Article / 13 April 2021

The Historical Battle of Censorship in Comics

By Rohit C. 

The Controversy

Comics like we see today faced their darkest hours in the early 1950s in the Land of Liberty, USA when they were banned and censored. It’d be hard to imagine in today’s modern digital world that a popular and affordable medium of entertainment like comics could get banned in the first place. The controversy was based essentially on a perennial question that is still debated in some circles owing to the presence of social activists: what is good and bad content in entertainment produced for a young audience?

In the early part of the 20th-century, comics were the most popular form of entertainment in American culture. It all started with one-strip cartoons in the newspapers that quickly turned into full-fledged comic books. The early success of Superman comics led to the break-neck growth of the comics industry. It was a booming time for the comics industry with many small-time publishers pushing the envelope hard, bringing out hundreds of comic characters that were radical, and popular in demand comics were printed day and night.

While the popularity of comics was at an all-time high, there were only scattered issues about the way comics were spreading moral depravity. Most of the comics had a storyline around crime, ghosts and ghouls, aliens, and pulpy romance.  Notably, EC Comics, started by Bill Gaines, was famous for Crime Does Not Pay, a comic that published gory tales that blurred the line between good and evil.

Moral crusaders of that era asserted that comics were responsible for corrupting the minds of youth, making them criminals. Concerned parents around the country voiced their opinions in local newspapers about how comics were destroying the moral fabric of society. Widespread public criticism spread like fire in town meetings and popular magazines which led to public burnings of comic books! The final nail in the coffin was hammered in 1954 by psychologist Frederic Wertham who authored a book called “Seduction of the Innocent.” The central argument of his book was that the violence depicted in comics incited youth to commit more crimes and that banning comics would drastically decrease rates of youth criminality. Paranoia gripped the American people, leading to a large-scale boycott of comics. Even the US government was in action, debating what should be acceptable content in the comics. The Senate hearings terrified the entire comics industry. Many in the comics industry lost their jobs. Crime, horror-themed comics disappeared. Wertham’s claims prompted brutal censorship and brought disgrace to comics.

The Code of Conformity

To save face, the surviving comic book publishers, acting as the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers, founded an organization together called the Comics Code Authority and came up with a Comic code that would pacify the public anger. It included:    

  • A  crackdown on "sexy" images; no nude images

  • Criminals should always be bad and never triumph over good. Comics should make it clear that they should not be imitated.

  • Authority  figures (cops, government officials, organizations) should be respected.

  • A ban on torture.

  • Werewolves, zombies, vampires, and ghouls couldn't be used.

  • Entreaties against slang and "vulgar" language.

  • To respect the sanctity of family (i.e., no divorce or gay people).

  • A ban on comics dealing with racial and religious prejudice. 

If a comic were in conformance with code guidelines, it would receive a seal of approval. Distributors only wanted to carry comics with the Comics Code seal. The result was a highly toned-down version of comics. 

With time, CCA’s regulations became irrelevant. The comic industry evolved so that it could survive. Independent publishing became easier, people wanted to write interesting stuff, and direct selling to Comic shops became the new norm of comics marketing, largely driven by financial considerations. In the 2000s, large publishers stopped seeking CCA approval; it was out-dated!

Today, the comics industry is changing at a rapid pace. With the emergence of Digital comics and Motion comics, we are seeing comics being imagined and delivered in a format that would have been banned by the Comics Code.