The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
The nation recoiled at an “epidemic” of juvenile crime. Politicians, public health experts, pundits and parents agreed on the root cause of senseless violence by teens and young men: impressionable youth, glued to violent images, who lashed out at innocent victims.
Films, such as “The Wild One” (1953), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “Blackboard Jungle” (1955), starring heartthrobs James Dean, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood and Sidney Poitier, spoke to these anxieties.
As Congress pondered federal intervention, numerous cities and states passed laws forbidding the sale and permitting the seizure of offensive materials. Sound familiar? But these events occurred in the placid 1950s and the offending media were comic books, not video games. The now mostly forgotten “great comic book scare” of 1954 foreshadowed recent debates over the cause and proper response to mass killings.
In the early 1950s, with TV still in its infancy, American youth purchased nearly 100 million comic books per month. Typically, several friends shared a single title. Starting in the late-1930s, heroic characters, such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, dominated sales. But in the wake of World War II, a new genre emerged. With titles like “Menace,” “Tales from the Crypt” and “Tomb of Horror,” their gory, lurid illustrations and cynical stories left little to the adolescent imagination. Superman still crusaded for justice, but he competed for attention and sales with mad slashers, zombies and vampires.
Adult concern with juvenile crime increased more dramatically than crime itself. The baby boom that began in 1944 accelerated over the next decade, producing many more children than had been born during the bleak Depression and early war years. As compared to the pre-war years, many more teens attended high school, delayed entering the job market, and lived at home. This naturally increased parent-child friction.
Comics, more than films or TV, were inexpensive, easily purchased at still ubiquitous candy stores and newsstands, and a mark of youthful independence. Parents and other authority figures blamed them for a range of delinquent behaviors, from car thefts, to drug use and gang membership, to murder.
The backlash began in the late 1940s when a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, published an article whose title, “The Horror in the Nursery,” mimicked the comics he detested. By the time he released his evocatively titled 1954 best seller, “Seduction of the Innocent,” Wertham was considered the nation’s leading expert on the subject of comics and crime. In earlier years, the doctor had pioneered opening low-cost mental health clinics in poor and minority neighborhoods.
But his research into the pernicious impact of lurid images consisted largely of asking arrested juveniles if they had read violent comics.
Most had, convincing Wertham this caused their anti-social behavior.
Sixty-five years later, President Trump paraphrased Wertham in explaining mass shootings. The primary cause, he insisted, lay not with guns, but with “gruesome and grisly video games” that corrupted vulnerable or mentally ill youth. These claims by the president and pro-gun organizations like the NRA attempted to deflect concern away from guns. But evidence of this was just as tenuous in 2019 as that against comics had been in the 1950s.
By 1954, irate mayors and governors in several states pushed through laws that either barred the display of violent comics or forbade their sale to minors. Girl Scout troops, church groups, and the American Legion publicly burned stacks of seized comics.
Congress responded by holding some of its first televised hearings before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Aspiring presidential candidate Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat, dominated the inquiry. He compared the comic industry to organized crime, which he had previously investigated.
Wertham provided a scientific gloss to the spectacle, explaining how his research proved that violent comics turned “normal” teens into potential killers. Compared to the corrupting power of comics, he warned, “Hitler was a beginner.”
A remarkable indictment coming from a German-Jewish immigrant so soon after the Holocaust! Even wholesome characters, he suggested, presented hidden risks: Wonder Woman might be a lesbian and Batman and Robin a gay couple. This gender subversion could easily twist impressionable adolescent minds.
As the hearings concluded, Senators warned that unless publishers censored themselves, Congress would intervene.
The industry folded quickly when opinion polls revealed that 70% of adults agreed with Wertham’s condemnation. Publishers formed a comic code authority that established detailed guidelines that writers and illustrators must follow in order to receive the coveted “seal of approval,” a requirement for most in-store sales.
Like Hollywood’s earlier motion picture code, nudity, scanty clothing, and lurid depictions of women were forbidden. Family was sacrosanct and any hint of illicit sex, sexual “abnormality” or “perversion” taboo. Criminals and crime must always be punished and authority figures respected. Titles could not contain the word “horror.” Zombies, vampires and werewolves were banished, along with liquor and tobacco promotions.
The code, coinciding with the growing popularity of television, drove many lurid publications out of business. “Casper the Friendly Ghost” replaced “Tales From the Crypt” on magazine racks. The new rules had, of course, no impact on juvenile crime.
Within a few years, concerned parents attributed continued teen rebellion and delinquency to the arrival of another disruptive cultural phenomenon: Rock & Roll.