In 1954 the comic book industry was under attack. First came the publication of Fredrick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent which blamed a rise in juvenile delinquency on violent comic books. Then came a congressional subcommittee hearing on the same subject which furthered both exposure and public outrage. Finally a group of prominent publishers teamed up with distributors to self-censor, creating the Comics Code Authority (or CCA), which changed the face of all comics for decades to come. Although the CCA no longer exists (DC and Archie were the last to drop the seal in 2011), in many ways the industry is still recovering from its influence.
The road to censorship began when interest in superheroes dropped off in the years after World War 2. Publishers started branching out into science fiction, fantasy, westerns, crime, and eventually horror. The first official standalone horror comic was Eerie #1, published in 1947. Sales were abysmal, so Avon pulled the plug until 1951, when horror comics were a full-blown trend. The best remembered horror publisher of the time was EC, which published Tales from the Crypt and others, but almost every comic book publishers had at least one horror title by the time the CCA murdered them all.
Some of the titles were innocent enough, but in an unregulated field with tough competition where the biggest sales go to the person who can frighten readers the most, the violence and shock factor of certain books rose quickly. Stories on cannibalism, dismemberment, and torture were featured as often as classic monster and alien stories. There was no ratings system at the time, which led to books written for more mature readers being sold to kids indiscriminately.
Although it may seem like common sense now to have different products of the same medium aimed at and sold to their respective age groups, in 1954 people didn’t know what to do. So the CCA came in and banned all horror and crime stories, set up a system of rules in which crime is never depicted in a positive manner, in which the bad guys never win, and in which ghouls goblins and monsters were decidedly uninvited.
Instead of setting off a portion of newsstands with horror comics that kids couldn’t buy without approval, they made sure that horror comics would never reach newsstands in the first place. The following are some of the many titles brought to an early grave thanks to the draconian standards of the CCA…
Tales from the Crypt
This is the most recognizable title from the era, most likely due to the 1989-1996 HBO series which faithfully reproduced elements of the original book; from each episode containing several stories, to the Crypt keeper giving ghoulish and playful banter between segments. If you are unfamiliar with the golden age of horror comics, this title is a great introduction.
Although EC was just one of numerous horror publishers in the late 40s to mid-50s, it continues to be regarded as one of the best producers of fear in vintage horror. Tales from the Crypt should be read by anyone interested in the period who is looking for an introduction.
This title is officially a “crime” comic. It was included because the image above was used during the questioning of EC publisher William Gaines during the congressional subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency in 1954. It was presented as an example of how morally corrupt the industry had become; how publishers were allowing all sorts of imagery to be printed without any standards of good taste. When drilled about the features of the cover, Gaines responded in a curious way:
“A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.”
Gaines was, in fact, describing the first draft of the cover which he had asked his artist to redo before that issue was published. Without government or industry interference, Gaines was already working to convey the intent of his stories without being overly dependent on shock and gore. He was testifying on his own ability to draw the line that the government felt needed to be drawn for him. His point was sadly missed.
The Haunt of Fear
The last of three EC books featured on this list, The Haunt of Fear replaced an EC western title named Gunfighter in 1950. It was the second of three main horror books produced by EC from 1950 to 1954, all of which had a mascot narrator. The system was similar to later Marvel exploits like having Spiderman featured in several monthly publications simultaneously.
Tales from the Crypt was hosted by Crypt-Keeper, The Haunt of Fear was hosted by the Old Witch, and EC’s third horror book, The Vault of Terror featured the Vault-Keeper (I guess by that point the narrator-title well began to dry up). All narrators would be featured in all titles which added to the confusion, but readers were given a consistent quality of art and storytelling in each feature.
Mad was the only EC publication to survive the establishment of the CCA. The comic transformed into Mad Magazine as a way to bypass the censorship standards that destroyed every other title offered by the company.
Out of the Night
Published by American Comics Group (ACG) from 1952 to 1954, Out of the Night is a classic title filled with a variety of stories, most of which have some kind of moral buried underneath the dread, death, and dismemberment in their stories.
My favorite so far involves a pair of archeologists looking for a cursed treasure, in a tomb that is guarded by singing skulls. The natives refuse to go near the site, but one of the explorers is too greedy to be warned away, and insists that they press on. His partner is not quite greedy, but rather terrified and tries to call the whole thing off. He eventually dies of fright, leaving the first guy to a horrible fate that is equal parts moral warning and fright-fest. The final panel shows both of their dismembered heads added to a row of singing skulls…classic!
The first horror character in comics was Frankenstein, in a 1940 Prize comics feature. From that first appearance, Frankenstein stories were published until 1954, the year that horror died. Frankenstein was a “guest star” during much of the 40s, only landing a solo title in 1945. By this point, the character had been reimagined as humorous, and remained that way until 1949. The horror aspect of the character was re-explored between 1952 and 1954.
In many ways, the longevity and appeal of Frankenstein reminds me of the resurgence of horror comics through The Walking Dead. Both took established Hollywood monsters and applied them to the comic book form, and both have enjoyed a longevity and success envied by the competition.
Did you know that Marvel wasn’t always the trail-blazing creative powerhouse it is recognized as today? There was a time when they were just trying to keep up with their competition: another little fish in a very big pond. Before they were even Marvel, the company had gone through a number of name and leadership changes. From 1951 to 1957 they were known as Atlas comics, and they weren’t at their best. Martin Goodman (founder of Timely Comics, which had become Atlas Comics and would eventually be Marvel Comics) had watched the superhero craze crumble before him, forcing him to discontinue his two best heroes in 1949 (the original Human Torch and the Sub Mariner). He was determined to keep his company afloat, and began insisting that his staff emulate whatever trends seemed hot.
Captain America was initially discontinued by being converted into a horror comic. The last two issues of the initial Captain America 75 issue run were renamed Captain America’s Wierd Tales. The first issue presented Cap as the Marvel equivalent to EC‘s Crypt-Keeper, the final issue didn’t even bother to have Cap at all.
Menace is one of many Atlas horror titles published during the horror craze of the 1950s. EC hated Alas at the time, and William Gaines has attributed them to the over-saturation of poorly written and regulated horror books in print at the time (and therefore, the negative publicity).
Crypt of Horror
This title is actually a mesh of various other pre-code horror publications out there at the time. It is a republication effort by AC comics which started printing in 2005, and has 26 volumes as of August 2015. This title should appeal to anyone unfamiliar with classic horror comics as well as the EC enthusiasts out there who want to see what the competition was cooking up.
Sources for the Crypt of Horror books include Harvey, which is best known for Caspar, the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich. Harvey once produced Chamber of Chills; a full-throttle horror book that could not survive the rigorous standards of the CCA.
Another notable contributor to the Crypt of Horror selection of stories is Fawcett comics, which created Captain Marvel. DC recognized and resented his similarity to Superman, and sued Fawcett into bankruptcy in 1953. Before going under they were also in the horror business, most notably through Strange Suspense Stories. Crypt of Horror represents a great black and white cross-section of what was being produced during the peak of classic comic horror.
So, In Conclusion…
Comic books were the first in a series of 20th century entertainment mediums that were blamed for an increase in adolescent violence. Politicians will always need something to blame for the violence of a few kids each generation. In a few decades I’m sure that studies will show virtual reality destroys the moral fabric of our children.
There were a total of 40 rules enforced to get the CCA stamp of approval. Although current ratings systems for video games and movies may not be perfect, they are a huge improvement over the CCA approach to protecting kids. To understand why such drastic steps were taken to counteract comic book violence, spend a few minutes watching the following hilarious “news” program from the time: Confidential File.