Comics have always been a staple of American culture for as long as anyone can remember. Loved by adults and kids alike, these imaginative page-turners allow us to dream of alternative realities in a host of different ways. But there was a time in history when the world of comics was demonized so much so that some people thought the entire industry would collapse into oblivion, never embraced again.
The Origins and Why it Happened
Back in the 1930s when comics were starting out, they were quite popular as it was the first time society came face-to-face with superheroes and sci-fi quests.
So much so at one point, they were selling 80-100 million copies a week. To put that into perspective, the U.S. population at that time was around 132 million people. In fact, comic books reached as many people as radio, TV shows and movies combined.
Superman, created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster in 1938, was one character that helped usher in the golden age of superheroes.
It was also a time when war between significant superpowers was developing. But by the end of WWII, people were fatigued by the superhero narrative and turned to a different kind of comic book, one full of romance, horror, mystery and crime.
However, some people weren’t happy with all the tawdriness and violence. Church groups and police groups had enough of them. These new types of comic books were full of excessive force and brutality, among them a renowned comic book publisher William Gaines who introduced a new kind of comics to the public such as celebrated titles Tales from The Crypt and The Vault of Horror. His work was mainly blamed for its anti-authoritarian tone and insistence on pushing rebellious attitudes.
At the time, local officials and governments tried to pass laws banning comics as they thought it was influencing a wave of crime in major cities. There were even anti-comic group gatherings together to burn comics throughout America in the 1940s, introducing a wave of moral panic.
But as one decade crept into the next, comics rolled on in popularity.
At around the same time, a classically-trained psychiatrist Frederic Wertham became famous for espousing his correlation between comic books and their negative influence on juvenile culture. He wanted to ban comics altogether; he thought they were a bad influence. He even wrote a book called “Seduction of the Innocent,” which was a best seller in 1954.
The U.S. Senate was so influenced by this book that they started a subcommittee investigating the links between juvenile delinquency and comic book culture. Hearings began in the spring of 1954, and of course, both Wertham and Gaines testified.
After the testimonies, reform followed in 1954, introducing legislation called the Comic Code Authority. Much like the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system we have today, back then, it was super strict, vetting every comic book. If a comic book was deemed too raunchy or violent, it was pulled from the shelves. The comic book industry was reduced to a G-rated culture, clean enough for young kids to read.
For a couple of years, half of the comics you saw up until the ban were wiped from the shelves. The Comic Code Authority was in place for decades; in fact, up until 2011, if you can believe it. The rise of TV watching at the time also contributed to comics being wiped nearly from American culture.
By the time the code was eliminated, the damage was done. Comics were forever associated with juveniles and rubbed out of the adult life where it was once very popular.
The fight to clean up content has always been an issue; it happened to video games, music and now, the internet. But the influence comic book culture from the 1950s has over pop culture today is unmistakable.
The stories of superheroes running around fighting crime, cleaning up cities form the basis almost of an entire Hollywood resurgence, which we’ve seen.
At the box office, they generate hundreds of billions of dollars for Hollywood studio films like ANT-MAN or THOR. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many different markets utilize comic book characters to no end, whether it’s in the slots world, merchandise and apparel market or even at the famous Comic-Con conventions around the globe.
What happened to Robert Gaines?
Well, it looks as if he would have the last laugh. After he was pushed out of the industry, in 1952, he went on to form one of the most popular comic books of all time, MAD magazine. Gaines was one of the most prominent and influential publishers of comic books culture today, and if it wasn’t for him, who knows where comic books culture would be. He remains up there with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.