Published on September 1st, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
Bondage And Comics: The Birth Of A Code
Comics in the 1940s and 1950s. Bondage, nudity, sexual violence and homosexual innuendo lurked on every debauched page. And that was just Batman. If “authoritative treatise” like Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) were to be believed then parents who let their children read comics were creating a generation of violent, sadistic, bondage obsessed, woman-hating rapists. Or worse yet, gays.
The reaction to these claims seems extreme by modern standards. Yet also familiar. Haven’t similar claims of moral corruption been levelled at television, video games and the Internet? It seems that each new generation needs its malevolent Pied Piper to lead children away from the safety of moral convention and down a dark path of perversion and depravity.
The State of the Union.
To understand Seduction of the Innocent you need to view it in its true historical context. The U.S.A in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the home of McCarthyism and the high-profile communist witch-hunts by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Soviet Union had just tested the atomic bomb. America was on the verge of war in Korea, bringing them into conflict with communist China. Americans working as Soviet spies were being executed.
The Cold War had begun immediately after WWII and the end of America’s alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler. By the early 1950s it had created an atmosphere of distrust and paranoia that permeated every aspect of life in the good ‘ol U.S. of A. Employees were sacked and businesses black-listed based on nothing more than anonymous finger-pointing. Chief paranoiac and finger-pointer was J. Edgar Hoover. Unlike others who shared his concerns, however, Hoover had his own personal secret police to ride shotgun through his delusions. Under J. Edgar’s leadership illegal F.B.I. phone-taps and mail interceptions become the norm rather than the exception. Soon the “reds under the bed” weren’t the only unseen threat. Any activity arbitrarily deemed to be “un-American” was potentially dangerous, and therefore a threat to national security. These threats to the nation included homosexuals and “sexual perverts”, as they were “individuals whose ability to function as loyal citizens had been compromised”. There was no particular definition of what “sexual perversion” might be. It apparently meant anything other than consensual sex between a married man and woman. Of the same ethnic origin. Roughly the same age. Unobserved. In a bed. Bondage free. At night. In the dark. In the missionary position. In some States it was advisable for both parties to keep their eyes closed and pray for forgiveness during the act, just to be on the safe side. It can be taken as read that neither participant should be a communist or hippie marijuana-fiend.
War. What is it good for?
Frederic Wertham’s name may be the one most often mentioned in the context of the anti-comics crusade of the 1950s, but he was not the first to hoist his flag on that mast. In fact, by the time Seduction of the Innocent was published he’d almost missed the boat completely. The first salvos in the war on comics were being fired as early as 1909 when an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal vilified the Sunday supplements of the day for printing strip-cartoon “funnies” that were short on literacy but high on violence. It was a campaign that gained some momentum, but we shall never know if it would have had any real impact. A more significant war intervened in 1914 and comics took a back seat. History repeated twenty seven years later, when the murmurs started by an anti-comics article in The Chicago Daily News (with the inflammatory title A National Disgrace) were drowned out by the massed propellers of the Japanese Imperial Navy Air Force.
Ironically, having been given a reprieve by America’s entry into WWII, the end of that conflict created a serious problem for the new Superhero comics. Comic books were the most successful form of entertainment in America during the mid-1940s, and the Superheroes were the new kids on the block. Superman had debuted just before the outbreak of war. In the period 1939-1941 he was joined by Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, The Atom, Hawkman, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Captain America and many more. The most popular hero of the time was Captain Marvel, whose sales peaked at an astonishing 1.4 million copies an issue, trouncing sales of Superman or Batman titles. The war in Europe and the Pacific had provided the comic writers with two ready-made and very real enemies for their heroes to battle, and images like Captain America socking it to Hitler on the cover of Captain America #1 (March 1941) boosted sales. Violence was A-OK so long as it was a Nazi or a Jap on the receiving end. This truly was comics’ Golden Age.
With the end of the conflict, real enemies had to be replaced with fictional ones. The public rapidly lost interest. Real enemies had provided real thrills in a way that these new stories could not. Sales of superhero titles dropped off dramatically.
Crime Pays. Big.
As the need for the ‘real thrills’ that the wartime comics had serviced still existed, another genre gained popularity to fill the void in the early post-war years: Crime Comics. Titles such as Crime Does Not Pay had been selling around 200,000 copies in the early 1940s. By 1947 it was selling around a million copies of each issue. Each of those issues would be passed on to 5 or six more readers, which led the publisher Charles Biro to put a banner headline across the top of each comic stating “More Than 5,000,000 Readers Monthly”. With that kind of potential readership, these “true crime” comics flourished. Thirty new titles appeared in 1948 alone. At the same time, titles like Captain America, The Flash and Green Lantern were being discontinued. This increased output of crime comics did not go unnoticed by the self-proclaimed guardians of public morality.
Their basis in “truth” meant that the crime comics took a more relaxed attitude to the depiction of graphic violence than their superhero predecessors. Bondage images, which had appeared as classic “damsel in distress” vignettes in the superhero titles, were also a standard for the crime comics, but now they had darker overtones. A significant number of titles portrayed semi-clad women in situations of dire peril or torture, more often than not bound and gagged, on their covers. The graphic images were usually accompanied by lurid, shocking by-lines. It was too much, and the demands to regulate, and is some cases ban, these publications gained significant momentum. Newspaper by-lines became regular articles. The articles became campaigns. Student discussion groups became public debates, and the debates on several occasions became public book-burning events. 1948 was to be the peak of the crime comics’ popularity; by early 1949 there was legislation to control sale of crime comics pending in a number of U.S. states. Several crime titles disappeared, the remainder toned down the levels of violence, though the “damsel in distress” bondage covers were to remain a regular feature of the genre. If anything, the need to show less graphic violence led to a more realistic approach to the depiction of women in bondage as helpless victims.
All you need is love.
With crime comics under serious attack, the industry adapted once more. Comic publishers were nothing if not flexible. With the downturn in crime came an upturn in romance. At the end of 1947 there had been one “romance” title in publication. By then end of 1949 there were 125. Back in 1949, as now, there was a perception that the average comic book reader was an adolescent male. The “romance” titles would seem to have been aimed at a young female readership, but the publishers were fully aware that they would be alienating a huge percentage of their market if they neglected the boys. So it was that the young girls in the romance comics would often discuss their opinions on love whilst dressing and undressing. The stories were usually more “racy” than informative, and the word “love” was often a substitute for the word “sex”. Covers were often swimming in a sea of cleavage and bare thighs, and there was usually a barrage of “headlights” to blind the adolescent male readership. Even so, the clamour for comic regulation began to die down by 1950, with The New York Times even publishing a lengthy piece largely vindicating the comics of the day. Not everything was rosy in the garden of love, with some critics suggesting that these “love comics” were really “lust comics”, but the worst seemed to be over.
The Horror! The Horror!
The story might have ended there had the comics industry not played right back into the critics’ hands by trying to exploit a genre that had been bubbling-under during the peak of the romance comics. Horror. In the early 1950s there was yet another shift in the comic publishers’ output and the era of the horror comic dawned. With a sudden increase in the number of horror titles competing for the reader’s attention, the obvious way to be noticed was to be the most shocking. So began an upward spiral of gore and gruesomeness that saw the publication of some of the most graphic scenes yet to appear in comics, and they were right out there on the covers in all their lavishly coloured detail. By 1952 these new titles had prodded at the embers of the anti-comics debate for long enough to produce new flames. This time the fire took hold. Calls for comic legislation were louder than ever, and lists were produced of comic book material that could not be sold to minors. These lists included but were not limited to “representations of crime, violence, sexual lust, mayhem, and rape”.
Then in 1954 came Seduction of The Innocent.
Frederic Wertham had been speaking out against comics for several years before his infamous book was published. He wasn’t the first to have an anti-comic work in print, but his status as a doctor of psychiatry of some (though not much) renown added gravitas to what was purported to be a serious scientific study of comics and juvenile delinquency. A great deal has been written over the last six decades about the problems with Wertham’s book, and I’m not going to plough that well-trodden ground again other than to highlight a few points that illustrate the nature of this “scientific study”. In Frederic Wertham’s world, all comics are crime comics and all comic readers are children, therefore all crime comics are aimed at children, even if they do say “For Adults Only” on them. More significantly, if a child found to be a “delinquent” reads, or has ever read, comics, then it follows that the comics must have caused the delinquency, regardless of other possible factors. Plus, of course, there were Wertham’s assertions that “the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies”, Wonder Woman was a sadomasochistic “phallic” woman in a series “which portrays extremely sadistic hatred of all males in a framework which is plainly lesbian” and “while she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to want to be”. Superman, on the other hand, was the fulfilment of the fascist ideal of the master race, imposing his ideals by physical force, and “with the big S on his uniform – we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.” Even in those sections of the book that do appear to have some defensible rationale to them, Wertham will suddenly resort to unsubstantiated or fatuous statements like “some comic books depict necrophilia”, or (about Robin) “he often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident”. He also had a stilted and awkward vocabulary and approach to the issue of sexual violence. A murdered woman is found with her clothes dishevelled, therefore had been “presumably raped”, though Wertham produces no evidence for that presumption. A scantily clad woman in a provocative pose is “dressed for very hot weather, in the typical pre-rape position”. As the comic in question is not identified, it is left to our imaginations as to what the frankly mind-boggling phrase “pre-rape position” might mean.
Attack of the Killer Acronyms!
Whilst Seduction of the Innocent may have been an extreme overreaction to the problem it was trying to address, there’s no doubt there was a problem that needed addressing. Crime and horror comics were largely unregulated and uncensored, and they sat shoulder to bloody shoulder on the newsstands with Archie and Mickey Mouse. Following Wertham’s assault, a second front appeared in the form of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. The primary ‘expert witness’ when the subcommittee discussed comics was one Frederic Wertham MD. Despite Wertham’s extensive testimony, the committee did not blame comics for the country’s ills. Instead it recommended that the industry voluntarily regulate its output. It may have been a veiled threat that comics should clean house or someone else would come in and clean it for them. The comics industry certainly read it that way. Their response in September 1954 was the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA).
The CMAA was the brainchild of Bill Gaines of EC Comics, publisher of some of the biggest horror titles, as a replacement for the wholly ineffectual Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. Gaines had been one of those interviewed by the senate subcommittee. Ironically, at the first CMAA meeting to hash out a regulatory code they elected to ban the use of the words ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ from comic titles. Bill Gaines walked out, feeling that he and EC comics had been ambushed. Within a week the CCMA produced a completed code of content – The Comics Code Authority (CCA).
There were 41 stipulations in that original CCA, including
All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with, walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.
Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.
Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.
Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Rape scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
To be on the safe side, and in case they’d missed anything in their 41 clauses, there was also the CCA’s General Standards which included the statement “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the Code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited“.
Out of the frying pan.
So what did all of this actually mean for the comics industry? Was it flimflam to appease the witch hunters before they could impose their own standards, or were comic writers and artists supposed to adhere to these impossibly restrictive guidelines? In some states it was a moot question. The code came into being in September 1954. It immediately came under attack for having no teeth. The New York State Legislature agreed, describing the comics code as a mechanism unequipped to eradicate the “horror, sex and brutality in comics”. The primary objection to the code was that self-regulation was meaningless if there were no penalties for opting out. The truth was that as soon as the CCA came into existence it had a massive impact. Comics that met with the CMAA’s approval and adhered to the code had the CCA seal clearly displayed on the cover. Distributors and comic book wholesalers became the CMAA’s enforcers, refusing to accept any comic not bearing the CCA seal. Far from being toothless, with the CCA the comics industry had bitten its own arms off.
In New York the Legislature also argued that the code simply wasn’t working. Even some comics carrying the CCA seal were cited as being as bad as they had been before. No specifics were provided about which comics or issues. Just “some comics”. It was bad news for the CMAA. The purpose of the CCA had been to avoid external legislation that would make things worse. Already it was worse.
In March 1955 a bill was approved in New York banning the use of the words “crime”, “terror”, “horror” and “sex” in comic titles. It also prohibited the publication or distribution in New York State of any publication “devoted to or principally made up of pictures or accounts of methods of crime, or illicit sex, horror, terror, physical torture, brutality or physical violence”. For good measure, it also banned the sale of any such books to those under the age of eighteen. Violations could be punished by a $500 fine, a year in jail, or both.
Other states followed suit. Laws varied from state to state. In some states not only was it illegal to sell “lurid or objectionable” comics, it was illegal to display them. Others added the “use of narcotics” to the list of topics that would make a comic objectionable. Washington State opted to licence comic book sellers. The licence could be revoked if they were found to be selling comics depicting “sex or violence”
Nine states rejected comic legislation.
So in the long-term, what difference did the new laws and the CCA seal actually make? Looking at one topic cited in Seduction of the Innocent but not directly addressed in the CCA – women in bondage – what impact did the changes have?
In Part 2 we’ll be taking a look at how things changed under the CCA.