Archie Comics may not seem like a natural player in the culture wars, but there has been some controversy surrounding the series of late, stemming from a recent issue’s same-sex wedding. Bryan Young recently conducted an interview with John Goldwater, Archie’s CEO, about the attempted boycott by the American Family Association’s “One Million Moms” project and how, despite the boycott, the issue quickly sold out. But there was a time when such an uproar about comics corrupting youth wouldn’t end so well. In the 1950s, public outcry over horror comics, among others, led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority. These six books will help you brush up on this tumultuous time in comic book history—just in time to prepare for the next Archie controversy.
The Book that Started it All
“Seduction of the Innocent” by Frederic Wertham
Though he was far from the first person to attack comic books as being immoral, Wertham’s “Seduction,” published in 1954, was the book that spawned the broader outrage. While many of his allegations, particularly the sexual ones—his attack on Batman for its homoeroticism or his claim that Wonder Woman’s strength and independence made her a lesbian—were heavily derided by the comic book industry, they nonetheless resonated with parents and lawmakers across the country. Wertham was even asked to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, where he testified that comics were a major cause of juvenile crime.
See What All the Fuss Was About
“The Horror! The Horror!” By Jim Trombetta
Trombetta sets out to accurately depict pre-Code comics rather than romanticize the unmediated era, so many of the excerpts and reprinted covers show crude art and laughable plots—but alongside the pulp, he includes entire comics by such artists as Basil Wolverton. With commentary on the comics’ themes and a survey of current events of the time, Trombetta shows that government censorship was the true horror of the 50’s.
The Great Comic Scare
“The Ten-Cent Plague” by David Hajdu
When Frederic Wertham concluded in “Seduction of the Innocent” that nearly all comics lead to immoral behavior in children, mass public panic quickly followed, with Congressional hearings not long after. Of course, Wertham’s book didn’t come out of nowhere; the comic book struggle between kids and parents has existed practically since the art began. With a meticulous eye to history, Hajdu chronicles how a single medium became the focus of public ire.
Another Look at The Man Behind the Scare
“Frederic Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture” by Bart Beaty takes on the task of humanizing the man who demonized comics by challenging assumptions about Wertham’s alleged cultural conservatism. After all, Wertham assigned the blame for kids’ misbehavior to negligent parents more than to comic book creators, and he was concerned about issues like the impact that overly sexualized and impossibly proportioned female characters could have on young girls. Yet what Beaty focuses on most is Wertham’s change of heart in the 1970s, when he started to believe that comics could be a positive influence on American culture.
The Comic Book Code: Voluntary Censorship
“Seal of Approval” by Amy Kiste Nyberg
While the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency ultimately didn’t assign blame to comic book publishers, it did recommend they tone down their content voluntarily. This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, with comic publishers voluntarily censoring their own content, even banning words such as “terror” and “zombie.” Along with the stipulation that criminals must be punished, the discontinuation of the then-popular Crime and Horror comics led to the rise of the Superhero as dominant in the genre. By examining the cultural trends and shifts in content leading up to the Code’s adoption and tracing its lingering effects, Nyberg presents the first scholarly look at this period in comic history.
How Comics Really Affect Youth Culture
“Comic Book Nation” by Bradford W. Wright
Wright offers a balanced, practical view of comics’ effects on children—and on the country as a whole. Starting with the birth of the genre, Wright describes comics’ rise in popularity and documents the genre’s effects on culture without falling back on Wertham’s reactionary rhetoric. But he doesn’t stop with the institution of the Code; Wright continues to chart the developments of the art, and trace its effect on American culture into the new millennium.