Bloof! Baroom! Craaaack!
The creative onomatopoetic description of being punched, blowing something up or magically disappearing from sight were not the only draw of comic books for kids in the 1930s and 1940s. In this era before television, comic books were the most popular medium for entertaining kids who came enthralled by the exploits of a new breed of protagonist: the superhero. Many famous heroes that have withstood the march of time and the evolution of tastes emerged during this period, starting with the uncrowned king of superheroes, Superman and eventually including Batman, the Flash and the Green Lantern. Such was the reception of the superhero that many others reached the height of popularity at the time that were unable to live long past their prime. Forgotten superheroes of the time include Captain Yank, the Owl and Hydro. Comic books even dared to go where the other popular mass entertainment form of the period had not by presenting female superheroes who were smarter, tougher and stronger than their male villains. Few comic book authors, illustrators and readers could possibly have ever predicted that the ability for little girls to model themselves after a strong woman successfully battling foes and the long-accepted image of what it meant to be a woman would be part of a bomb with multiple fuses whose explosion would nearly cause the entire comic book industry to go boooooom!
What good is a superhero without a dangerous villain? Superman had his Lex Luthor. Batman regularly battled the Joker. Captain American faced down the Red Skull. Wonder Woman kept many appointments with Doctor Psycho. The original heroes of the comic book industry like Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and William Marston as well as their legion of young fans were surprised to find that they had a real life nemesis just as devoted to their destruction as the Shade was committed to destroying the Flash. The only difference between the fictional villains and the real life counterpart was that the latter did not have a super cool name. Frederic Wertham emerged from the mysterious world of psychiatry in the late 1940s to protest against what he viewed as the psychologically damage being done to children obsessed with the fantasies of men and women in bizarre costumes doing battle against even stranger villains. By the early 1950s, Wertham had transformed into a fiendish and diabolical mastermind with the evil plan of ending comic books as they had been know for two decades.
In the early 1930s, comic books were still a fledgling medium of entertainment that few imagined would ever threaten the dominance of movies, much less become Public Enemy No. 1. The thin booklet filled with garish colors and unimaginable weapons and supernatural powers know as the comic book began life as a 16-page insert into papers loaded with advertisements. These comic stripss, more popularly known as “the funnies.” These comic strips were obviously shorter than comic books would become and featured characters like slow-witted gamblers, morally superior athletes and mischievous elementary school students. Along with the adventures of comical animals, these prototypes of comic books proved incredibly popular and entertaining. Everything changed in 1938 with the introduction of the very first issue of Action Comics. That revolutionary publication featured an anthology of comic strip stories, but it was the tale of an alien father who sent his young baby into space to save him from the approaching devastation of his homeworld that had the biggest impact. That particular part of the anthology went on to quickly tell how the young baby ended up inside an earth orphanage where he grew up to realize he possessed powers not shared by anyone else. It was those powers that distinguished this character from any other comic strip character.
The evolution of the creation of that character who could to be known to the entire world as Superman began with friends Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster looking back on their lack of luck with girls in high school. The result of imagining what it would have been like to be overlooked by the girl of their dreams who simultaneously was in love with their alter ego who was stronger and more dynamic led to what would becomeone of the central concepts of the superhero: the secret identity.
Action Comics #1 resulted in what would have been written as something like kabooooom if the story of the creation of Superman had itself been a comic book. The popularity of this new type of character and his amazing adventure captivated children and the money produced by that captivation had the same effect on publishers. Everyone in the business seemed to instantly realize that superheroes represented at least the immediate future of an industry still in its infancy. Children loved the story and it wasn’t long before more superheroes like the “Last Son of Krypton” popped up across many other comics. Heroes like Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and the ever patriotic Captain America spread like wildfire. Soon every newsstand in America sold superhero comics. The comics weren’t just intended for children, though. Comics were sent to GIs overseas fighting in World War II for them to read. The comics became popular with the soldiers and when the came back from the war there reading habits remained.
These soldiers were grown men, however, and they wanted more adult based comics. Thus darker and more mature comics began to appeared. Superheroes became second to comics like “Tales of Suspense” and “Crime!” These comics depicted more violent and mature stories to appeal to the adults reading them. Because they were comic books, however, they were still sold to children. The subject matter of these comics had an affect on the children reading them, and it was only a matter of time before someone took action against them!
Enter Fredric Wertham. Wertham was a psychologist from Germany. While in America he studied a correlation between reading comic books and juvenile delinquency. Wertham claimed that comic books were turning children into criminals. He proposed that all comics, not just crime and horror stories mind you, be completely banned and that no comic should be sold to any person under fifteen years of age.
What causes did he give to the censorship of harmless hero comics? Wertham first cited the death of a child who jumped out of a window to fly like Superman, using this tactic to gain sympathy from parents. He claimed that the child’s death was caused by his reading comic books. He also pointed to Batman and Robin as being homosexual. Wertham said that the idea of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Batman and Robin, respectively) living together, as well as Robin having “shaved legs” and Wayne being shown in a robe was cause for alarm.
Another of Wertham’s despicable plots to undermine superheroes was to accuse Wonder Woman of promoting strong women. He believed that if young girls saw Wonder Woman as a role model they would try to act like her. Wertham thought this a serious problem as it undermined man’s control of woman and suggested that women could be as good as men, if not better. Blasphemy! In Wertham’s time, that is what people thought of equality between men and women. With claims of homosexuality and gender equality existing in comics in the 1940s, Wertham had an army of supporters behind his cause.
Wertham also had support due to the obvious claims about crime and horror stories. The horror and terror stories, he pointed out, were going to turn America’s youth into ghouls and monsters. He also attacked the popular crime comics. These comics, he said, presented the criminal acts portrayed in the comic books in way that made them seem entertaining to kids, and even justified said acts. This, Werham claimed, was what created the juvenile delinquents present in America at the time. This was Wertham’s call to action to the American public. He demanded that they find some means of stopping what he thought was the cause of all America’s problems: comic books. Wertham called, and the U.S. Senate answered.
In 1954 a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency on the subject of Dr. Wertham’s work and the proposed banning of comic books took place. Wertham blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency in America and suggested to the Senate Subcommittee ban the sale of comics to minors. After the hearing had ended the committee formed a new program to control the sales of comics, the Comics Code Authority.
Similar to Spiderman’s team of various villains the “Sinister Six,” the CCA (Comics Code Authority) was a team of villains who sought to destroy comic books altogether. The CCA released a set of “guidelines” to which every comic book was meant to abide by. While the laws of comics were intended to make comics less gruesome and adult, they actually succeeded in removing all good comics (as well as many of the ones they attacked). The innocent superhero comics were banned because they were comic books, and that made them dangerous.
The CCA was really more of an overreaction to the affect of comic books. There could have been a much simpler and less dangerous way to eliminate the comics that were truly a threat to children. Instead, however, The Comics Code Authority was created, and nearly caused the death of comic books altogether. The Fact remains, however, that the Comics Code Authority was created, and it did have the intended effect.
Wertham succeeded in his diabolical scheme to defeat all types of comic books. It seemed that this was the end for heroes like Superman and Batman! That is until the Flash retuned. In 1956 a comic book in the Showcase series (namely Showcase #4) was published featuring a new and improved version of DC’s the Flash. Scientist Barry Allen gains superpowers, save superhero comics altogether. Yes, this new comic, and the superhero within, ushered in a new age for comic books: The “Silver Age!”
Born of the Flash, this new age of comics created some of the most famous of Marvel’s heroes. The Fantastic Four first appeared in 1961, and it was an instant hit. Another of the most famous superheroes to be born in the silver age was Spider-Man! Written by comic great Stan Lee, the tale of Peter Parker as Spider-Man also was a classic, but for a different reason. Spider-Man was the first comic hero to be an average person. Superman was an alien. Batman was rich. Spider-Man was an average person.
These were the comics of the Silver Age. They were huge and popular, and these comics eventually defeated the Comics Code Authority. As time went on, the CCA began to lose its power. People cared less and less on whether this comic had been “Approved by the Comics Code Authority.” The size of the CCA symbol on the comics slowly decreased and now is almost gone. Marvel Comics even disbanded from the CCA and created their own rating system for their own comics. The superheroes had come out victorious!