CBC Digital Archives

Comic books: Seduction of the innocent?

From the wholesome wartime heroics of Johnny Canuck to the exploits of a three-foot-tall aardvark named Cerebus, Canadian comics are anything but dull. Though comics got their start south of the border, Canada has become home to an eclectic roster of cartoon talent from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated strips of Lynn Johnston, to the world-renowned comic art of Seth and the multi-media phenomenon of Todd Mcfarlane's Spawn. The CBC Digital Archives takes an in-depth look at the history of our homegrown comic strips, comic books and graphic novels.

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By the 1950s, crime and horror comics had become as common on the magazine racks of North America as superheroes had been a decade earlier. While kids loved the gory art and fast-paced thrills, parents and teachers became increasingly concerned about the negative impact of these so-called "funnybooks." With opposition towards the genre building, this 1949 CBC Radio clip captures a citizens' forum in Nova Scotia where a judge testifies that the popular books "dwell upon the lust to kill."
• The campaign against crime and horror comics reached its peak in 1954 with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham, an American psychiatrist. The book, which made the case that such comics were corrupting a generation of young boys, was a media sensation and led to the mass destruction (and burning) of comics across Canada and America.

• Wertham's book presented anecdotes about young boys committing crimes, which he claimed were based on comic stories.

• One of the chapters, "Murder in Dawson Creek", was inspired by a real life crime in the Yukon that took place in November 1948 in which a man was shot and killed while driving on the Alaska Highway.

• Police arrested and charged two boys, aged 13 and 11, for the crime. A coroner's inquest found that the boys blamed a comic that detailed the criminal life of a highwayman.

• Such stories regularly appeared in newspapers of the period, and led to many questions about how to control the content of comics.

• In a December 1948 issue of Maclean's magazine, journalist Sidney Katz called the issue "probably the most rough-and-tumble controversy now raging in Canada and the Unites States."

• Katz quoted American essayist John Mason Brown as saying "Comic books are the marijuana of the nursery, the bane of the bassinet, the horror of the home, the curse of the kids and a threat to the future."

• Wertham's book prompted a U.S. Senate inquiry in 1954 and the eventual formation of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory body that screened comics for depictions of gore, sexuality, and excessive violence. While the American effort is well known, Canada actually took the lead in the movement to ban comics by several years.

• In the late 1940s, E.D. Fulton, a Conservative MP for Kamloops, B.C., spearheaded a bill that was aimed at banning crime and horror comics.

• "The Fulton Bill" was passed into law in December 1949, more than four years before Wertham's book was published.
• The legislation made it an offence for any magazine or periodical to "pictorially" represent "the commission of crimes, real or fictitious."
• In the end, the law proved ineffective since police were reluctant to prosecute retailers and U.S. comic publishers fell outside Canadian jurisdiction.

• Fulton himself later testified at the 1954 U.S. Senate sub-committee charged with investigating crime and horror comics.

• Though much is made of the 1950s movement against comics, the medium did have its supporters - some of whom are featured in this clip. Frances Marshall, a psychologist, and business operator Hugh Mills both defend the positive learning aspects of comic books and strips.

• Mills spent nearly 20 years reading comic strips to kids on local Halifax station CHNS as "Uncle Mel."

• Other high-profile comic supporters included doctor and author Benjamin Spock, who argued that comics were stepping stone for children's reading development.

• "There's no more reason to think it will ruin his taste than there is to fear that letting him creep on hands and knees in infancy will keep him from ever walking in the more elegant upright position," Spock declared in Maclean's in 1948.
Medium: Radio
Program: Citizens' Forum
Broadcast Date: Jan. 21, 1949
Guest(s): Elias Andrews , Francis Marshall, Hugh Mills, L.M. Pepperdine
Moderator: Neil Morrison
Duration: 7:01
Detail from cover of Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham, Rinehart, 1954.

Last updated: January 15, 2015

Page consulted on January 15, 2015

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