Pre-Code Horror Comics and How One Man Tried to Stop Them.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the world of comics was essentially the Wild West. Publishers could print whatever they wanted and, at the time, America was obsessed with the creepy, macabre, and grotesque. Publishers and artists had no problem catering to these dark interests as the stands were full of books about monsters, ghosts, ghouls, murder, aliens and all kinds of horrific things.
Among these horror comics one particular publisher stood above the rest: EC Comics. EC Comics produced all kinds of horror greats, but the one people are most familiar with would eventually become a television show: Tales from the Crypt. This anthology series and its eerily charming host The Crypt Keeper became a highlight of the genre that would endure for generations.
What was the problem with comics?
However, concern was growing that violent and sexualized content was having a negative effect on its readers, particularly younger ones. While the audience was by no means only children, there was no denying that kids and teenagers made up the bulk of comic sales.
How was this “problem” addressed?
The charge against comics and their corruption of American youth was lead by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham collected graphic images from various publishers and suggested that Batman and Robin were homosexual. Some claims had more value then others, as one of his main talking points was the repeated bondage subtext in Wonder Woman, which is well documented.
Whether or not all these claims were valid, the book was taken very seriously at the time. Wertham was called as an expert witness in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency and made him somewhat of a celebrity. While the Senate committee decided against any kind of federal regulation for comic books, they did recommend that the industry tone down its content.
The result of all this was the comics industry forming the Comic Code Authority. A self-governing body that would ensure every comic on store shelves adhered to a certain set of rules such as:
- Criminals could not be depicted as sympathetic
- All authority figures must be cast in a positive light
- No vampirism, werewolves, ghouls or cannibalism
- No “Horror” or “Terror” in any titles
- No nudity, torture, gore, or profanity.
While the CCA didn’t forbid the production of comics with these traits, it prevented them from landing on store shelves and in a word before the internet that was the hour comics industry. In response, many publishers killed off their horror lines or changed them so much that they barely resembled the original products. The only surviving member of giant EC’s line was MAD, which escaped the CCA by turning into a magazine that was outside the CCA’s jurisdiction.