Boomers and the Comics Code Authority

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?

The First Televised Presidential Debate was Broadcast In Our Boomer Years

As we often say here at misterboomer.com, the Boomer Generation years were historic ones not only for boomers, but for the entire world. This week we will elect a president, and the recent televised debates may play a role in the election of that president. Yet many boomers will recall that the very first televised presidential debate aired in the days of our youth.

It was 1960. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was finishing his second term, and his Vice President, Richard Nixon, was the Republican candidate put forward to take his place. The Cold War was getting colder by the day and, adding to the chill, the Soviets achieved the first victories in the Space Race. Change was in the air with many social issues, as the American public was looking at civil rights, the future of Social Security and, fresh off a multi-year military engagement in Korea, the possibility loomed large for U.S. involvement in a little-known land called Vietnam. In short, the country was looking for a strong leader to navigate the changing times.

The Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy, the then one-term U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, as their candidate. It was a long and bitterly fought campaign, and heading into September, Nixon held a slight lead in national polls. The two parties agreed on four televised debates, the first of which aired on September 26, 1960.

It is estimated that 88% of U.S. households had televisions in 1960, and more than 70 million tuned in to the debate. By all accounts, the 43-year old Senator looked tanned and confident in front of the TV cameras. By contrast, Nixon appeared pale and sweaty. He had recently experienced a hospital stay after injuring his knee on a campaign stop in North Carolina. After losing 20 pounds, he looked sickly and frail. To make his appearance matters worse, Nixon chose to wear a light gray suit which helped him to blend into the debate stage’s background on black & white TV, while Kennedy’s dark suit offered a higher contrast against the neutral backdrop. Both candidates had refused makeup, but under the hot television lights, Nixon began to sweat profusely. As the debate continued, beads of sweat were visible in the TV close-ups.

Mister Boomer remembers watching that debate with his family. As usual for boomers, there was one black & white TV permanently stationed in the living room, so TV viewing was always a family affair. He remembers writing in a school journal that week how the sweat beaded up on Nixon’s upper lip. Being a decade away from voting age, Mister B was hardly up on the issues of the day, but he knew what he saw: Kennedy answered forcefully and directly into the camera, while Nixon fumbled his speech and his eyes strayed left and right. Some say Nixon’s side glances and appearance are what gave him the nickname, “Tricky Dick,” which came back to haunt him years later during Vietnam protests while he was president.

Before 1960 television was mainly thought of as an entertainment medium. The late 1950s brought about the concept that television could be used as an educational medium for children and now, with national candidates debating on live TV, it was becoming a place for serious political discourse.

While the November election saw Kennedy win by only a slight popular vote of less than one percent, he had a substantial Electoral College victory. A week later, Kennedy himself said it was the TV that helped him “turn the tide.” Some historians say it was the success of the debate that gave President Kennedy the confidence to reject the advice of his Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962. They had recommended military action against the Soviets. Instead, Kennedy took to the airwaves to plead his case to the world, and set up the now-famous naval “quarantine” that led to a mutually satisfactory diplomatic solution.

The prospect of facing the cameras was so daunting for Lyndon Johnson that he refused to participate in televised debates with Barry Goldwater in 1964. Nixon, the Republican nominee in 1968 and 1972, was still stinging from his first TV debate appearance and followed Johnson’s lead in refusing to accept the TV invitation. Consequently, the next televised debates would not appear until 1976, when President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Governor Jimmy Carter. Televised debates have been a part of every presidential campaign since.

Before the historic Kennedy-Nixon debate, most Americans only saw their candidates in photos and read about them in newspapers and magazines. These first televised debates changed that forever. Even though Nixon was said to recover from his first appearance in subsequent debates, in 1960 the damage had been done with the American public. From that point on, how a candidate looked, sounded and behaved on TV played an important role in the election of our presidents… and we boomers had a front-row seat.

What do you remember about the Kennedy-Nixon debates, boomers?