At Issue

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608

In 1886 Yellow Kid became the first comic strip to appear in a newspaper. The public gave it that name when the newspaper, World, tested its new yellow ink by printing it on the image of the Kid’s clothing in the comic strip. Comic books soon developed from comic strips. The first collection of strips was published in 1897 in a magazine called Yellow Kid Magazine. In 1933 the first comic book, rather than a collection of newspaper strips, appeared. The boom of comic book publishing began with New Comics, Fun Comics, Popular Comics, and Famous Funnies. More than 150 titles were published in 1940 and more than 200 million copies sold.

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In 1948 Time magazine described how several copycat crimes were committed by children who had read crime comics. Crime comics were implicated in influencing juveniles to commit burglary, a hanging, and a murder by poisoning. In the same year Dr. Frederic Wertham, a senior psychiatrist for the New York Department of Hospitals, headed a symposium, The Psychopathology of Comic Books. Wertham concluded that comic books glorified crime and violence, and he found them to be “abnormally sexually aggressive.” Additionally, an ABC radio broadcast, “What’s Wrong with Comics?” was one of the many factors that influenced the formation of citizen’s groups for regulating and in some cases banning of certain comic books from local newsstands. Some public schools joined in and even had comic book bonfires on school grounds.

In reaction to criticism of their comic books, publishers Bill Gaines, Leverett Gleason, and others formed the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP) in July, 1948. The ACMP formed a code of standards for decency in comic books. Any comic book that met the standards could carry the ACMP stamp of approval. This attempt at self-regulation was not successful, however, because major publishers boycotted the ACMP. Smaller publishers who relied on blood and violence to sell their books were not interested in going out of business. The media and grassroots groups continued to criticize the industry. In 1949 Parents’ Magazine published the findings of the Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books. It found that 70 percent of all comic books contained objectionable material, which included images ranging from sadistic torture to sexually suggestive and salacious actions.

In 1950 a U.S. Senate committee investigated the effects of violence in comic books in juvenile delinquency rates from 1945 to 1950. The results did not establish a clear connection between comic books and delinquency. The report reprimanded those comic books that glorified violence and that made some criminals into heroes. There were three central factors that contributed to censorship of comics. The first was Wertham, who published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. This book describes the alleged negative consequences of reading comic books about crime, sex, and violence. Wertham’s book is generally regarded as a classic example of research based on anecdote rather than science. His conclusion was that abnormal and delinquent children read comic books; therefore, comic books caused aberrant behavior and delinquency. Public hearings were held by a Senate subcommittee regarding the harmful effects of comic books on children. Thirty- two bills introduced in sixteen state legislatures had a negative effect on sales of comic books to children. The second factor in comics censorship was the Code of the Comic Books Association. Its objective was to eliminate all traces of violence, crime, horror, and sex in comic books. Horror and crime comics dramatically decreased in quantity, Westerns became less violent, and romance lost its sexual overtones. The third factor was mothers in America. They were inspired by Wertham and encouraged by the code. Bridge clubs changed into committees pressuring news dealers into suppressing offensive material.

New Beginning

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The Comics Code Authority seal of approval was first affixed on the covers of comic books of major publishers’ March, 1955, issues. The code specified that “all scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gore or crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.” The Comics Code Authority proudly proclaimed itself the most oppressive censoring body in America. In theory the code was designed to protect the book business, and it did satisfy those in the public who had been angered over the violence and lewdness allegedly found in comic books. What protected the industry generally resulted in the elimination of a number of major publishers. Artists hurriedly redrew heroines and softened violent episodes to make them conform to the required restrictions. EC Comics, headed by William Gaines, replaced his horror line with softened thrillers. Marvel comics ceased publication of its superhero division.

The code had a devastating effect on the comic book industry. In 1955 three hundred titles were being published annually, a 50- percent drop from the year before. Publishers attempted to spark interest in their publications by adding to their old titles and by trying opportunities in the mystery and suspense fields. In 1956 DC Comics launched a new superhero, Flash, the fastest man alive. It revived a dying industry. The revival also sparked an updating of the superheroes of the 1940’s.

Underground Comics

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Underground comics had their beginnings in the 1930’s during the Depression. These were small, pocket-sized pamphlets devoted primarily to the theme of sexual intercourse. These comics were referred to by various names, including the eight pagers. The eight pagers were not concerned with redeeming social values, according to the courts, and operated between plagiarism and parody. Rather than exploring their themes in a legitimate, thought-provoking manner, they sought to exploit their sources. Eight pagers would often portray notorious criminal figures directly from headlines. Criminals defied a social structure that was in a state of distress. Armed aggression and sexual power were symbolically equated, since success with violence, according to the comic book, created success with sex.

A more significant group of underground comics have been a more public phenomenon. The first important title was Zap, which appeared in 1968. Zap number four was prosecuted for obscenity in New York City and banned in 1973. It has since been sold without prosecution, and the work of its creators has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art. Robert Crumb was the chief exponent of this new genre, not only because he contributed many of the best underground newspaper comics but also for making the underground comic book a viable form. The underground comics criticized the Vietnam War, urban chaos, materialism, capitalism, and bourgeois values.

New Comics

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New comics are an outgrowth of the underground comics. They are also known as alternate comics. Cartoonists Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, and Dave Sim have become widely recognized for publications such as: Raw, American Splendor, and Love and Rockets. The underground comics of the 1960’s and 1970’s gave way to nihilism and skepticism. The new comics prophesy doom and humorous exhilaration. Magazines such as Weirdo, by Robert Crumb, and Raw, by Art Spiegelman, deal with the postindustrial urban wastelands. Frank Miller and Alan Moore helped push the theme of superhero comics into mature levels. In 1986 Friendly Frank’s, a comics store in Lansing, Illinois, was raided for selling obscene comics. Under attack were Weirdo, Omaha the Cat Dancer, Bodeyssey, and Bizarre Sex. In appellate court, the store manager was acquitted of all charges.

Television, Comic Books, and Violence

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Two surveys in Australia showed that there is a positive association among teenage males between their attitude favoring the use of force and exposure to violence in the media. The first survey involved a sample of 375 teenagers before the introduction of television; the favoring of force was greater among those who read more violent comic books. The second survey involved more than ninety teenagers after the introduction of television. Comic book reading was less frequent. The amount of exposure to television and a preference for violent programs were also positively associated with the holding of such an attitude.

In 1987 another study concluded that early exposure to television violence had a consistently positive association with aggressive behavior as much as thirty years later in life. As adults, those who watched television violence early in life tended to be more punitive with their children. Aggressiveness of the children and their preference for violent entertainment, in turn, were positively correlated. The implication is that media experiences may have a crucial role in establishing behavior.

Bibliography

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Mike Benton’s The Comic Book in America (Dallas: Taylor Publishing, 1989) is an excellent illustrated history of comics. Comix, by Les Daniel (New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971), traces the evolution of comics in terms of their uses, social value, censorship, and the major publishers. Steef Davidson’s Political Comics (New York: Penguin Books, 1982) analyzes connections between comics and the political issues of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In The New Comics, Bob Callahan (New York: Collier Books, 1991) reviews trends, ideas, and developments and the significance of various types of new comics. Mark James Estren’s Underground Comics (Berkeley, Calif.: Ronin Publishing, 1993) surveys underground comics from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. Comics, Anatomy of a Mass Medium by Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970) and Richard Reynolds’ Super Heroes (Jackson, Miss.: University Press, 1992) relate the main superheroes to their mythic origins and trace the popularity and influence of the superhero. George Comstock’s Television and the American Child (San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1991) offers evidence from social and behavioral science research regarding television viewing and children.

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