and Tales to Astonish were among his favorites, though he also read older Donald Duck, Casper and Richie Rich titles. Brother Boomer stuck with superheroes, but Sister Boomer liked Archie, so there were a few of those around the house.
Mister B’s real love of comics came by way of a treasure trove that was given to him and his siblings around 1960. A family friend’s son had turned 18, and moved out of the house. His mom decided it was time to clear out his comic collection, so the Boomer children became the recipients of more than one hundred titles, among them many Silver Age classics. It was to be a short-lived windfall, as a couple of years later, a spring flood in Mister Boomer’s area destroyed them all.
These days, Mister B doesn’t read any comics outside of the newspaper, but he enjoys the current crop of superhero movies and TV shows. How about you, boomers? What role did comics play in your literary life?