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Comics, Childhood, and Nostalgia: Frederic Wertham and the Comic Book panic of the 1950s

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posted on 2024-02-29, 17:06 authored by Andrew O'MalleyAndrew O'Malley

[para. 1]: “Now a largely forgotten historical footnote in mass media studies, or for fans and collectors the tragic ending to the so-called “Golden Age” of comics, the controversy over children’s comic book reading and juvenile delinquency gripped the American public in the years before and after World War Two. It is difficult to overstate the ubiquity of comic books in the 1940s and early 1950s. They were far and away the dominant lei-sure commodity for children at the time: the combined monthly output of American comic book producers in 1953 has been estimated at 80 or 90 million units, and a survey in the late 1940s found that 90 percent of upper elementary and high-school students read comic books regularly, along with close to 40 percent of adults (Springhall 1998, 129). On May 8, 1940, the Chicago Daily News ran a scathing editorial entitled “A National Disgrace” by admired children’s author Sterling North on the horrific content of the “funny books”; it was widely reprinted and requests for off-prints were so numerous the newspaper’s printers could not keep up with demand. North’s essay was a precursor to the flood of comics critiques that would follow the post-World War Two era and the expansion of the genre beyond animal funnies and superhero stories:1 commentaries and articles decrying violent, sadistic, and ultimately corrupting comics began appearing everywhere—in other newspapers, popular and leading magazines (including Collier’s, The Saturday Review, Time Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal), and in the trade and academic journals of teachers, librarians, sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and educational policymakers. Public outcry over the perceived moral decay comics were causing in children grew so fierce that schools and churches across the country organized mass burnings of comic books. Lawmakers in New York State even tried on three separate occasions to pass laws either censoring comic books or prohibiting altogether their sale to minors; each time, however, the bills were vetoed on First Amendment grounds by the Governor.”

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Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys, and Contemporary Media Culture Edited By Elisabeth Wesseling

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English

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