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Friday, June 14, 2024

Violence, the media, and the eternal scapegoats: the US Senate and her never-ending battle with pop culture. Part 1

After the recent shootings in America (specifically Aurora, CO and Newton, CT), guns have been targeted yet again. In response, gun activists took the same stance that they always have. So can anyone tell me what Elvis, Batman, Scarface and Call of Duty have in common? They’ve all been used to document how popular culture turns kids into juvenile delinquents and murderous psycopaths. First it was comic books, then it was rock’n’roll, then it was heavy metal, then it was violent movies and TV shows, and now it’s video games. This has affected us all, to one extent or another, and legislation should terrify every one of us. The biggest villain to geeks, much like a Legion of Doom, has been the US Senate, and you will see why.

This goes back to the second world war. Golden Age comic books were completely different, and the super hero primarily. Superman would throw people off buildings, Wonder Woman would shoot Nazi’s left and right, Batman would run people over, and kids loved them for it- it gave them an outlet for the angst of youth. In 1940, psychologist Dr. Fredric Werthham was studying inmates in a juvenile detention center, and found that, shockingly, young males tended to read comic books. Upon closer inspection, he spawned many of the stereotypes that have stuck ever since- Batman’s pedophilic relationship with Robin, Wonder Woman’s lesbianism, Superman’s homosexuality, the list is endless. His book was published that May, under the title “Seduction of the Innocent”, and within months people were up in arms. The companies accused set up editorial boards, but that didn’t matter.  The years following saw negative publicity, to the point that comics were burnt in one city.

comic books, 1948


In 1949, New York enacted this law to try to control “crime comics”, or any comics that dealt with crime (like Batman or Superman):

“163. (1) Every one commits an offense who…
(b) makes, prints, publishes, distributes, sells or has in his possession
for the purposes of publication, distribution or circulation a crime comic.

(7) In this section, “crime comic” means a magazine, periodical or book
that exclusively or substantially comprises matter depicting pictorially
(a) the commission or crimes, real or fictitious; or
(b) events connected with the commission or crimes, real or fictitious,
whether occurring before or after the commission of the crime.”

It wasn’t for another 5 years that the Senate got involved. When they did, the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency oversaw the hearing on the matter, and determined that if self-regulation proved ineffective, as they deemed it had, then “other means necessary” would be taken into effect. To survive, the industry created the Comics Code Authority as a self-censorship bureau. Unfortunately, these harsh regulations put thousands out of work. Many writers and artists committed suicide, many became alcoholics, but a number of them adapted. That was the way of it until one day in 1971…

At that point, the rumor around the coffee pot (as I don’t think they had water coolers back then) was that “Green Arrow” was up for cancellation, so writer Dennis O’Neil decided to go all out. Given that people always confuse Green Lantern with Green Arrow (when they only have two things in common: JLA status and the color green), it made sense to team them up- particularly when you consider that since Hal Jordan was a staunch Conservative and Ollie Queen was quite liberal minded, the perfect thing for them to tackle was social issues. This hit new heights in issue 85, the first part of their “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” issue. A two-part issue, it introduced the idea that Roy Harper, better known as Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy, was taking up mugging to support a heroin addiction.

Quite easily one of the top ten most recognizable comic book covers of all time.

Mainstream comic companies, like Marvel and DC, would slowly faze out the code by replacing it with their own ratings systems. Marvel was the first to do so, discontinuing work with the CCA entirely in 2001, while it took DC ten more years to discontinue work with the CCA. When they announced the end of that road, they announced that they would replace it with a ratings system based upon Marvel’s. That following September, the IP rights to the CCA were purchased by the Comic Books Legal Defense Fund, effectively ending Wertham’s legacy.

Next time, I’ll look at the relationship between the Senate and music. Keep it classy, nerdlings!

An aspiring filmmaker coming from a military family, my solitary life allowed me to gain an intimate knowledge of geekdom. I specialize on horror and military, but I am also knowledgeable on science fiction, fantasy, comic books and classic cartoons.

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