The effect of comics on impressionable minds had long been recognised — the industry had utilised a savvy PR campaign during the Second World War, helping to shape popular perceptions of the Axis forces and encouraging children to contribute to the war effort through schemes such as buying war bonds, watching for spies and recycling material. While the strictness and use of the code slowly dwindled from the s onwards, the initial guidelines were comprehensive: DC launched its Showcase title in , with each issue featuring a try-out for a new character. Realising that public censorship was inevitable the major comic publishers decided to pre-empt such actions by forming their own standard body, with a guiding code of practice over what material could be depicted within comics. Who would have thought it? Success followed success, bringing us to today when superheroes appear to have taken over the world.
Instead, it was an epidemic of children attempting to outrun speeding bullets, experimenting with bondage and sharing cosy nights in with their special chum. Realising that public censorship was inevitable the major comic publishers decided to pre-empt such actions by forming their own standard body, with a guiding code of practice over what material could be depicted within comics. The minutes of this inquiry are fascinating, highlighting not only the range of titles and stories examined but recounting examples from countless publishers who vanished in the wake of this purge, never to be heard from again. The debate about comic books in s America is perhaps best understood through this prism when we consider the extent of their link with the youth of that time. While the strictness and use of the code slowly dwindled from the s onwards, the initial guidelines were comprehensive: As this was done to counter any accusations of a homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin, we can give Wertham a large part of the credit for their creation. Far from being the adult orientated collector market of today, comics of the time were affordable, accessible and plentiful. Westerns, horror, crime, romance, funny animals and, of course, superheroes — there was a dizzying choice to choose from. In the wake of the senate hearings, publishers were desperate to produce material that was deemed safe and non-controversial, leading to old characters being revamped and new concepts being tried. Success followed success, bringing us to today when superheroes appear to have taken over the world. Who would have thought it? While I had sympathy with his basic goal and found some of his illustrations to be convincing, all too often he stretched his argument too far, turning what could have been a focused attack into a generalised attack against comic books as a whole. For every example of a crime comic or horror comic that would have received an 18 certificate if its events were depicted in films, there were spurious allegations about superhero sexual orientation, or bizarre conspiracy theories about breasts hidden within shadowed parts of other drawings. Some of the archival footage from this time is revealing. But beneath the headline assertions and hyperbole, did Wertham have a point? Leaving aside recent claims that Wertham falsified much of his evidence and case studies, his basic argument is vastly overstated, being a classic example of correlation not implying causation. While footage from s Britain shows teeming crowds outside newsagents as children wait for the arrival of new editions of the Beano or Dandy, footage from the USA in the same period shows mass burnings and confiscation of comic books. DC launched its Showcase title in , with each issue featuring a try-out for a new character. The huge number of publishers producing crime comics slowly dwindled as their new emphasis failed to catch on; horror publishers also reduced, with EC abandoning horror and the company focusing its efforts on developing its Mad magazine. Showing the scale of the popular concern about this issue, a US Congressional inquiry was set up into the comic book industry, taken forward through the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Millions of American children were routinely buying, swapping and lending comics and, unlike today, had a choice that extended far beyond superheroes. The effect of comics on impressionable minds had long been recognised — the industry had utilised a savvy PR campaign during the Second World War, helping to shape popular perceptions of the Axis forces and encouraging children to contribute to the war effort through schemes such as buying war bonds, watching for spies and recycling material. We all know what happened next.
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