Book Bans Today Recall 1950s Panic over Comic BooksRoundup
tags: censorship, comic books, moral panics, Book Bans
Jeremy C. Young is the senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.
Jonathan Friedman is the director of free expression and education at PEN America.
Today there is a rising movement to ban books, especially in schools and libraries where children might access them. This movement comes despite book banning being wildly unpopular nationally, including in red states, and even in a messaging poll designed to test the most effective conservative arguments on education.
Some of the opposition stems from a crisis of credibility among book banners. The advocacy organizations driving the movement are a motley crew.
But opposition and a lack of credibility — or evidence to support their claims — may not doom today’s book-banning efforts. Already, school districts in 32 states have taken some action to ban books. And history shows that when Americans grow panicked about the impact of reading material on children, they often don’t scrutinize specific claims against materials.
This was the case in the 1950s when a movement arose to ban comic books. At its center was a respected child psychologist pushing wild accusations about the dangers of illustrated literature for children. His analysis was misguided, his evidence misleading or fabricated, and his concerns about children’s literature overblown, but Americans bought his claims anyway. This history serves as a cautionary tale, as graphic novels once again draw the ire of book banners.
During the golden age of comic books, which stretched from 1938 to the mid-1950s, comics exploded in popularity. This period saw the introduction of such characters as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Captain America. According to comics historian Carol Tilley, over 90 percent of children and over 80 percent of teens were reading comic books at the time the efforts to ban them accelerated.
Like other forms of popular literature such as science fiction, fantasy and today’s young adult novels, comic books addressed important social controversies and challenging themes. In 1946, a Superman radio serial exposed the secret rituals of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, embarrassing the white supremacist organization and hastening its decline. More controversially, some comics also told luridly illustrated stories of crime, horror and the supernatural.
After World War II, America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union drove a nationwide Red Scare that culminated in anti-communist witch hunts at congressional hearings led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and others. This fear of communism drove what historians have termed “containment culture” — a fear of any sort of deviance or difference from established cultural norms, including stories of forbidden crimes, passions and identities.
These fears drove figures like children’s novelist Sterling North and Jesuit priest Robert E. Southard to oppose the proliferation of comic books. And they had an unlikely ally laboring to demonstrate the supposed harm caused by books: the noted child psychologist Fredric Wertham.