The Great Comic-Book Scare

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Fahrenheit 451. Source: St. Patrick's Academy Yearbook, Vincent Hawley collection hide caption

toggle caption Source: St. Patrick's Academy Yearbook, Vincent Hawley collection

In elementary school, a contingent of classmates began to collect Marvel cards. They were vivid things, glimmering with metallic foil. Spiderman. Doctor Doom. Magneto. There were mutant men with fantastic powers and a propensity for violence. And there were mutant women with fantastic powers, a propensity for violence, and superhuman anatomy. After a while, a group of parents protested. There is no room for this in a classroom, they said. Or on the playground, they continued. It was a Montessori school, so we had a healthy debate about the cards. Are they offensive? Did they have any value? Ultimately, we decided, they would stay in our cubbies 'til recess.

In his new book, The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu writes about another comic-related scandal, admittedly of greater importance than the one I lived through. (You can see some images from his book here.)

In the 1950s, there was a nation-wide movement to censor comic books. He'll join us in the second hour, to talk about it. If you've read and collected comic books, did you ever suspect that they were censored? How important is sex and violence in a comic book? Do you think there is more sex and violence in comic books today?



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I was born in 1947 and learned to read with comic books. I remember my mother telling me I could read only Dell comics (because they had a pledge of decency. The only time I can remember running afoul of any restriction was when my mother confiscated a couple of Mad Comics.

Sent by Steven Powell | 3:14 PM | 4-24-2008

It sounds to me like parents worked themselves into as much of a frenzy over comic books back then as they are over video games now. I guess each generation has its one thing that's going to warp it forever and destroy society.

Sent by LB | 3:16 PM | 4-24-2008

Any comments on the "comic" (graphic) series the "Sandman", by Neil Gamin ?

The 50's for me simply meant "classic Comics" (parental choice).


Jacksonville, FL

Sent by Steve Kocsis | 3:16 PM | 4-24-2008

I was a lot younger than my brothers, and by the time I came around in the 60's/70's, the reason I wasn't allowed to read comics, as told to me by my mother over and over, was that the cheap printing was bad for my eyes and I'd end up needing glasses. ;-)

Sent by Pam O'Hearn | 3:16 PM | 4-24-2008

Which has caused more violence & discord? Comics or the Bible.

Sent by David | 3:18 PM | 4-24-2008

I grew up near a army reservation in the 1950s. I am not sure how my older brother acquired the war comic books, but they were quite graphic (violent). We were farm kids & our parents did not seem to mind that we had them.

Sent by Linda Hanney | 3:19 PM | 4-24-2008

Wasn't Bill Gaines, the same William Gaines who wrote for Mad Magazine? Please comment.

Sent by Mark Gainer | 3:25 PM | 4-24-2008

How did the graphic novel of Europe affect the ameican comic??

Sent by Roger Story | 3:31 PM | 4-24-2008

Censorship of comic books exist to this day. In the mid 90's a book called "boiled angle" was banned and the artist/writer was charged with indecency.

Sent by John | 3:31 PM | 4-24-2008

I am now 65. I fell in love with EC comics in about 1952. I collected Mad, Two Fisted Tales, Weird Science, and all kinds of really gory crime and Suspense books.
in the 70's I went for underground comics like Zap, Freak Brothers, etc.

Sent by Jack Buescher | 3:33 PM | 4-24-2008

How the graphic novel of Europe affect the American Comic.

Sent by Roger D Story | 3:34 PM | 4-24-2008

As a mother of boys, I suspect that the depictions of women may have disgusted many mothers. Mothers often are left to sort out the day-to-day discipline and morality in the household. I don't want my boys to grow up to be sexists and discourage all media that is sexist and racist.

Sent by gerry | 3:36 PM | 4-24-2008

I went to school in Darjeeling, India. We were not allowed to read American comics because of its slang which would be detrimental to our English. However, we were highly encouraged to read a series called "Classics Illustrated". This comics covered (in the Queens English), classics such as Around the World in 80 Days, Kim, Red Badge of Courage, A Tale of Two Cities, Food of the Gods, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It was great because it helped us catch up with high works of literature that we could have missed

Sent by Hemant Lama | 3:37 PM | 4-24-2008

A few years back, while cleaning out the attic, I found a bag of small blac& white comics showing well known comic figures of the time engaging in graphic sexual behavior. I found out these are called "Tijuana Bibles",and are prewar..I'm sure parents were not real eager to find these in their kids; room!

Sent by Michael Rosenbaum | 3:37 PM | 4-24-2008

I'd like to ask Neil Conan how he felt about being included in an X-Men series about 20 years ago, now. In the comic, he was interviewing a character called Longshot and asked him if he was scared to be there. Longshot turned the question back at Neil, to which Neil replied, "It scares me silly, but I'm a professional."

Sent by Paul | 3:38 PM | 4-24-2008

I'm a 72 year old woman, grew up with comics, and am sure they helped to make me the avid reader I am today. My grandchildren know how much I liked Wonder Woman and delight in giving me various Wonder Woman items, up to and including a silk robe with the WW logo on the back. I love it!

Sent by Patricia | 3:40 PM | 4-24-2008

Well, the segment on comics just finished. I didn't realize that _Mad_ survived on the technicality of being a magazine. I guess that a magazine is not within this discussion, but I was disappointed that no mention was made of the issue that put _Mad_ on the map, the one disguised as a school notebook. I am just old enough to remember the excitement this caused among all children. The ingenuity! The audacity!

Sent by Lloyd | 3:48 PM | 4-24-2008

A lot of people who are ignorant about comic books and the community as a whole tend to stigmatize folks who are into comic books as timid, non-social, out-of-shape, escapist losers (ironically, a very opposite image from when "the scare" started); however, if anyone ever has any doubts about the power and validity of the comic book, you need only look as far as American Splendor by Harvey Pekar to see that these are thinking, feeling and breathing human beings who... live. I myself am not a comic book collector, but have many a friend who does and I think it's very unfair to stigmatize another person for their hobby or passion.

- James

Sent by James Downing | 3:52 PM | 4-24-2008

I was born in 1943 and this was the only way I learned to read at a very early age. My favorites were the Classic Collection, where I was able to read about the works that developed an early love for good reading. As a result of those "Comic Books" I was able to get a Masters degree and some work toward my Doctorate. Not to mention I am a novalist as well, a research writer among scholars. Many of the Comic Books I had saved were the Romance Comic Books.

Great Topic. Thank you!

Sent by Bill Osborne | 3:58 PM | 4-24-2008

I started reading comics thanks to my older brother and our mutual fascination with the Sunday Funnies and even the editorial cartoons in our local newspaper. Even at a very young age, the editorial cartoons inspired my endless curiosity & imagination to read the rest of the paper that gave the cartoon context. I thank those cartoons and piles of comic books to much of my early interest in politics. The Truth (if you can call journalism - Truth?) is much stranger and much more violent then fiction.

Sent by Jeremy | 4:04 PM | 4-24-2008

For Mark Gainer: Bill Gaines was the publisher of EC Comics, which published Mad Magazine as well as many of the horror and crime comics singled out for persecution in the early 1950s. His father, Max Gaines, was responible for devising and printing the first 4-color, 10 cent comic book back in 1933.

Sent by Danny Green | 4:44 PM | 4-24-2008

Mr Hajdu's book promises to be a mandatory read for anyone interested in the evolution of American culture, regardless of their interest in or knowledge of comic books and the history of the comix industry. As a participant on the periphery of that industry, I have, over the years, come to conclude that the self-serving grandstanding of Wertham (not a real psychiatrist, only a self-proclaimed one) was the most important, most reprehensible, centrally pivotal element in transforming the adult perception of American children and teenagers. Well into the post-War years, kids were viewed (as they always had been) benignly, as somewhat comical, slightly bumbling, well-intentioned little people clambering toward adulthood, occasionally mischievous perhaps but as innocent as pop-culture icons like Andy Hardy and Nancy Drew. Then came Wertham and the "Great Comics Scare" and all that went along with it, and within just a few years kids were now viewed with concern, suspicion, even fear, every one of them a potential juvenile delinquent, a potential communist, a nascent viper in America's bosom, the troubled and troubling figures soon seen in "Rebel Without a Cause" and a thousand imitators. If such a thing as the "generation gap" exists or ever existed, it was Wertham and his alarmist adherents in the government and the news media that drove the wedge which created it.

Sent by Butch | 7:23 PM | 4-24-2008

Censorship often goes along with fear, ignorance and control. To what extent do you feel that the McCarthy era contributed to the comic book scare?

Sent by Robert Greene | 1:20 AM | 4-25-2008

It hasn't stopped. Bob Larson, a televangelist targets comics regularly still as prepackaged immorality. I have personally witnessed him on his show rail against imagination as well. And now its gone in the other direction. Chick Tracts!

Sent by sundog | 2:03 PM | 4-25-2008

Interesting article. However this isn't an issue comic book readers/collectors need be defensive over-- it's about managing what comes in and swims around in our culture. I don't believe it's cynical to say that the majority of our society is made up of unwholesome people, or at least those who can not generally be described as having inscrutable characters. As such society as whole will always pull toward a degree of depravity/lewdness.

What I find fascinating is that we were possibly on the verge of the culture of today back in the 30's-50's, before the hays code and this policing of comics-- and were able to defeat the upsurge. Conversely it's rather impossible today, with the internet subverting all authority. Back then you had to only stop printing the stuff and it became a memory. Now that the floodgates are open so to speak, parents and community/social leaders have the tall order of reinstating an ethical standard among future generations-- because no doubt the content in today's media has an effect, and not in the least is it exclusive to children.

Sent by John Robinson | 5:09 PM | 4-26-2008

No one has addressed the Tijuana Bibles. That could have significantly added to the fervent dislike of comics in that period of time, due to their pornographic nature. And the artists that created these little tracts, used or copied well known comic characters like Flash Gordon, Mutt and Jeff, etc.,

To a person who didn't read comics at the time, would they have distinguished between graphic novels and Tijuana bibles? Because the latter would make a convenient excuse to ban and burn them all.

Sent by sundog | 8:26 AM | 4-27-2008

I really appreciate david Hadjus interview, It helps explain the fear my father had that he would be discovered by friends or coworkers as one of those evil men who created a comic book character.

Sent by Spencer Nodell | 6:40 PM | 4-27-2008

I found it a bit dismaying that the author of the book was sympathetic to some of the people who were so reactionary about comics; he seemed to be saying that they had a point, and that the more graphic and violent type of comic didn't deserve to exist. That only 'good' comics like Super-boy have or had any merit, and that they had to hit you over the head with a moral lesson. As others have doubtlessly said, every generation seems to have this kind of feeling about something the kids below them enjoy that's terrible and horribly detrimental; that they simply don't understand.

Today I think it's definitely video games. The author himself seemed to be saying that the kind of worry evidenced in his book about comics in the fifties was warranted, in a smaller way, about video games like Grand Theft Auto. I love video games, not necessarily Grand Theft Auto in particular, but I don't doubt for a second that the man hasn't played the game for a second and would consider it beneath him. Although judging it harshly and being frightened of some kind of complications that could possibly arise is apparently not.

I think that stories don't always have to have a moral lesson or teach respect for authority; and I don't think that having the main character be a criminal or a malcontent is necessarily a bad thing either.

Sent by Daniel Miller | 7:18 AM | 4-28-2008

When I was a kid, the local candy (and newspaper) store had a really wide selection of comics on all kinds of topics. The comic wars were really culture wars about who was to control what influenced people, in this case, kids. There is a fear of uncensored thought in this country. The fear has been around for generations. You can even see the founding of this nation by groups like the Puritans as a attempt to control thought.

Sent by Bernard Sypniewski | 4:00 PM | 4-29-2008

Sorry I missed this segment; I am a regular listener to TOTN. One of my early childhood memories was of my father, a WW2 veteran and freshly-minted PhD in psychology, studying this issue and testifying before Congress on behalf of the American Psychological Association. There seemed to be a McCarthyist edge to the investigation, but it also blew over as quickly as it cropped up...

Sent by Carl Rush | 1:09 AM | 5-8-2008

This sounds like a fascinating book, and it's interesting to see how many (or few?) female readers have made comments. I read comics that my brother read (primarily DC until he moved on to Marvel and then subscribed to Eerie and Creepy (where I read wonderful graphic versions of Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado". I'll never forget reading these wonderful comic versions of classic stories!

Sent by Roseann | 11:11 PM | 8-30-2008

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