BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — To W.H. Stephens, there were two things that were destroying the youth of America: TV and comic books.
In a letter published in The Birmingham News on January 10, 1954, Stephens felt the two mediums “past the question” in what was to blame for the reported 1 million juveniles who had been arrested across the country the previous year.
“Doctors tell us there is a direct contact between the sensory system and the motor activities,” the Bessemer native wrote. “What they see with their eyes, they want to recreate. A youngster cannot reason like a grownup. Many of them do not stay satisfied with toy pistols and imitation gang-warfare.”
With Banned Book Week and several states–including Alabama– taking on the role of evaluating the content of certain books in libraries, there are some similarities to when many across the country were concerned about the perceived threat comic books could be to children.
Stephens’ concerns about comic books were seemingly the norm for the time, especially in Alabama. By September 25, 1948, Birmingham had banned 52 comics from being sold at newsstands. Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who would come to be known for his efforts to dampen the civil rights movement in the city, was the one who passed the ordinance.
Within the same week, officials in Anniston, Gadsden and Mobile were already thinking about similar bans.
The growing concern around comic books would reach a new height in 1955 with the release of “Seduction of the Innocent” by psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, who theorized that comic books were not only a lower quality of literature, but played a factor in juvenile delinquency. Among other things, Wertham theorized that Batman was actually gay and that Superman was a fascist.
“Slowly, and at first reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that this chronic stimulation, temptation and seduction by comic books, both their content and their alluring advertisements of knives and guns, are contributing factors to many children’s maladjustment,” Wertham wrote.
Over the years, Wertham’s research in “Seduction of the Innocent” became discredited with some criticizing his overuse of anecdotal evidence–as opposed to scientific research– to reach his conclusions.
However, at the time the book was published, many across the country took Wertham’s words as truth, looking for ways to keep harmful comic books away from children. The U.S. Senate even launched its own committee, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency.
“I refer to comics…which glorify graft and corruption and ridicule honesty or produce fantastic pictures of violence, brutality and torture,” New Jersey Sen. Robert C. Hendrickson told the Associated Press the day that “Seduction of the Innocent” was published.
Wertham himself was even called as a witness in the hearing, where he said, among many things, that “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”
By June, one of the largest magazine distributors in north Alabama, Clyde W. Anderson, agreed to eliminate orders of “indecent” comic books in the area. The following month, the Alexander City Parent-Teacher Association began a drive to ban certain comic books from being sold in town.
“Parents should make their child’s reading selective…let children read good books instead of trashy comic books,” PTA member Sarah Towery told the Alexander City Lookout.
In Dothan, a committee of the Dothan Council of Church Women began their own initiative to have scandalous comics removed from town stores. In an article published in the Dothan Eagle on June 17, 1954, one of the committee members cited a house fire that had been started by a whiskey-drinking 11-year-old boy as an example of the negative example comic books can have.
By November, the city of Monroeville had banned the sale of comic books and pulp magazines with “sex or horror themes.” At the time, The Anniston Star reported that those breaking that ordinance could be fined up to $100 or face 90 days in jail.
By that December, certain people in law enforcement began using comic books as signs of youth crime, especially after four school buildings burned down in south Alabama.
“The four cases appear isolated and there is no particular pattern to be drawn, (National Board of Fire Underwriters R.A.) Payne said, except one of juvenile delinquency. ‘Too many comic books,’ the fire investigator believes, is one of the main contributing features of delinquency,” an article in the December 9, 1954 issue of the Dothan Eagle stated.
The rising paranoia about the dangerous effects of comic book exposure eventually led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which allowed publishers to regulate the content of the books coming out at the time. With the changing industry of comics, the organization eventually became obsolete.
However, not everyone was on board with banning questionable comic books. Following Birmingham’s comic book ban in 1948, resident Pat Green complained about how comic books could be used to relax.
“After all, while there are some comic books that have given people wrong ideas, many others give people a good laugh,” she wrote. “Among the 52 comic books that Commissioner Connor wants banned, the ones like ‘Authentic Police Cases’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’ show that while people think they can commit the perfect crime, they always get caught or pay for it with their lives in the end. I’m sure that I’m just one of the many who feel the same about the banning of some of these comics.”
Even Roger Thames, the radio and TV editor of The Birmingham News, didn’t agree with Wertham’s research, especially on the effects of television.
“He impresses me as a man who is painfully aware of his own awesome intellect and who is disdainful of us poor morons whose intellect is so low we find enjoyment in so plebian an instrument as a TV set,” Thames wrote in the April 25, 1954 issue of the News. “Go find yourself a shoulder to cry on, doc. TV’s not so bad.”