Last week was the American Library Association’s annual “Banned Books Week”, which is always a good time to reflect on the state of literary censorship in America, but this year focused specifically on one of my favorite subjects: comic books.
ReasonTV put out a great short interview with Charles Brownstein, the head of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that they shot at the San Diego Comic Con. The whole interview is worth a look, but the key takeaway is that comic books are, today, just as they were in the early years of their existence, among the most censored and challenged forms of expression. Two comic book series, the bizarre and often hilarious fantasy “Bone” by Jeff Smith, and of all things, “Captain Underpants” by Dav Pilkey, which actually won a Disney Adventures Kid’s Choice award in 2006, are among theg the top 10 most challenged books.
To quote Mr. Brownstein, “The books kids are reading in their leisure hours are the objects of censorship.”
Sadly, this is hardly new.
Moralizing busybodies have been censoring expression and ruining everything good and fun in the world in the name of protecting “the children” for a long, long time. In America, all it took to shut down comic publishing was one lousy book by an unscrupulous psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham.
In the 1950s, superheroes weren’t what they are today, and the most popular comic books (and movies) were horror and crime titles that featured monsters and murder mystery detective stories. Wertham’s book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” published in 1954, claimed that the themes of violence, death, fantasy, and even (imagined) homosexuality in comic books were corrupting the good nature of America’s youth. In support of this theory, he trotted out evidence compiled from his own clinical research which was since found to have been likely falsified and misrepresented.
To quote the NY Times, following their write-up of the research paper that exposed Wertham’s deception:
“‘Seduction of the Innocent’ was released to a public already teeming with anti-comics sentiment, and Wertham was embraced by millions of citizens who feared for America’s moral sanctity; he even testified in televised hearings.
Yet according to Dr. [Carol L.] Tilley, he may have exaggerated the number of youths he worked with at the low-cost mental-health clinic he established in Harlem, who might have totaled in the hundreds instead of the ‘many thousands’ he claimed. Dr. Tilley said he misstated their ages, combined quotations taken from many children to appear as if they came from one speaker and attributed remarks said by a single speaker to larger groups.”
But, ironically perhaps, it was “Seduction of the Innocent” that had the truly profound impact on American culture, as it provided all the ammunition needed for petty tyrants and moral scolds who pushed the US Government to do something about all those pernicious comic books.
For the children, of course.
Facing a wave of attacks from the government, the comic book industry took a cue from the Motion Picture Association of America, and created its own preemptive censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code established in 1954 laid out 19 criteria that comic books had to abide by. They include things like, “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” and “Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.”
Naturally, this had a severe chilling effect on comic book publishing. Comic book sales plummeted. According to penciler/inker Joe Sinnott of Marvel Comics (Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Inhumans, The Avengers) by 1958, the industry had suffered so much that rates for the writers and artists had been cut in half. The hugely successful horror and mystery genre comics were gone, and what remained endured a period of creative stagnation while publishers figured out how to work within the new rules. Eventually, some independent publishers began ignoring the Code and produced some darker stories, but without the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, those books would never see the light of day on store shelves.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Marvel Comics finally abandoned the code, and DC continued to abide by it until just 4 years ago in 2010.
It’s important to understand here that while it was technically the industry “self-censoring”, it did so purely as a result of repeated threats from a government which had by that point a well-established history of censoring “undesireable” speech in numerous forms – a government, it should be remembered, that is legally constrained by the 1st Amendment, which expressly prohibits the creation of laws abridging the freedom of individual speech, or of the press.
Censorship is clearly alive and well in America. Even today, the United States is ranked a shocking 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, our public schools and libraries routinely ban books, and government-funded colleges severely limit speech on campus. Just a few years ago, we saw a hotly controversial Supreme Court case (“Citizens United”) to decide whether or not it was ok for the government to restrict the promotion and distribution of a documentary film simply because it was unfavorable to a prominent and powerful politician (Hillary Clinton) during an election year.
The restrictions on comic books, films, and other entertainment media are one small piece of a very scary picture where the government of the country which is supposed to be the beacon of freedom for the rest of the world is continually grabbing more and more authority to control what people say. A world where ideas and art cannot be shared if a vocal minority of nannies deems those ideas “unsuitable” is a world headed for collapse.
It’s good to know there are people like Charles Brownstein out there standing up for free speech.