Comic Books, Kids, and Crime

Excerpts from a 1955 Senate report on Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency.

I. INTRODUCTION

Over a period of several months the subcommittee has received a vast amount of mail from parents expressing concern regarding the possible deleterious effect upon their children of certain of the media of mass communication. This led to an inquiry into the possible relationship to juvenile delinquency of these media.
Members of the subcommittee have emphatically stated at public hearings that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not at issue. They are fully aware of the long, hard, bitter fight that has been waged through the ages to achieve and maintain those freedoms. They agree that these freedoms, as well as other freedoms in the Bill of Rights, must not be abrogated.

The subcommittee has no proposal for censorship. It moved into the mass media phase of its investigations with no preconceived opinions in regard to the possible need for new legislation.

Consistent with this position, it is firmly believed that the public is entitled to be fully informed on all aspects of this matter and to know all the facts. It was the consensus that the need existed for a thorough, objective investigation to determine whether, as has been alleged, certain types of mass communication media are to be reckoned with as contributing to the country’s alarming rise in juvenile delinquency. These include: “crime and horror” comic books and other types of printed matter; the radio, television, and motion pictures. . . .

Not all comic books were considered in this investigation. The subcommittee was concerned only with those dealing with crime and horror. It was estimated that by the spring of 1954 over 30 million copies of crime and horror comic books were being printed each month. If only 50 percent of that number were sold by the retailers, the annual gross from crime and horror comics had reached $18 million. These constituted approximately 20 percent of the total output of comic books. The inquiry was not concerned in this phase with the comic strips that appear daily in most of our newspapers. . . .

II. A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY


In the years between 1945 and 1954, two striking changes took place in the comic-book industry. The first was the great increase in the number of comic books published and the number of firms engaged in their publication. The second was the increased number of comic books dealing with crime and horror and featuring sexually suggestive and sadistic illustrations. This increase of materials featuring brutality and violence is being offered to any child who has the 10-cent purchase price. That these examples of crime and horror are aimed at children is clearly evident from the advertisements with which each issue is replete. . . .

III. THE NATURE OF CRIME AND HORROR COMIC BOOKS

It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. These depraved acts are presented and explained in illustrated detail in an array of comic books being bought and read daily by thousands of children. These books evidence a common penchant for violent death in every form imaginable. Many of the books dwell in detail on various forms of insanity and stress sadistic degeneracy. Others are devoted to cannibalism with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women.

SPECIFIC EXAMPLES OF MATERIAL DEALT WITH AT NEW YORK HEARING
To point out more specifically the type of material being dealt with, a few typical examples of story content and pictures were presented at the New York hearings on April 21, 1954. From the few following examples, it will be clearly seen that the major emphasis of the material then available on America’s newsstands from this segment of the comic book industry dealt with depraved violence:

STORY NO. 1
BOTTOMS UP (STORY COMICS)
This story has to do with a confirmed alcoholic who spends all his wife can earn on alcohol. As a result their small son is severely neglected. On the day the son is to start in the first grade in school the mother asks the father to escort him to the school building. Instead, the father goes to his favorite bootlegger and the son goes to school by himself. En route the child is struck and killed by an automobile. Informed of the accident, the mother returns home to find her husband gloating over his new supply of liquor. The last four panels show the mother as she proceeds to kill and hack her spouse to pieces with an ax. The first panel shows her swinging the ax, burying the blade in her husband’s skull. Blood spurts from the open wound and the husband is shown with an expression of agony. The next panel has a montage effect: the husband is lying on the floor with blood rushing from his skull as the wife is poised over him. She holds the bloody ax, raised for more blows. The background shows an enlargement of the fear-filled eyes of the husband, as well as an enlargement of the bloody ax. To describe this scene of horror the text states that—“And now the silence of the Hendrick’s apartment is broken only by the soft humming of Nora as she busies herself with her ‘work’.” She then cuts his body into smaller pieces and disposes of it by placing the various pieces in the bottles of liquor her husband had purchased. She then returns the liquor to the bootlegger and obtains a refund. As she leaves, the bootlegger says: “HMMN, funny! I figured that rye would be inside Lou by now!“ The story ends with the artist admonishing the child readers in a macabre vein with the following paragraph, ”But if Westlake were to examine the remainder of the case more closely he’d see that it is Lou who is inside the liquor! Heh, heh! Sleep well, kiddies!” We then see three of the bottles—one contains an eye, one an era, and one a finger.

STORY NO. 2
FRISCO MARY (ACE COMICS)
This story concerns an attractive and glamorous young woman, Mary, who gains control of a California underworld gang. Under her leadership the gang embarks on a series of holdups marked for their ruthlessness and violence. One of these escapades involves the robbery of a bank. A police officer sounds an alarm thereby reducing the gang’s “take” to a mere $25,000. One of the scenes of violence in the story shows Mary poised over the wounded police officer, as he lies on the pavement, pouring bullets into his back from her submachinegun. The agonies of the stricken officer are clearly depicted on his face. Mary, who in this particular scene looks like an average American girl wearing a sweater and skirt and with her hair in bangs, in response to a plea from one of her gang members to stop shooting and flee, states: “We could have got twice as much if it wasn’t for this frog-headed rat!!! I’ll show him!” . . .

STORY NO. 4
HEAD ROOM (ENTERTAINING COMICS)
The female keeper of a decrepit hotel gives special attention to one of her male boarders. She attempts to win his affection by giving him lower rates, privileges, etc. Since he is in his room only at night, she rents the same room for daytime use to a gruesome-looking man, shown on the first page of the story. There are repeated reports over the radio of a homicidal maniac at large, the “Ripper.” She comes to suspect the daytime boarder and is shown searching his room and finding seven gruesome, bloody heads hanging in his closet. Her privileged boarder comes into the room and she tells him of her findings. He is then shown transformed into the gruesome daytime boarder. The last picture shows him as he decapitates her. . . .
It is appropriate to point out that these were not the only, nor the worst, pictures and stories gathered by the subcommittee during the investigation. In fact, they constitute a small sampling of the total array of crime and horror comic books available to the youth of the Nation. . . .

IV. CRIME AND HORROR COMIC BOOKS AS A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR IN JUVENILE DELINQUENCY . . .
CRIME AND HORROR COMICS AND THE WELL-ADJUSTED AND NORMALLY LAW-ABIDING CHILD
Attention has been given by some experts to the influence of crime and horror comics on well-adjusted children who normally are not in conflict with society. Majority opinion seems inclined to the view that it is unlikely that the reading of crime and horror comics would lead to delinquency in a well-adjusted and normally law-abiding child.

A different view is held by Dr. Frederic Wertham, consulting psychiatrist, Department of Hospitals, New York City. He maintains that it is primarily the “normal” child upon whom the comics have their greatest detrimental effects, and thus it is this type of individual who is “tempted” and “seduced” into imitating the crime portrayed in the story. Dr. Wertham has been termed the “leading crusader against comics.” Although stating that he does not adhere to a single factor theory of delinquency causation, he does attribute a large portion of juvenile offenses to the comics.

A critique of the position that has been held by Dr. Wertham for many years is found in an article by Prof. Frederic M. Thrasher entitled, “The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat.” This article, which appeared in 1949, pointed to alleged weaknesses in Dr. Werham’s approach, the major one being that his propositions are not supported by adequate research data. Professor Thrasher asserted that Dr. Wertham’s major claims rest upon a selected group of extreme cases. Although Dr. Wertham has since declared that his conclusions are based upon a study of thousands of children, he has not offered the statistical details of his study. He says that he used control groups, i.e., compared his groups of delinquents with a similar group of nondelinquents, but he has not described the groups to prove that the difference in incidence of comic-book reading is other than a selective process. . . .

CRIME AND HORROR COMICS MAY APPEAL TO AND THUS GIVE SUPPORT AND SANCTION TO ALREADY EXISTING ANTISOCIAL TENDENCIES
Dr. Harris Peck, director of the bureau of mental health services for the New York City Court of Domestic Relations, indicated in his testimony that there is a possible relationship of crime and horror comic books to juvenile delinquency through appealing to and thus giving support and sanction to already existing antisocial tendencies. While pointing out that it is unlikely that comic books are a primary cause of juvenile delinquency, he stated that it should not be overlooked that certain comic books may aid and abet, as it were, delinquent behavior which has been set in motion by other forces already operating on the child. . . .

There exists a minority opinion that suggests a possible cathartic effect can be achieved by reading about or looking at violent action; that is, a period of calm, or relaxation results. The possibility was suggested that this effect may become desirable for certain individuals and may develop into a mechanism by which they can relieve everyday tensions which cannot otherwise be coped with satisfactorily. However, even among authorities in the field of child development who agree that such material does have a cathartic effect, some believe that the same kind of effect might be achieved more safely through other means for the vicarious expression of aggression. . . .

Source: Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency, Interim Report, 1955 (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1955).

Link to full report

Questions to consider:

  1. What specific connections do you see being drawn between the content of comic books and the types of crimes young people were committing in the mid-1950s?
  2. Compare the conclusions drawn here to the message of What About Juvenile Delinquency? What, if any, similarities do you see?