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A Crisis of Innocence

4. Crime! Horror!

The variety of genres available to young readers expanded dramatically in the 1940s and 50s; the more acceptably innocent 'Animal Funnies' and humour comics remained popular, but shared space on the comics rack with Superhero, Western, Jungle, Science Fiction, Romance, and other genres. While all of these were subject to criticism by various experts and by the press, the Crime and Horror genres drew the lion's share of public attention and outrage, and were singled out for their particularly harmful influence on children. Their combination of lurid images, violent and gorey scenes, and often highly sexualized depictions of women ('headlight comics' was the term young boys used to describe books with erotic imagery, according to Fredric Wertham) offended public sensibilities and taste. Because of our culture's assumptions about childhood innocence, however, this distaste quickly turned into anxiety. The child reader's relationship to texts (especially products of mass culture) has tended to be understood, as Martin Barker argues in Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, in terms of emulation and 'identification;' innocence does not allow for ironic distance or critical reading in children. As a result, what Barker calls an 'effects paradigm' of mass cuture underwrote much of the public outcry over comics: comics reading could only be understood through the lens of its (negative) 'effects' on the young.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, newspapers and popular magazines regularly carried sensational stories about the 'discovery' of shocking content in children's comic books (see section 6). While the comics retained their supporters, the predominant sense in the media was that this seemingly innocuous medium was betraying the parents who trusted it to deliver innocent entertainment for the young. Increasingly, concern began to focus on the 'effects' comics had on children's minds and behaviour. An illustration accompanying 'Junior Has a Craving,' an article appearing in The New Republic, about a mother's experiences with her eight-year old comics-reading son, depicted these anxieties succinctly: comics were filling the heads of innocent children with a jumble of dangerous ideas.