Left in the Gutter: A Brief History of American Comic Books

Derek A. Salisbury
Derek A. Salisbury

The gutter mentioned in the title of this section has dual meanings. On the one hand, it is representative of the more literal meaning, designed to conjure images of refuse washed away and hidden in subterranean sewers in this case, critical causal facts omitted for the sake of scholarly expediency.

On the other hand, however, it also references the specialized meaning of the word “gutter” specific to comic books.

The gutter, as it pertains to the latter, is the small, seemingly empty, space separating one panel from another. However, the gutter is anything but empty; it is the representation of time and action, taking two distinct pictures — each set in a specific time and depicting a single action — and forcing the reader to connect two images into a single idea.

This connection of time and action is cumulative, each panel building upon the one preceding it exponentially, a process not unfamiliar to historians.

While this thesis aims to historically contextualize the maturation of comic books in the United States during the last two decades of the twentieth-century, more specifically how British comic creators played a crucial role in the process; it cannot encompass the entirety of comic book history.

Academic writing, however, has no equivalent to the gutter and thus the relationships between time and action have to be written out methodically, thoroughly analyzed, and articulated with carefully chosen words and punctuation.

The following portion is meant to serve as a gutter of sorts, a means to show the passage of time and action that, while beyond the scope of this article, is nonetheless vital to its understanding.

The relationship between comic books and society has always been contentious. The first comic book appeared in North America in 1839, an import of Swiss author Rodolphe Töpffer’s ‘Les Adventures de Monsieur Vieux-Bois’ which, when translated to English, was titled ‘The Adventures of Mr Obadiah Oldbuck’.

The first comic books were viewed, much like their dreadful penny cousins, with derision. The combination of pictures and text prompted romantic poet William Wordsworth to denounce the emergent medium in a short 1846 sonnet titled ‘Illustrated Books and Newspapers,’ which read, “[The] Discourse was deemed Man’s noblest attribute, and written words the glory of his hand; then followed printing with enlarged command for thought — dominion vast and absolute for spreading truth, and making love expand. Now prose and verse sunk into disrepute must lacquey [sic] a dumb art that best can suit the taste of this once-intellectual land. A backward movement surely have we here. From manhood, — back to childhood: for the age — Avaunt [sic] this vile abuse of pictured page! Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage.”

Wordsworth’s derision was not uncommon, however, technological limitations of the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century kept comic books and other illustrated periodical publications from becoming mass cultural mediums.

Following in the footsteps of popular American pulp novels, the mass production and subsequent mass marketability of comic books began in the late 1930s.

Unlike their pulp progenitors, which were judged to be working-class distractions, comic books were viewed by comic publishers as well as the general United States population as a medium solely consumed by juveniles.

The first decade of mass comic book production produced what has become the medium’s most recognizable genre, and one inextricably linked to youth consumers: that of the superhero. Superman, created in 1939 was soon followed by other early American superheroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America, all of whom fought off the Axis threats of WWII.

According to comic book scholar Stephen Weiner, early superhero comics were often nothing more than “predictable, crude and enthusiastic propaganda,” the craftsmanship of which was often mediocre. With the close of WWII the popularity of superhero comics waned, allowing publishers to experiment with different genres.

On such publisher was Entertaining Comics (EC), owned and primarily staffed by working-class Jewish war veterans.

During the industry’s genre expansion EC Comics published western, science fiction, and pirate comics, however, the company became simultaneously notorious and trendy for its horror and crime-suspense publications, namely ‘The Haunt of Fear’, ‘Tales from the Crypt’, and ‘Shock’ and ‘Crime SuspenStories’ titles.

EC’s horror and crime titles represented a radical departure for the textual and illustrated elements of mainstream comics.

Al Feldstein, a writer, employed with EC comics through the 1950s, insisted that those working at EC “always wrote to [their own] level. If we thought the comics were being read by very young children, we were not particularly concerned with writing to their [children’s] level.”

Uncharacteristically violent and socio-politically subversive, EC’s publications were hardly meant for youth consumers. And yet, the company’s periodicals became an epicentre for the public debate about whether the medium was appropriate for children consumers.

Some critics like Katherine Clifford, a writer for Parents Magazine, supported EC’s promotion of racial tolerance, while others, like New York Times columnist Dorothy Barclay and author Robert Warshow, urged concerned parents to regulate their children’s reading habits.

However, few critics of the medium were more vehemently opposed to and outspoken against the medium than psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who stated that comic books were “contributing factors to many children’s maladjustment.”

Wertham and his socially conservative acolytes eventually overpowered moderate voices like those of Clifford, Barclay, and Warshow, prompting Senate hearings on the matter in 1954.

Focused on the role of comic books in contributing to youth misconduct, the televised hearings of the Senate subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency publicly debated the medium’s placement in society. William Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, testified that comics were less violent and realistic than the information printed in newspapers and, in many ways, apt reflections of the society in which they are created.

In essence, the horror comics published by EC and their competitors were not products created in a cultural vacuum but reflections of the violence and horror found in United States society. And although many comic book publishers testified at the hearings, Gaines gave the only testimony defending the medium on artistic grounds, telling the Senate committee, “[w]e do not think that the crime news or any news should be banned because it is bad for children. Once you start to censor, you must censor everything. You must censor comic books, radio, television, and newspapers. Then you must censor what people may say. Then you will have turned this country into Spain or Russia.”

Gaines’ Cold War styled condemnation, however, did not stop the censorship of comics.

The end result of the hearings was the Comic Book Code of 1954, which was adopted industry wide. The code prohibited the portrayal of sympathetic criminals, “disrespect for established authority,” excessive knife or gun usage, and scenes of violence.

Furthermore, the code actively sought to regulate morality by disallowing the illustration of “suggestive posture” or any other elements that would “stimulate the lower and baser emotions,” foster “respect for parents, the moral code, and honorable behavior,” as well as dictated that all romance stories “emphasize[d] the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.” And finally, the words “horror” and “crime” were banished from the covers of all comic books.

The Comic Book Code of 1954 appeared to be custom-built to cripple EC Comics, which had, through its various publications, risen to fame by pushing the social boundaries banned by the new comics code.

What little forward movement in the medium that had been achieved by 1954 was undone with the institution of the comics code, a document designed to purposefully limit the creative freedom of comic writers and artists.

EC was financially crippled and, with the exception of MAD Magazine, slowly pulled its other titles from circulation until it left the industry altogether in 1955.

Although comics’ first clash with society resulted in the censorial Comics Book Code, it did not lead to a financial crippling of the industry only the creative development of the medium.

The lack of creativity in mainstream comics lasted well into the 1960s and resulted in short-lived ineffectual attempts at using the medium to address the same issues that had made EC a target of social conservatives in the 1950s — war, racism, poverty, alcoholism, anti-Semitism, violence, and crime.

Hamstrung by the Comic Book Code of 1954, a document that remained unchanged until 1971, writers and artists had difficulty addressing American society and with any poignancy or lasting effect.

The inability to address social and cultural issues was compounded by the reemergence of the superhero genre in American comics and the continued perception that comics were “an exclusively children’s mass medium.”

In an inverse of the social backlash toward the medium in the mid-1950s, some comic creators of the 1960s articulated their displeasure with the mainstream industry by producing and distributing underground comics, commonly referred to as comix.

Comix were the counterculture’s reaction to and the antithesis of mainstream comics. Generally regarded as the first underground comic, God Nose was written by Jack Jackson under the pseudonym “Jaxson” and published in 1964.

The comix movement birthed many notable creators and titles such as Frank Stack’s (pen name Foolbert Sturgeon) ‘The Adventures of Jesus’, Gilbert Shelton’s ‘Feds ‘n’ Heads’, R. Crumb’s ‘Fritz the Cat and Book of Genesis’, as well as Manuel Rodriguez’s ‘Trashman’, ‘Zodiac Mindwarp’, and ‘Mean Bitch Thrills’.

However, comix’s most notable contribution to the medium was its complete and purposeful rejection of the comics code.

Gary Groth, a critic, publisher, journalist, and scholar of comics, viewed comix as a “medium devoted to sex, drugs, and radical politics […] an explosive reaction against the insipidity of everything comics had come to symbolize.”

While sex, drugs, and radical politics certainly characterized many of the more popular comix, the underground movement also fostered the rise of minority, LGBT, and women’s voices in the comic industry, all of whom responded to the misogyny, homophobia, sexism, and physical abuse found in the works of R. Crumb and several other men working in comix.

Comix also offered something quite different than their mainstream counterparts.

According to Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, both of whom were figureheads in the underground comics scene and the latter of which is currently the art editor for The New Yorker, “underground comics had offered something new: comics by adults, for adults; comics that were not under any obligation be funny, or escapist pulp; comics unselfconsciously redefining what comics could be, by smashing formal and stylistic, as well as cultural and political, taboos.”

This description reflected the breadth of America’s counterculture.

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