Sixty-four years ago, America banned werewolves.
Also, vampires, ghouls, (not quite sure what they are), axe murderers, successful bank robbers, extra-marital affairs and poor grammar.
Most people today are probably unaware that all of this banning ever took place.
But to those of us who grew up with comic magazines during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the clean-up crusade’s impact was devastating. Much of our youthful reading matter was yanked from our hands, never to return.
The onslaught began subtly, with adults of post-World War II America talking about something called “juvenile delinquency.” Polls of the time showed that rampaging bad kids were a huge problem in the eyes of middle-class and working-class families, challenged only by the fear that the neighbors’ canasta party might be a covert meeting of a communist cell.
Quite possibly the good family men and women who had outlasted the Great Depression and fought the war were simply growing alarmed by the sheer size of the Baby Boom they had created, a generation just beginning to talk back.
Be that as it may, they panicked. When two powerful forces joined in to egg the jittery parents on, 1954 became a terrible year for kids like myself, whose nirvana was the colorful comic book racks at the neighborhood grocery and drugstore.
Here’s how it all started: In April of that year, psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham published a book entitled “Seduction of the Innocent.” Arguing that comic magazines had become bad influences on the young, he presented illustrations verbal and pictorial of nasty, fear-inspiring and anti-social acts within their colorful pages.
To be fair, some of the comics were violent and gruesome in ways unimaginable today, with their depictions of rotting creatures oozing out of the grave and unshaven men with axes chopping off the heads of people (often screaming women).
But, to be equally fair, I never felt inspired to dig in old cemeteries or settle disputes with an axe, and I wondered why adults were talking as if I were a powder keg about to go off.
Anyway, the second powerful force to attack the comics universe was the U.S. Senate. Seeing a godsend of a campaign issue, that august body’s Judiciary Committee spawned a subcommittee on – get this – comic books. Chaired by the highly visible (and presidential aspirant) Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, it heard testimony from experts like – get this also – Dr. Wertham.
No formal action came from the Senate beyond a warning, but the comic book industry grew skittish. Publishers immediately created a self-regulating body called the Comics Code Authority. This board drew up rules – lots of them.
Not only were the creatures mentioned above forbidden, but the violence of war comics had to be toned down and every crime story had to show that criminals always got punished and the law was above reproach.
The words “horror” and “terror” were banned from titles.
Even the smarmy romance comics were tagged with a requirement to uphold the sanctity of marriage.
And, said Section C of the code, “good grammar shall be employed.”
With that stroke, the freewheeling and fun world of postwar comics collapsed.
Well, eventually society changed, and the old “Approved” stamp quietly vanished from comic books, but more than half a century later.
All I knew in the mid-1950s was that the good stuff was gone from the shelves.
Oh, somewhere is there a heaven with racks full of “The Vault of Horror” and “Crime SuspenStories”?
If not – well, that’s too scary to contemplate.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]