There was a time when comic books were just that – comic – with the likes of Mutt and Jeff and Mickey Mouse. But by the mid-1930’s new comics with characters like Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon which were filled with adventure and a little violence started to appear. With the arrival of Superman in 1939 the funny papers just weren’t funny anymore. And to some they were getting steamy and way too rough.

A charge was leveled against comic books that would be repeated decades later against television, movies, music and video games. An editorial by renowned Chicago Daily News literary editor Sterling North said the following about comics on May 8, 1940:

“Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil a child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the comic magazine.”

Still comics continued to explode in popularity through out and beyond World War 2. With the likes of Batman, Superman and Captain America, comics were selling 60 million copies a month. But one man was about to bring the old criticisms of comic books back to life.

His name was Dr. Frederic Wertham, a German immigrant psychiatrist. Wertham had been helpful in the 1920’s of proving the then novel idea that a patient’s environment should be taken in consideration before diagnosing treatment. He also did a series of lectures and testimonies before state legislates about the evils of school segregation. His article, “Psychological Effects of School Segregation” was submitted as evidence in the historic “Brown vs. The Board of Education” Supreme Court case that helped to end segregation.

Wertham worked with troubled teenagers and noticed that many of them were avid readers of comic books. Upon looking into the books he was deeply troubled by their content of gory violence and lurid sex. In 1948 he addressed a psychiatric convention and claimed that comics were creating a new and large group of juvenile delinquents.

In the late 40’s magazines like Time and Look were criticizing comics for their “degeneration”. There were towns that staged mass comic book burnings and others enacted laws to control and censor comic books. Canadian lawmakers banned the publication of “crime comics”. The U.S. Senate became involved in 1950 when a special committee was formed to investigate the link between comic books and organized crime. Comics were often blamed for crime as delinquent teenagers would claim that comics had influenced them.

The cry against comics became a fury when Wertham published his bestselling book Seduction of the Innocent. In the book Wertham claimed that Batman and Robin were “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” and that Wonder Woman was a “lesbian counterpart of Batman”. He was critical of Superman for giving kids the idea that they could fly.

But Wertham’s real attack came against a new generation of crime and horror comics, especially the gruesome creations of William Gaines. Gaines through his EC Comics had created a series of horror comics with titles like “Tales of the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror”. They would be considered extremely bloody even by today’s standards.

Wertham was a media darling, writing for popular magazines and speaking around the country. When Congress again took an interest in his critique in 1954, Wertham was the star witness, appearing before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The only representative of the comics industry to testify was Gaines.

The subcommittee investigation was a disaster for the comic book industry. The following testimony between Senator Estes Kefauver and Gaines was especially damaging:

KEFAUVER (holding up an especially gory EC Comic title): “This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’s head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?”
GAINES: “Yes sir, I do for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste might be defined as holding the head higher so that the blood could be seen dripping from it.”
KEFAUVER: “You’ve got blood coming out of her mouth”
GAINES: “A little.”

Gaines didn’t tell the Senator he had rejected the bloodier version of the cover when it was presented to him earlier.

To avoid government censorship, just like the entertainment industry of today, comic book producers were forced to draw up a self imposed code of standards. It was called the Comics Code Authority and it’s stamp on the corner of a comic book would certify that the comic book was safe for America’s kids. The code restricted sex and violence, forbade the criticism of religion, the use of slang words and a long list of other unacceptable practices. Many distributors would not carry a comic book without the code appearing on it.

Gaines waged a number of battles with the Comics Code Authority, in an attempt to keep his magazines free of censorship during the later days of EC. One notable incident involved his threatening the members of the Comics Code Authority board with a lawsuit after being ordered to alter the climactic scene of a science fiction story, so that one of the characters would not be seen sweating.

Eventually EC Comics disappeared along with many other comic book publishers. Marvel Comics (then called Atlas Comics) was almost forced to fold and DC Comics became a shadow of its former self.

But William Gaines had the last laugh . . . literally. When Gaines canceled the EC line he saved one magazine. It survived because it didn’t look like a comic book, so it wasn’t a target—which didn’t mean children weren’t reading it.

Its name was Mad Magazine and today it survives, 50 years after it’s creation. However, it would take the 60’s to arrive before the so-called Silver Age of comics would begin. They did so with such titles as Spiderman and The Justice League of America. And virtually every comic displayed the CCA Seal of Approval.

Wertham continued to rail against teenage violence through the 50’s and 60’s. He did make an appearance at a comic book convention in 1973 where he found out that fans have a long memory. They booed him off the stage claiming he had “killed” comics back in the 50’s. He died in 1981.

Today we have graphic novels and comic books that are considered to be in the Platinum Age.

And the Code itself is still around if you look hard for it. I went looking for it recently at a supermarket magazine rack and there it was on only two comics; Archie and The Powerpuff Girls. They were sitting together right next to Mad Magazine.