Superheroes in the Age of McCarthy

In our fourth week of class, we studied the gap between the golden and silver ages of comic books. This was a time of declining sales and American fear. In our assignment we looked at how the government, educators, and the medical profession viewed comic books and whether the Comic Code Authority fixed things or made it worse.

World War II had ended, but America was far from being a nation at peace. The USA was in a nuclear arms race against the USSR and many Americans were caught up in a red scare – believing Communists could be lurking in every neighborhood and plotting their scheme to destroy the American people. During this time, the common citizen raising a family found another threat to the American way of life: kids being kids and teenagers doing what teenagers do. The boisterous behaviors of minors were interpreted as juvenile delinquency.

The leaders in both suburban living and global politics were afraid of shifting dynamics. When people in power face fear, they do what comes easiest – they find something to blame. The targets for these post-war fears were Communism and comic books.

Like witchcraft, heavy metal, and violent video games have been subject to blame for deviant behavior in other eras of American history, comic books were an easy scapegoat. The tales told in comics were becoming more varied – no longer about patriotic heroes fighting against the Nazis. Comic pages were beginning to include lascivious scenes, and stories of horror or crude humor. The older generation did not comprehend what comic books were or why young people found them so entertaining. They did what has happened many times in America, people villainized that which they did not understand.

The biggest response out of the medical profession was the book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ by Dr. Fredric Wertham. The claims in his book lead to the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The government and medical treatment of comic books during the era of McCarthyism was little more than a witch hunt that preyed on the paranoid fears of the times. Much of the evidence presented was done in a manner of confirmation bias – the harder they looked to find something wrong with comic books, the more likely they were to find something that matched their preconceptions.

photo courtesy of Comic Book Justice

The comic book industry had been branded as subversive and they made attempts to promote their educational value with little success. Some educators may have seen value in comic books as a resource, but the scare tactics of the US Senate and Dr. Wertham proved far more convincing and schools predominantly avoided the use of comics.

Advertising educational benefits was not the only attempt the comics industry made to save itself. Many heroes like Superman rebranded their image to promote good health and family values. Yet the comic book audience shrank, attacks against them for series like Tales from the Crypt continued, and the industry was facing the possibility of government regulation. To prevent government interference, the Comics Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority as a way for the industry to censor itself.

At the beginning, the CCA saved the comic book industry. It provided an opportunity for self governance so that publishers, writers, and artists could work within a known construct without government control. But anything that is good could turn bad eventually, and I feel that is what happened with the Comics Code Authority.

courtesy of Head Stuff

A few publishers found the CCA liberating, but others struggled. Publishers who could not find ways to adapt completely went out of business. There were two major publishers that rebelled against the CCA and published their titles without the CCA seal. And yet another – Educational Comics, converted their Mad Comics title into a magazine format to avoid the CCA restrictions.

Individual artists and writers struggled to work with the Comics Code Authority. All books had to be submitted to the CCA to be screened for approval. Anything that did not pass CCA review was sent back to be revised. For many comic creators, this increased their workload. Those who could adapt stayed, but many quit and went to work for other mediums within the publishing industry. In the long run, it paid off. The CCA was revised several times and eventually abandoned. Readership stuck with the industry through the changes and rebuilt the industry into an empire.

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