6. The Anti-Comics Backlash in the Press and the Academy: Early Arguments
Efforts to regulate comics intensified and spread across the U.S. and beyond in the period after World War II, ultimately succeeding in forcing the industry to restructure itself in a more 'child-friendly' direction. Objections to the contents of comic books and public expressions of concern over their effects on young minds, however, had begun well before Dr. Fredric Wertham emerged on the scene. Widely considered the first salvo in what would later become a full-blown anti-comics campaign, Sterling North's 1940 editorial, "A National Disgrace," warned parents about the menace that lurked, largely undetected, behind the colourful covers of the new medium he called "funny books." From the very outset, North identified many of the pressure points and deployed many of the tropes of endangered innocence that would structure the anti-comics debate through to the early 1950s. He identified the menace as one operating within children's culture, undetected by adults. He likened the effects of comics to a "hypodermic injection of sex and murder" and a "violent stimulant," using the rhetoric of addiction to emphasize how foreign and deadly comics were to the world of childhood innocence. Indeed, he accuses the comics publishing industry of a "cultural slaughter of the innocents." The "antidote" for this unnatural development in children's reading was a return to the "classics" of mainstream children's publishing, perhaps not a surprising conclusion for someone who was himself an acclaimed children's author to reach.
Other critiques of the new medium of comic books followed North's. Franklyn M. Branley, an elementary English teacher, bemoaned the relentless spread of "those small, insidious, colorful magazines," comparing it to a "plague" and an epidemic of "comicitis." Clearly influenced by North's editorial, Branley also suggests an "antidote" can easily be found "in the school and town library." This appeal to taste, to try to bring children back into the fold of more literary leisure reading, was very common to anti-comics arguments of the period but would later be displaced by the fear of juvenile delinquency. At the heart of Branley's argument, however, is the long-standing link between the child's innocence and her susceptibility to negative outside influence. Branley's claims that "children do not discriminate," that they read comics, and anything else, "as a truth," and that "they are strongly influenced by what they read" are the cornerstones of the arguments against comics that would emerge in the next decade. The implied psychological profile here is one of always-unsuspecting innocence and vulnerability that needs to be protected.
James Frank Vlamos took a different approach in his critique of comics for The American Mercury, "The Sad Case of the Funnies." He begins with a nostalgic lament for the passing of the more innocent times of his generation's childhood, "the colorful and carefree world in which you delighted in younger days." The sex and violence of the modern comic book is, however, less disconcerting for Vlamos than the politics it celebrates. Writing in the shadow of fascism in Germany and Italy, Vlamos viewed the newly and wildly popular genre of superhero comics as promoting a dangerous admiration for naked power. The "machine-man" superhero, who "is a law unto himself," is lionized for impressionable child readers: "the 'funnies' demonstrate all the arguments a child ever needs for an omnipotent and infallible 'strong man' beyond all law, the nihilistic man of the totalitarian ideology."