Will Burning Comic Books Be Next?

Photo by stefzn

PEM America finds that as of April 2023 there were “1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles, an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months, January – June 2022.”  It adds, “this equates to over 100 titles removed from student access each month.”

Some Americans have long been frightened of words and images, whether considered blasphemous (i.e., sacrilegious), pornographic (i.e., sexually suggestive) or subversive (i.e., threat to government).  On October 17, 1650, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony condemned a 158-page theological book, Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, by William Pynchon, a merchant and founder of Springfield, MA, because it questioned the Puritan doctrine of atonement.  The book was banned from the colonies and all copies publicly burned in the Boston marketplace.

Three centuries later during the 20th century, two issues galvanized the call for censorship — the popularity of comic books and the rise of juvenile delinquency.  Concern about youth crime began to surface during the World War II in light of an apparent decline in parental supervision as men went to war and women went to work.  In June 1943, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover warned in a Los Angeles Times editorial, “Youth … Running Wild,” that “a creeping rot of disintegration is eating into our nation.  … The arrest of ‘teen-age’ boys and girls, all over the country are staggering.” Later that year, Sen. Claude Pepper (D-FL) chaired a hearing on the war’s impact on civilian life spotlighting the role of comics.

Concern over youth crime mounted during the postwar decade.  Warnings came from traditional organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police, the American Bar Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Warnings also came from a growing number of academics.  Psychologists Eleanor and Sheldon Glueck were among the most influential, arguing in their highly regarded studies, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (1950) and Delinquents in the Making (1952), that family structure significantly determined delinquency.


In the mid-‘40s thru mid-‘50s, comics were subject to repeated waves of censorship campaigns that took place at both the city and state level.  Just in the period of 1947 to ’49, more than one hundred cities across the country, big and small, passed laws or ordinances to ban the display or sale of comic books.  Comic book campaigns took place in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles; in Baltimore, Cleveland, Hartford, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Sacramento as well as Ann Arbor (MI), Coral Gables (FL), Falls Church (VA), Hillsdale (MI), Mt. Prospect (IL) and Nashua (NH).

In 1945, students of Saints Peter and Paul School, in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, a town of 11,000 located about a hundred miles north of Madison, participated in a school-sponsored comic-book collection drive.  They piled up more than 1,500 comic books and set them ablaze.

Efforts to censor comics were probably the most contentious in New York State because a good number of the publishers operated out of Gotham.  In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Winters vs. New York, struck down as unconstitutional a state law prohibiting the publication and/or distribution of material “principally made up of criminal news, police reports, or accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures, or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime.”

In ’48, book burnings took place in New York, West Virginia and Illinois.  In October, students at the Spencer Graded School, in the small town of Spencer, WV, encouraged by parents, teachers and religious leaders, collected a 6-ft pile of comic books and set them ablaze in the school yard.  With an irony lost on no one, a Superman comic was first ignited and then used to set the pile afire.

In December, students at St. Patrick’s parochial school in Binghamton, NY, collected and burned some 2,000 comic books and pictorial magazines.  The bonfire was staged in the school’s courtyard and most students attended. Students also lead a boycott targeting local merchants who would not pledge to withdraw “objectionable and indecent literature, comic books and the like” from their newsstands.  Also in ’48, comic book bonfires were staged at the St. Peter and Paul Parochial School in Auburn, NY, and at St. Cyril’s Parish School, Chicago.

In ’49, comic-book burnings took place in Rumson, NJ, and Cape Girardeau, MO.  In Rumson, Cub Scouts conducted a two-day drive to collect objectionable comic books and burned them in the city’s Victory Park; Scouts that gathered the most books won the right to start the fire. At the last minute, school officials decided not to burn the books but rather dispose of them in the trash.

In Cape Girardeau, Girl Scouts led the charge.  They collected comics and brought them to St. Mary’s, a local Catholic high school, where students held a mock trial as to whether comics were “leading young people astray and building up false conceptions in the minds of youth.”  The jury found the comics guilt and the students burned them.

The anti-comics climate heated up in ’54 and ’55 with more than a dozen states either considering or enacting legislature to regulate or suppress comic books.  Among those states were California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

In ‘54, the state legislature held hearings on juvenile delinquency, with Wertham as the star witness.  The state Assembly and Senate passed a number of bills to restrict comics, but Governor Thomas Dewey vetoed them on constitutional grounds.  However, in ’55, the new governor, Averill Harriman, approved what was dubbed the “Fitzpatrick Act,” restricting comics.

In late-’53, the Senate established a special subcommittee to investigate juvenile delinquency.  As part of its efforts, it held public and private hearings in Washington, DC, Boston, Denver and Philadelphia that culminating, in April ’54, in New York.  Sen. Estee Kefauver (D-TN), an ambitious politician, was a member of the subcommittee.  In 1950, he gained national attention heading an influential Senate investigation of organized crime; three years later he turned his attention to juvenile delinquency.

Kefauver believed that “obscene” media came in all forms and contributed of the rise of youth crime.  However, he singled out comic books, especially those labeled crime and horror, for promoting violence.  A half-century later, the issue of violence in videogames continues to be a social concern, but now focuses on misogyny, whether played out against female characters or against female criticslike Anita Sarkeesian by sexist gamers.

In the wake of the ’54 Senate hearing, Gaines’ life was a mess.  He saw the censorship handwriting on the wall and decided to drop EC’s crime and horror lines, cutting significantly into the company’s revenues.  He knew that the dictates of the new trade association, the CMAA, would prohibit him from pushing comic-book aesthetics, its critical sensibility.  In the wake of these challenges, he reinvented himself and the comic-book medium.

The anchor of this reinvention was Mad magazine.  Introduced in ’52, it was billed as “Tales calculated to drive you MAD?  Humor in a Jugular Vein.”  It initially adhered to the 32-page comic-book convention, offering four stories that parodied other EC comics and sold for 10¢.  In ‘55 Gaines renamed it Mad Magazine, reconfigured it into a conventional black-and-white publication and offered it bimonthly at 25¢.  And, like EC comics, it did not depend on advertising.

Mad was radical not in an ideological or conventional leftist sense, but subversive in that nothing was above critical exposure and mockery.  As Nathan Abrams noted, the magazine’s “consistent inconsistency ran counter to the dynamics that formed the New York intellectual community, which were clearly aligned on ideological and political grounds.”  He argues, “Neither did Mad offer any affirmations or alternatives to the American way of life that it held in such contempt.  Thus, in its failure to affirm or support anything, Mad possibly deserved the title of ‘dissent’ more than Dissentmagazine itself.”  He found Mad more radical than contemporary “progressive” publications like Commentary, Partisan Review or The New Leader.

Nothing did not escape Mad’s critical eye.  Comic book characters were the easiest to ridicule. Disney’s loveable Mickey Mouse was recast as a rat-faced vermin called “Mickey Rodent”; Superman became “Superduper Man?,” a loser (National Periodicals, the owners of Superman, threatened a lawsuit); and the oh-so innocent Archie and Jughead became, in “Starchie,” chain-smoking juvenile delinquents.  In ‘53, the Cincinnati Committee on the Evaluation of Comic Books found Madobjectionable and gave it a “C” rating.   It also poked fun at political figures, most notably Sen. McCarthy.  In a 1954 piece entitled, “What’s My Shine!,” the comic linked the popular game show “What’s My Line” to the Army-McCarthy hearings, punning one of McCarthy’s closest aides, David Schine.  The critic Dwight Macdonald understood the magazine’s appeal: “Mad expresses the teenagers’ cynicism about the world of mass media that their elders have created so full of hypocrisy and pretense governed by formulas.”  He went on, “But Mad itself has a formula. It speaks the same language, aesthetically and morally, as the media it satirizes; it is as tasteless as they are, and even more violent.”  And it was popular.

In 1982, Gaines sold Mad to Time-Warner for a reported $5 million and continued to have editorial control.  Gaines was a tough boss requiring graphic artists and writers to surrender their intellectual property (IP) rights to get published.  This became EC policy in 1948 and, while newspaper comic strips adhered to the policy, it was alone among major comic-book publishers employing this business model.  Gaines controlled all the rights.  Perhaps Gaines’ biggest laugh is knowledge that the director John Landis, of The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and other popular movies, is developing a biopic bases on him and the EC story, called Ghoulishly Yours, William M Gaines. Gaines died in 1992.

Ray Bradbury published his sci-fi classic, Fahrenheit 451, in 1953.  The title signifies the temperature at which book-paper burns.   It’s a dystopian novel about postmodern “firemen” who censor threatening texts by burning them and the small, isolated communities of people committed to keeping the written word — as a memorized, spoken text — alive.  Bradbury wrote his classic tale during a period in which a dozen or so communities around the country burned comic books.

In 1954, the Book-of-the-Month Club assailed Batman: “It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”  The media decried Superman, some wondering if he was not a fascist; Wonder Woman was condemned as “a morbid ideal. … He followers are the gay girls.”  And Cat-woman was attacked because she was “… vicious and uses a whip.”  Popular comics like The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror were denounced as “sex horror serials” and “pulp paper nightmares” that created “ethical confusion.”


From October 12-15, 2023, Comic Con will hold its annual convention at New York’s Javits Center.  Among the media stars who will highlight the convention will be Chris Evans (aka Captain America), and Ewan McGregor (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi), Jodie Whittaker (“Doctor Who”) and David Tennant (“Doctor Who”).

Comic Con began as a gathering of a small group of fans of comics, movies and science fiction in San Diego in 1970 with 300 people attended.  Its 2022 convention in San Diego drew 135,000 attendees.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.