Were comic books popular in the 1950s?
The Art of Comic Books and Strips The history of comic books and comic strips in America, as well as profiles of important artists and writers. P. Ryan Anthony American Comic Books of the 1950s
The same decade that produced some of the most popular comics ever also led to massive changes and a dark age for the industry.
December 1950 saw the debut of Marvel Boy, Marvel Comics’ only new superhero of the next decade, because capes and tights were definitely out. The following years belonged to war, crime, science fiction, and horror comic books.
Pass the Ammo
When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, war comic books sprouted up. Marvel, DC, Fawcett, and other publishers produced a plethora of gung-ho titles, such as Battlefield, Our Army at War, Soldier Comics, and World War III. But, according to the late Nicky Wright, the best war titles were EC Comics’ Two Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat which, thanks to editor Harvey Kurtzman, “were totally anti-war, beautifully scripted, and had the best comic artists in the land working on them.”
Reaching for the Stars
In 1950, Avon Comics put out Flying Saucers, and Fawcett produced Vic Torry and His Flying Saucer. These led to the introduction of two dozen new scifi comics. There was scary scifi but also flying saucers, bug-eyed monsters, and sexy women. The genre’s immense popularity in the early 50s even allowed for offerings like Space Detectives and Space Western. From ’53 to ’54, however, the number of regularly published scifi titles dropped below ten.
In early 1950, EC Comics publisher William Gaines turned two crime comics and a western title into Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, and Haunt of Fear. Writer-editor Al Feldstein’s tightly plotted tales included morbid humor and twist endings. The other publishers jumped on the horror bandwagon, cranking out such titles as Chamber of Chills, This Magazine is Haunted, The Unseen, and Amazing Ghost Stories. Most were stuffed with gore and ick.
Enter the Doctor
In his best-selling alarmist diatribe, The Seduction of the Innocent (Spring 1953), Dr. Frederic Wertham called the comic book “a veritable primer for teaching [children] juvenile delinquency.” The book caused a general outcry against the comics industry. It was no surprise when the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency was formed.
On April 21, 1954, EC’s Bill Gaines voluntarily appeared before the committee. He declared that the comic-book industry “has stirred [children’s] imaginations, given them an outlet for their problems and frustrations [and] given them millions of hours of entertainment.” He said that, in deciding what to put into a comic book, he would only be ruled by “the bounds of good taste.” One of the committee members then showed Gaines an EC comic cover featuring a beheaded woman and asked if he considered it to be “in good taste.” Gaines said yes.
The Comics Code
To head off any outside regulation, 38 comic-book publishers, distributors, printers, and engravers quickly formed the Comics Magazine Association of America to “promote the good name and good work of comic book publishers everywhere, and to let the world know that comics can be educational, informative and actually good for children.” A list of do’s and don’ts was laid down and the industry had to adhere to it. In early 1955, the new code went into effect, and every comic would display a stamp reading “Approved by the Comics Code Authority,” guaranteeing that it was clean, safe, and boring.
Hundreds of writers, artists, and editors were out of work at the start of 1956. EC dropped everything but the humor comic Mad, which became a black-and-white magazine to sidestep the code. By 1957, Marvel editor Stan Lee was alone in the office with a backlog of finished art. The company shut down its distribution arm and made a deal with DC’s distributor.
DC Comics survived because they really didn’t have any attackable titles, and long-standing conservative fiscal policies kept them in comparatively good shape. They spent the late 50s revamping old superheroes and inventing new ones. These included new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern, as well as Brainiac, Bizarro, Supergirl, and the Legion of Super Heroes.
After ten years spent molding, the capes and tights were being aired out and sent forth again to save comicdom.