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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Comics as Education, 1950s-1980s

By Zachary Bampton ’20

From the 1950s onward, comics and their bright colors, bold drawings, and interesting stories have captivated a young American demographic. However, their popularity drew in other eyes, too. Civic and political groups took notice of this market audience and attempted to reach them by utilizing the medium as a teaching tool. The goal was education, not entertainment. Pulled from our Public Policy Papers and University Archives here at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, these comics demonstrate a mass market approach to education by unconventional means.

Materials for an unpublished comic book found in the Fund for the Republic Records (MC059) provide insight into the motivations and decision-making process for these publishers. In 1955, Dan Barry proposed a comic to Fund for the Republic provisionally titled “Our Civil Liberties, Their Meaning, and the Threats They Face”. Noting the “70 million regular readers” of comics as well as the disparity between 43% of the “newspaper public” reading the editorial versus 83% reading the comic strips, Barry articulated the potential and “great need for free-minded liberal material in this powerful medium”.

“Heroes of the Highway,” 1952. This comic book served as proof of concept to Fund for the Republic for the 1955 proposal. Fund for the Republic Records (MC059), Box 93, Folder 21.

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