Teaching and Learning History - 092716

Classroom Applications


Should Congress Regulate the Content of Books for Kids?:
The Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee
on Juvenile Delinquency Investigates Comic Books

by Charles Flannagan and Christine Blackerby
National Archives and Records Administration

Today’s apprehension over the impact of violent computer games, unrestricted content on the web, and other potentially harmful media products echoes the concerns voiced during an earlier wave of innovation in popular media. Then, as now, parents and teachers looked anxiously at changes in teenage styles of dress, music, and ways of speaking. In the 1950s, the parents of the baby boomers turned their attention to the newly popular crime and horror comic books and began to ask about their possible contribution to worrisome changes taking place in society and culture. In the spring of 1954, the Senate responded to a flood of mail on the topic by convening an investigation.

Engaging students in key issues from that investigation brings alive a dramatic historic moment and also teaches them about Congress’s power and responsibility to investigate.

The United States Senate Special Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was created in response to increasing levels of crime committed by youth in the United States and popular allegations linking the crime wave to the harmful effects on children of popular media, ranging from dime novels and motion pictures to comic books.

The subcommittee was established on April 27, 1953, with the approval of S. Res. 89 by the 83rd Congress. It was charged with investigating criminal activity by teenagers and determining what steps the Federal Government might take to combat it.

The early 1950s were a time of great public anxiety about the nation’s youth. In 1955, for instance, Newsweek reported that the number of crimes committed since the period 1937–1939 had increased by 33.4%, and that a disproportionate amount of the increase was caused by American youth. Those concerns developed in the context of a democratizing society in which expanding civil rights and increased class mobility, due in part to the G.I. Bill, fostered the emergence of a new mass media culture. Some believed that Hollywood movies, television shows, and comic books elevated lower class culture, which threatened the transmission of the traditional notions of family and community to the young.

Civic and religious leaders maintained that there was a causal link between comic books and antisocial behavior, and several newspapers had waged editorial campaigns calling for restrictions on them. Comic books of all types had become wildly popular by the end of World War II, with sales reaching 80 to 100 million books per week. Soon, however, critics began to find fault with the newly emerging genre of crime and horror comic books, seeing potential danger to readers in violent story lines and illustrations they considered sexually suggestive and sadistic. Communities expressed their concern about crime and horror literature in many ways, but the most overt expression of opposition came in the form of mass comic book burnings that were organized in several communities by the early 1950s.

The most widely heard anti-comic books voice was that of New York child expert Dr. Fredric Wertham. Beginning in 1948, Wertham advocated a ban on the sale of comic books to children under the age of 16, claiming that all of the delinquent children he studied in his three decades of practice had been damaged by reading comics. Six years later, Dr. Wertham seized the nation’s attention with an anti-comic book exposé entitled Seduction of the Innocent. Critics of Dr. Wertham asserted that his research was not supported by adequate data and consisted mostly of suppositions. At the time, however, although his views were recognized as being clearly one-sided, they were widely published.

“Letter from Eugenia Y. Genovar Regarding Comic Book Censorship, 11/24/1953”
Courtesy of the National Archives
Record Locator: 6120051

The Subcommittee Investigation
The subcommittee did not dive blindly or suddenly into the general topic of juvenile delinquency or the alleged danger of crime and horror comics. As early as 1950, Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN) had participated in a panel on the possible link between mass media and juvenile delinquency. The subcommittee also had a knowledgeable staff. In mid-1953, the subcommittee named Richard Clendenen as its lead investigator, an expert on the topic of juvenile delinquency through his years of service to a leading child-welfare advocacy agency, The Children’s Bureau. Also, Chairman Robert Hendrickson (R-NJ) sent an extensive questionnaire to experts in the field in 1953, a year before any hearings were held. Still, with three-quarters of the mail inundating the subcommittee demanding an investigation, the committee responded to the appeal by including an extensive but fair studyof the crime and horror genre of comic books within its schedule of hearings held on a range of topics related to juvenile delinquency.

In April and June 1954, the subcommittee conducted public hearings on comic books in New York City, the home of the industry. The investigation was limited to crime and horror comic books because they—in the words of the committee’s 1955 report on the topic—offered “short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror.”

The committee was especially concerned with the vivid graphic artistry of the books that illustrated and explained depraved acts in detail. Noting that crime and horror comics were being bought and read daily by thousands of children, the subcommittee expressed alarm that the books evidenced a common penchant for “violent death in every form imaginable and dwelled in detail on various forms of insanity and stressed sadistic degeneracy.” Even more disturbing, other comic books were described as being devoted to cannibalism, “with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women.”

Although the industry’s trade organization had devised a code in 1948 to regulate content, at best only one-third of the publishers subscribed to it, and by 1954 defections from the membership of the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers robbed it of any enforcement power. During the next few years, many states debated bills to ban or regulate comic books, but decided not to adopt them largely because of the 1948 Supreme Court decision in the case of Winters v. New York that overturned that state’s law against the distribution and sale of crime magazines.

Meeting in New York City on April 21, 22, and June 4, the subcommittee heard from a wide range of witnesses. Richard Clendenen summarized the investigation and cautiously noted the absence of a clear link between lurid publications and crime. Dr. Harris Peck of the Children’s Court of New York City echoed Clendenen’s concern that crime and horror comics could harm vulnerable readers sensitized by other factors, but did not see them as a cause of delinquency in themselves. Fredric Wertham, by contrast, declared that crime comics seduced their readers, desensitizing them to violence through repetition of gory scenes and instructing them on how to commit more successful crimes.

A Defining Moment for the Comic Book
Entertaining Comics (EC) publisher William M. Gaines made the most lasting impact. Under grilling from subcommittee staff and members, he acknowledged that his desire for profit trumped his concern for the suitability of his comics for young audiences. When Gaines claimed to publish only materials in good taste, Senator Kefauver held up the cover of the current issue of EC’s Crime Suspense Stories, which showed the bloody head and freshly severed neck of an ax murder victim. “Is this in good taste?” the Senator demanded. Gaines’s reply, “Yes, for a murder comic,” failed to convince the subcommittee and soon led to significant change in the comic book industry.  On the strength of the testimony it heard, the subcommittee warned comic book publishers that they must either impose effective self-regulation or face “other ways and means” that would be found to protect children. In response, the industry formed a new trade association and formulated a new code to self-censor content. The code seal of approval subsequently appeared on approved comic books, and thereafter a significant number of distributors and stores refused to carry any comic books which did not have it. Soon, the crime and horror comic books disappeared from circulation, and many artists and writers lost their careers. Most of Mr. Gaines’s publications folded, but in one case he evaded the code by focusing his commercial attention on the genre of satire. He turned Mad comic book into Mad Magazine, which was not subject to the comics code, and it later became an enduring icon of adolescent humor.
Learning Activities: Should Congress Limit the Content of Books for Kids?
Have students begin by answering the question posed above as it relates to their lives today. Then have them consider when Congress would be the appropriate body to create such a regulation. When, by contrast, might the questions of access or exposure to objectionable books be best addressed by industry self-regulation, state or local law, or parental guidance?

Having discussed their responses to these opening questions, have students consider the following historical examples to analyze the issue as the Senate encountered it in 1954:

1. Read the following exchange between Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN), Associate Chief Counsel Herbert Wilson Beaser, and comic book publisher William M. Gaines.

Mr. Beaser. Let me get the limits as far as what you put into your magazine... Is the sole test of what you put into your magazine whether it sells? Is there any limit you can think of that you would not put in a magazine because you thought
a child should not see or read about?
Mr. Gaines. No, I wouldn’t say that there is any limit for the reason you outlined...
Mr. Beaser. There would be no limit actually to what you put in the magazines?
Mr. Gaines. Only within the bounds of good taste...
Mr. Beaser. Your own good taste and salability?
Mr. Gaines. Yes.
Sen. Kefauver. Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman’
s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Mr. Gaines. Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. 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.  

What limits on publication are Senator Kefauver and Mr. Beaser suggesting should apply? What parameter on acceptable content is Mr. Gaines advocating?

2. In his testimony, Mr. Gaines claimed that this cover was in “good taste.” To what extent would you agree with him?
Have the class share their responses, and note the range of opinion. In light of varying responses, have them consider on what grounds Congress should determine whether regulation of material such as this is warranted.

3. Read the featured letters from the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency’s files. Each represents the opinion and voice of a citizen who contacted the subcommittee at the time of the investigation.
What points of view are represented in these letters? In determining the best response to the issue, how much weight should the subcommittee give to these letters, and should it weigh them equally?

4. Have the class reflect on their study of the evidence by discussing the following questions:
-  What is the effect upon, message sent, or signal conveyed to the industry and the American people when Congress decided to investigate an issue? Is this more or less powerful and effective than making regulation by law without an investigation?
-  The Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency did not recommend legislation to regulate the comics, but successfully encouraged the industry to self-regulate. What might have been the advantages and disadvantages to choosing this response to the issue?
-  In what ways and to what extent does Congress’s study of comic books relate to contemporary discussions about the content of video games and their potential effects?
What other forms of entertainment media are subject of regulation or warning labels? Based on your research, which of these have been instigated following congressional investigation?

“Letter from Robert Merdian Regarding Comic Book Censorship, 6/22/1954”
Courtesy of the National Archives
Record Locator: 6120050


“Letter from Eugenia Y. Genovar Regarding Comic Book Censorship, 11/24/1953”
Courtesy of the National Archives
Record Locator: 6120051

These documents are available online in the National Archives Archival Research Catalog (ARC) at http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/


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