Comic book hysteria revisited

Like some video games today, graphic comics used to come under fire.

by Clarise Tushie-Lessard

Books were burned, people were arrested, legislation was passed and Congress held hearings – all because of comic books.

Before rock ‘n’ roll, X-rated movies or “Grand Theft Auto ,” the comic book industry threatened to corrupt America’s youth. David Hajdu, author of “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America,” spoke about the largely forgotten controversy Tuesday night at Andersen Library . The event was part of a celebration honoring John Borger’s donation of 40,000 comic books to the University library in March.

“I want to stop people in the street and say, ‘Hey, there’s a story, did you know that America went crazy over comic books at one time, and there was a full-blown hysteria over comics?’ ” Hajdu said.

The hysteria took place mostly in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when titles like “The Crypt of Terror” and “The Vault of Horror,” many of them featuring extreme violence and gore, were flying off the shelves for 10 cents apiece. The comics’ price not only made them easily accessible but also extremely popular.

“No entertainment for kids had been so unruly and dark and violent and sexy and scary before,” Hajdu said.

By the 1950s, anti-comic crusaders began establishing links between juvenile delinquency and violent comic books. In 1954, the Senate held televised hearings on comic books’ role in inciting juvenile delinquency, and soon afterward the comic book industry crashed.

Hajdu said the controversy was not about the comic books, but what they represented.

“Comics defied adults and didn’t need adults, and that struck terror in the hearts of adults,” Hajdu said. “The controversy in comics was really an early battle in culture wars.”

Jim Kakalios , undergraduate director of physics and astronomy and comic book enthusiast, said there are parallels between the comic book culture war and the culture wars of today over video games and rap music.

“It’s basically the same cycle that every generation kind of goes through,” Kakalios said. “The next generation will probably say, ‘Why can’t kids listen to the good wholesome music of Ghostface Killah?’ “

Dr. Frederick Wertham’s 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” which linked juvenile delinquency to violent comics, is similar to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Adolescence which showed increased aggression in teenagers who played violent video games.

But just as Wertham’s 1954 findings are questioned today, a 2007 study published in “Psychology, Crime & Law,” showed children with stable personalities were unaffected by violent video games.

Kakalios said he didn’t think comic books incited violence, and though he doesn’t play video games, he doubts the ability of violent video games to do the same.

James Rosenbaum, a U.S. District Judge who struck down Minnesota video game legislation as unconstitutional in 2006, agreed.

“There is no showing whatsoever that video games, in the absence of other violent media, cause even the slightest injury to children,” Rosenbaum said in his case opinion.

The case arose when the Entertainment Software Association challenged a Minnesota fine-the-buyer law which charged underage buyers of adult-only and mature-rated video games $25. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson decided not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court on June 30. The ESA confirmed that Minnesota paid the association $65,000 in legal fees the same day.

But Hajdu said while his sympathies were mostly with the comic book creators, even he is leery of violent video games because he suspects a difference between committing a violent act and reading about it.

“The video games are doing their job, the same job that the comics did, to terrify parents,” Hajdu said.