Comic Books, Censorship, and Moral Panic

By Zachary Bampton ’20

Previously on this blog we covered the educational and political aspirations of comic books in American popular culture. Keen interest in comics as teaching tools–or as propaganda–reflected a public awareness of the power of the medium. However, Americans did not always receive comics well. In the 1950s, creative expression came into the crosshairs of public officials wishing to tamp down on juvenile delinquency. Library book banning and film censorship occurred throughout the country. With regard to comics, many felt concerned by the disturbing and deviant subject matter, particularly in “horror” or “crime” comics. With materials selected from the American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), we will chronicle the move towards self-censorship by the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and the creation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA).

Into the 1950s, community and national organizations voiced concerns over subversive content found in comic books. In the words of Reverend Thomas J. Fitzgerald of Chicago, depictions of “crime, disrespect for law, rape, infidelity, perversion, etc.” troubled adults who thought of the impact on children (American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 773, Folder 25). While comics across the board received criticism, a certain genre stood out from the rest, aptly referred to as “crime comics” or horror comics.

“The Tormented,” July 1954. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 768, Folder 1.

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Additional ACLU Collections Available

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There are now 3 more American Civil Liberties Union finding aids available online and accessible to the public:

Series 2: Project Files
The Project Files series contains the records of twelve of the ACLU’s projects, which each addressed an area of civil liberties violations. Project records typically consist of case files, research files, project publicity correspondence. The best documented projects are the Children’s Rights Project Women’s Rights Project, to a lesser extent the Arts Censorship Project, Capital Punishment Project, Reproductive Freedom Project.
Series 3: Subject Files
The Subject Files series contains articles, reports, court documents, and other materials collected by the ACLU during the course of their work. The main subjects are drugs, homelessness, and Supreme Court nominations, largely of Robert Bork. Other significant subjects in the series include campaign finance, discrimination, environmental equity and racism, school pension plans, state constitutions, and welfare.
Series 4: Legal Case Files
The Legal Case Files series documents the ACLU’s involvement in litigation, ranging from files collected on cases for research purposes to records of cases they were significantly involved in. The records include documents filed with the court, correspondence, lawyer’s notes, depositions and expert testimony, transcripts of the trials, newspaper clippings, and research materials on the background of the case and legal precedent.
The Legal Case Files series contains records about over 1,500 cases, with the majority being files collected on non-ACLU cases for research on the broad range of civil liberties which the ACLU investigates. Common subjects include the separation of church and state, public education, racial and sexual discrimination, injustice in the legal system, illegal surveillance and search, and protecting the freedom of speech and expression, as well as politics and voting, information access and privacy, fair employment and health care practices, and immigration. Cases which are particularly well documented include Carlos Rivera v. John Rowland about the public defender system in Connecticut and three cases about public education: Brown v. Board of Education, Charlet v. Legislature of Louisiana, and Harper v. Hunt.

For more information about the ACLU collections check out our recent post:
http://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/2012/03/american-civil-liberties-union-records-new-series-available.html

-Adriane Hanson