Arts & Entertainment

When Comic Books Threatened the U.S.A. (and the world)

Hank Kennedy reminds us of a period of all-sided culture war against comic books, pointing at its lessons and aftermath today.

In 1952 there existed twenty comic book publishers, publishing six hundred fifty titles a month, and employing one thousand workers. By 1956, the industry had shrunk to six publishers and two hundred fifty titles employing two hundred people. What happened in the interim is a telling story of how a uniquely American art form was artificially stunted and constrained in a way that combined moral panic with McCarthyist witch-hunting. It is also a story of how the organized left, both in the United States and abroad, joined forces with political, religious, and cultural authorities to stamp out a burgeoning critical medium.

Genres as diverse as war, horror, crime, and romance had regularly appeared on shelves and in the hands of readers, the same genre variations as other popular media such as film and television. But the transformation of the industry led to the domination of “long underwear characters,” a bias that continues to today.  At the same time as the McCarthyist Red Scare, religious authorities, police, government, and self-styled moral guardians—right and left—with the consent/cooperation of comic book industry associations formed an unholy alliance that eviscerated the industry and helped to put Superman, Batman, and the rest on top.

The Great Comics Scare happened when it did for several reasons. First, there was an uptick in juvenile criminality that coincided with the family instability and social anxiety caused by the war in Korea, which itself led to a search for blames, one of which was the comic book industry. Second, there was the general conformist right-wing turn seen in politics with the ascendency of the Republican Party and the McCarthyist Red Scare that led to a reaction against the sort of violent, lurid content often seen in comic books. Finally, there is the fact that in the United States every new form of artistic expression has produced some kind of backlash, from the film industry, to rock and roll, to video games. The comic scare was simply the most devastating to the medium in question.

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