The years spanning the late 1930s through the early 1950s are often referred to as the golden age of comics - and with good reason. Serving as a cheap escape from the grim reality of the Second World War, comic books came into their own as a medium. What began as a ragtag band of publishers turned into a multimillion dollar industry: popular titles such as Batman and Green Lantern sold over a million copies in a single issue, and the industry experienced wild growth.
As the war drew longer, comic books' audience changed: The children who read them grew older, and many GIs who received issues for free overseas got hooked on comics. As their demographics changed, the industry's focus shifted to cater to their new audience. Publishers like EC Comics created books centered on more adult themes - gritty crime stories, and horror comics. By the early 1950s, comics weren't just for children anymore.
Does this sound familiar to you? Even if you aren't a fan of comic books, it should. In terms of history, comic books and videogames have a lot in common. With this in mind, there's a great deal that we can learn from them. In particular, we can learn from the mistakes of 1954 - the year the golden age of comic books came crashing down.
The comic industry's woes began when Dr. Fredric Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist, published Seduction of the Innocent - a book which warned that comic books were turning America's youth into juvenile delinquents. Wertham's book attacked comics for their violence and strong sexual themes which, he argued, young readers were likely to imitate. Much of the book was backed by undocumented anecdotal evidence, but it managed to cause a stir among concerned parents, and prompted a congressional subcommittee to launch an investigation into comic books' effects on youth.
Frightened by the possibility of federal regulation, the comic book industry rushed to create its own set of decency guidelines. The resulting entity was the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a regulatory organization with a strict set of rules. In its first incarnation, the Comics Code barred depictions of sex or excessive violence, forbade any depiction of disrespect towards authority figures and decreed the forces of good must always win. While the CCA didn't have legal control over the industry, most shops and distributors refused to carry comic books which hadn't been approved. Many publishers, such as Marvel and DC, simply cancelled books which contained questionable content, but for publishers who thrived on the edgy themes, the impact was devastating: Almost overnight, entire comic book genres ceased to exist.
With the fate of comics in mind, it's easy to see just how vulnerable the videogame industry is. It's only in the past 20 years that comic book industry has begun to recover from the destruction brought about by the Comics Code. And while videogames have yet to suffer under anything as oppressive as the CCA, the industry has come dangerously close on a number of occasions. This is why we need to learn from the comic industry's mistakes while there's still time. The gaming industry itself, in the form of the ESA and ESRB has done a lot to defend itself, but there's still a lot gamers themselves can do.