The Comics Code Authority, a Horror from the real world (part 1)

“Gutter of Horror” is a Brazilian column from Dinamo Studio website about horror comics. This is a translated version of the articles.

Responsible for killing E.C. Comics, most popular publisher of horror, suspense and crime titles in the 1950s, the infamous Comics Code Authority did much more than to attack comic books that featured graphic violence: it also changed the way companies make comics and can be considered responsible for much of the “infantilization” of superhero comics that came after 1950s. But the Code wasn’t born overnight: it’s the result of the cultural climate that was questioning comics as entertainment and its impact in the development of young readers.


The controversy surround comics was already topic of debate in the 1930s. The first group to target the medium was teachers that saw comics as a bad influence to students and something that would harm their reading abilities and "literary taste". At that time, comics were still seen as “cheap literature” without any artistic expression and something for those who were “lousy readers” – some people still think that, although thankfully it’s not the majority anymore.

Politically and culturally speaking, there was another important thing about comics. Unlike children’s books, comics were chosen by the kids so, for the first time, they had the power of choice over the material that they consumed, which made parents unconfortable. Adding to this, religious groups saw in semi-nude women in the jungle and the assumed glorification of villains in comics a moral education issue. As far back as 1930s, Catholic Church was already censoring comics, including it among the kind of content that needed to be evaluated before being recommended to the congregation.

But the situation really escalates after World War II. At that time, juvenile delinquency became a popular topic of discussion in American culture, especially among mental health specialists. With the stage settled since the decade before, these professionals were easily attracted to comics and to question its impact on youngsters. Among those specialists were Dr. Fredric Wertham, a New York Psychiatrist that began a campaign to banish comics sales to children, arguing that they imitate the actions of the characters and, therefore, comics lead to violence. In 1954, his studies turned into a book that would be the “bible” of the Comics Code.

Seduction of the Innocent

In his most famous book, Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham explores his hypothesis that comics lead to juvenile delinquency. Using a (small) sample of patients with severe delinquency problems, the psychiatrist deduced that comics were responsible for the behavior of these young people, once many of his actions had parallels and similarities with situations featured in comics. The “actions” were homosexuality (at that time still considered a mental disorder) where Wertham compare young gay men that read Batman, and several kinds of crimes like theft and robbery.

The book explores alleged problems in crime and horror comics, but also in Superhero titles. For example, he claimed that Superman was non-american and fascist, that Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality and that Wonder Woman had much subtext of domination in her stories and the fact that she was super strong was, to him, an obvious sign that the heroine was a lesbian. Wertham also saw things like subliminal nudity and falic objects in apparently innocent drawings (and you thought that Disney fans invented this things of seeing sex in everything, huh?).

The argument that kids were too stupid to understand that comics were fiction and therefore would imitated the actions of the characters in real life was not new. In the 1920s, a teacher from Tennessee went to court for teaching natural selection at school instead of creationism. The trial became famous for driving a revision of certain educational models in USA, with a major separation between church and state. At the time, the (incorrect) assumption that the evolution demonstrates that man “descended from monkeys” lead to the argument that, if this were teach to kids, they will soon started to behave like animals. This trial, known as “The scopes Trial”, can be seen in the classic movie “Inherit the wind”.

Today, more detailed studies and new evidence shows that Wertham manipulate and distorted several information that he present as results. Several methodological problems such as sample size, using anecdotal evidence and treating like empirical and using more rhetoric than actual evidence puts in check Wertham studies.

Political opportunism

Even before Seduction of the Innocent, the idea that comics lead to juvenile delinquency was already suggested in academic, political and popular circles – Wertham himself wrote articles about it back in 1947). Seen as a public security problem in the eyes of an extremely paranoid post-war America, it didn’t took long for the government to decide to play ball too. In 1953, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was created to debate exhaustively the subject.

The subcommittee was a unit of the United States Senate Judiciary Committee created by motion of Senator Robert Hendrickson, a Republican from New Jersey. The first members were senators. Estes Kefauver, Thomas C. Hennings Jr. e William Langer. Hendrickson started presiding the committee, but was soon replaced by Kefauver. But Estes Kefauver was not an unknown by the public opinion. Between 1950 and 1951 he presided the special Senate subcommittee  that investigated organized crime. Among the witnesses heard was mob bosses like Frank Costello, so the subcommittee gain popularity – so much that was broadcasted on TV, with big audience. Kefauver became practically a popstar politician, since his image was strongly associated to fighting organized crime. So It was no surprise that Kefauver ended up being a choice to preside the hearings about comics that happened in 1954.

The Hearings

As usually happens when a society goes through some cultural problem considered very serious, there’s always the tendency to look for an element that could seen as the “villain” of the story, so the situation seems possible to solve with easy to understand actions, and so that the authorities don’t look completely incompetents. We see this even today with the marginalization of Muslims, reinforced culturally and by the media. Or when people blame movies or video games for mass shootings. In 1950s, the “crisis” were juvenile delinquency and the villains were comic books. Comics were an easy target, once several groups in society were demonizing it for a while.

In 1954, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency decided to focus his efforts at the comic books and made a series of hearings to talk about the topic. The main target were “criminal comics”, the general name for comics that featured several kinds of crimes, which included mostly crime, suspense and horror titles.

Because of that, William Gaines’ E.C. Comics (the story of EC is here, here and here) were by far the most affected; after all, most popular E.C. titles was in those genres. Gaines was crushed in the hearings and, thanks to the little to no support he receive from other publishers – which were all of the sudden favorable to public opinion on the subject – there was no other option but to submit the industry to what would be later known as Comics Code Authority.

Although the Comic Code Commission didn’t have any actual control over the publishers, most of distributors refuse to deliver comics that didn’t had the seal of the Comics Code. This was the end for E.C., but there was at least two publishers that didn’t have the seal in his covers and were still largely available for sale: Dell Publishing and Golden Key. This kind of pick and choose shows that the cultural landscape was more against some publishers than others.

Next article we will see how the Comics Code changed through the decades and what’s its place in current American Comic Industry.

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition” is available at Amazon – digital and paperback.