by Skylar Epstein
In his 2001 novel, Comic Book Nation, Bradford W. Wright posits that there are intellectual pitfalls in analyzing a medium like comic books too deeply. Why? Because they’re just for fun. Comic books are entertainment for kids and teenagers, so the argument goes that attempting to apply the same methods of analysis to comics as we would apply to a classic, much-revered novel is misguided at best and futile at worst. I disagree with this kind of thinking because, in my opinion, comics are, and have been, incredibly successful barometers for the specific social and political climate they were published in. Even in the 1920s, when American comics still took the form of short strips, sandwiched between the sports and lifestyle sections of newspapers, comics marched to the beat of the American sociocultural climate and reflected the issues that people faced in their own lives. And, because they could be published quickly and were serialized weekly, comics were able to reflect changes to those issues in real time. Comics, because of their unique relationship to popular culture and their storied history with censorship, are both reflections of the sociopolitical climates they were produced in, and are manipulated reflections of history.
Analyzing the history of comics and their publication norms allows us to consider both the reality of American history and its self-idealization. Comics are always a push and pull between what individual comic book readers can personally relate to and how the general public will accept being represented. To illustrate the importance of relatability, we can look at how Shazam comics outsold Superman comics in the 50s since kids related more personally with Billy Batson, a young boy, than they could with Clark Kent. In turn, the impact of reputation and the American self-image can be seen through the Superman comics. They became controversial for adult readers when the villains condemned government corruption (76-80) too strongly during wartime since readers didn’t want to introduce any more instability into the foundational American system during times of crisis—even on a fictional stage. Thinking about this pressure between accurate representation and idealized imagery is especially important when one attempts to fully understand American culture in the moments it was challenged, like during the Great Depression and the Cold War.
However, this subversive, counterculture trend for comic strip protagonists didn’t last forever, and newspapers moved to depicting more “mainstream” upper middle class families.
Comics, as we all know, are easy reading. Comics made their first appearances in the early 1900s, and were mainly published in newspapers. The plots of comic strips are generally pretty simple, and are made even easier to follow by the bright visuals and onomatopoeia-d sound effects. The characters in comics speak like people; they use slang, make weird noises, and generally don’t mince their words. All of these factors working together means that the “funnies” section of the newspaper was accessible to a whole different type of audience—those with limited reading or language abilities. Since comics followed the money, newspapers realized that publishing comics gained them access to people who didn’t necessarily read the papers for the articles—such as the growing immigrant population in the United States, who generally spoke limited English. As more immigrants bought newspapers and read the comics, more comics tailored their content to their new readers. This meant that there was a point in time when comics embraced a truly multicultural attitude, and sympathized with the disenfranchisement that immigrants felt by portraying protagonists who struggled with the same authorities, like police and factory bosses. In this way, the “gutter art” (Weisner’s term for comics) embraced the margins. However, this subversive, counterculture trend for comic strip protagonists didn’t last forever, and newspapers moved to depicting more “mainstream” upper middle class families as the comic strips began gaining more attention from middle class audiences.
Though the earliest comics were generally for the laughs (even the ones with the ‘family values’ undertones), the stories told in comic strips began to evolve. By the 1910s and 1920s, serialized comic strips were beginning to dabble in new, more complex, genres. The most common genres of these newer, longform serialized comics were action, adventure, and fantasy. It’s no surprise that the notorious “to be continued” cliffhanger made its debut in these pulpy action strips. Although there were fledging examples of comic strips delving into action and adventure in the 1910s (most notably, from creator C.W. Kahles who started blending humor and adventure in his 1901 comic strip, The Perils of Submarine Boating), action and adventure comics really grew legs after the 1930s, during the Great Depression. It is during this era that we finally begin to see superheroes popping up in comics. Intuitively, the rise of superheroes during the Great Depression makes sense, because superheroes could physically fight the issues of the times in ways the average citizen couldn’t. Batman could fistfight petty muggers who represented the spike in violent crime that followed the sweeping unemployment—and win. An earlier example of this phenomenon was a character called Captain Easy, who was originally a supporting character in Wash Tubbs (1924). By 1933, Captain Easy had his own solo strip, where he grappled with a dangerous world using his experience as a WWI veteran to solve crimes as a detective. The themes of Captain Easy are right there on the surface—the name Captain Easy is simple, evocative and effective—and gently guiding the characters of Wash Tubbs to exciting, yet simple solutions for their struggles told readers that life could be easy within the confines of his weekly comic strips. By the time that companies like DC began publishing comics as the books and issues that we’re familiar with now, the language, style, and general themes of comics had already been founded by newspaper strips like Captain Easy.
With their independent publishing houses established and their target demographic clarified, the first few publications that rolled out were really the Cambrian explosion of the comics industry.
Comic book publishers relied on the genre foundations and visual language that the newspaper funnies had developed but the comic industry found a new freedom outside the constraints of newspapers. The main publishing houses (which included the companies that would later become Marvel and Detective Comics) began publishing comics as books and issues in the 1930s, beginning what many call the Golden Age of comics. The impact of these first few years can’t be overstated. The ability to publish comics outside of the restrictions of a newspaper transformed comics into their own independent industry. Now, instead of having to tailor their comics to the adults in the household who purchased and read the newspapers, the comic book publishers could hone in on specific audiences, which allowed them to publish more niche content than would be accepted by a broad reader base. The marketing for comic books targeted young people specifically, and became fantastically popular with kids and teenagers. Some of this popularity can be explained by the targeted marketing, but the simplicity and the vibrancy of the stories told, alongside the ten cent price tag of comics, contributed to the youthful slant of the average comic book reader. With their independent publishing houses established and their target demographic clarified, the first few publications that rolled out were really the cambrian explosion of the comics industry. Once Superman rolled onto the scene in 1938, other heroes kept flying in, and superhero comics became smashingly popular.
Comics have always flowed with the tide of popular culture, but this was especially apparent during war. In the second World War, just after the Golden Age of comics began, comic books were used as propaganda in order to recruit young men into the army. To accomplish this, comic book publishers joined forces with the US government and the Writers’ War Board (WWB), a quasi-governmental agency created by the Office of War Information (OWI). Under this partnership, comic books that told the story of “the glorious victory of the US over the Nazis” were published, and the American way of life was exalted over all others. As an example, the cover page of an issue titled “This Is Our Enemy” showed the founding members of the Justice League staring in horror as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, riding underneath a Nazi banner, lay waste to a city.
During the 30s and 40s, heroes were essentially inspirational patriots. In the words of the Human Torch, “America is not in danger… It’s still the land of the free!” Comics rallied support for the American war effort, laying out the path from conscription to heroism in technicolor yellow bricks. In 1943, approximately twenty-five million comic books were sold per month, earning the industry thirty million dollars in the course of the year. However, despite their fantastic commercial success, comics books eventually ran into the same issue that their newspaper strip predecessors did as critics entered the comic book scene with grave concerns about the state of our nations’ literacy. One journalist wrote, “These comics may be leading back to the drawings of the caveman, reducing our vocabulary to monosyllables such as ‘Oof!’ and ‘Zowie!’” This time around, the critics meant business.
The Comics Code of Authority heralded the end of the Golden Age of comics, and permanently changed the rules of engagement between comic book publishers, readers, and characters.
There were two major policies meant to restrict the content of comics, both following major spikes in comic book popularity and in public criticism: the Editorial Board of 1941 and the The Comics Code of 1954. The general goal for both of these policies was oversight. Comic publishers wanted to assure parents that comics weren’t actually harming their kids in order to keep up sales. The Editorial Board of 1941 was established by the National Periodical Publication, and consisted of a board of experts in the fields of child psychology, development, and welfare. This board was tasked with making sure that comics were up to par with what they would consider “wholesome entertainment” for a growing mind. In 1956, the board was dissolved in favor of the much stricter Comics Code of Authority.
The Comics Code of Authority (CCA) is the most notorious comic book regulation in history. It heralded the end of the Golden Age of comics, and permanently changed the rules of engagement between comic book publishers, readers, and characters. The CCA’s reported goal was to see to it that “gains made in this medium are not lost and that violations of standards of good taste, which might tend toward corruption of the comic book as an instructive and wholesome form of entertainment, will be eliminated.” It took the form of a list of dos and don’ts for comic creators, and set the standard for what could be published. The comics industry had faced pressure from concerned parents and weathered countless storms of moral panics. The critics argued that comics were degrading to good family morals, and that they were leading youths into crime. The conclusion of this argument was that youth crime would only be slowed down if comic books were cancelled. The CCA, and its conservative, anticrime emphasis, was a last ditch effort to save the comic book from extinction, even if it meant bowing to the pressure of the critics. Basically, the CCA was a bulleted list of what comics could and could not show, covering depictions of horror, crime, religion, marriage, and the police. As such, the CCA crystallized into a plain list of what we expected from our heroes, and what values we were allowed to buy and sell. In fact, the common truism that “the good guy always wins,” was a rule in the original CCA document, which stated that in every case, good must always triumph over evil. The Comics Code of Authority ruled over comics until 2011, when it was finally dropped by the last of the major publishing houses.
The persistence of the Comics Code of Authority was originally powered by two things; the looming shadow of the Cold War and moral panic over the state of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. During the Cold War in the 1950s, superheroes were pressured to perform the same heroically American acts as they had in WWII in order to show a united homefront against the Soviet Union. In the comics, the Justice Society started teaming up with the government, extolling the ingenuity and efficacy of the system. As Hawkman says, “It’s amazing what our government can do once it gets started, isn’t it, Green Lantern?” This idealism was certainly a message to foreign nations, since comics were still popular in international markets after their initial dissemination through Allied soldiers during the second World War. With the rising tensions of the Cold War, the CCA had a vested interest in cleaning up America’s international image. The CCA wanted comics to present “America as a place where good would always win, and the government would eradicate evil. Thus, the American system, as opposed to a communist one, worked because its citizens lived safely and happily.”
Censorship continually defined the comics genre, and we still feel the ramifications of that peculiar anxiety today.
But while comics were busy advertising good American values abroad, they were facing criticism for not adhering to those same values at home. The domestic arguments for censoring comics originated from the idea that comics were corrupting the delicate minds of American youth and transforming them into anarcho-communists. The American nuclear family, the authority of the state, the peace and stability of American institutions and the children who would join their ranks, needed to be defended on every front. The Comics Code Authority forbade publishers to reveal “cracks in the facade” and encouraged them to uphold the sanctity of the American family. Before its appearance on the scene, comics faced intense scrutiny for their content. Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a novel written by psychiatrist Frank Wertham, suggests that comic books were contributing to juvenile delinquency and that the link was so strong that the moral imperative for America was to ban comic books. Stan Lee actually commented on Wertham’s conclusion that most of the kids in reform schools read comic books, stating that “if you do another survey, you’ll find that most of the kids drink milk, too. Should we ban milk?” Of course, Seduction of the Innocent was mostly bogus, filled with wild leaps of logic (some arguments including that Superman was a subliminal Nazi symbol because of the S on his chest), and blatant misreadings of the comic books Wertham used as sources. One such conclusion was that Batman and Robin are actually a gay couple, even though the text explictly outlines a familial dynamic between the two. My personal favorite Werthamism is that Blue Beetle is a “Kafkaesque nightmare.” But despite the ridiculousness that is apparent to a modern audience, the punches that Wertham threw towards the comic book industry landed, and the study went all the way up to the Senate floor.
The Comics Code of Authority lost some of its cultural force as time passed, and the general climate towards literature became less conservative, so that by the 1970s and 80s, comic heroes were able to regain some of their complexity and the plotlines didn’t have to walk the line of the stars and stripes. Censorship continually defined the comics genre, and we still feel the ramifications of that peculiar anxiety today. Analyzing comics in context comes down to thinking about changes. When considering comics’ relationship with children’s literature and censorship, a generational struggle unfolds. From the international political perspective, comics represented anxiety-ridden efforts to appear supreme against nations with different ideologies. Far from being simple, hokey, “fluff” reading, comics are rich with analytic potential, and are vital archives of American fears and hopes throughout the last century. But aside from that, comics are also worth studying because of what they weren’t allowed to say. The comic industry has been struggling against censorship since the very first comic strips were published. Knowledge of this censorship is just as important in understanding comics as their actual content is, because it reveals the complex web of social validation and rejection in American life. Comics have a lot to tell us about our own history—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the propagandizing—and we shouldn’t ignore the messages in comic books just because they’re enclosed in speech bubbles.