Here's what happens when comic book characters run afoul of the comic book code (or anger a hostile government).
1. The Comics Code and the C-word
For decades, the comic book industry was ruled by the toughest censorship body in America: the Comics Code Authority. The Code was written in 1954 as an answer to a nationwide anti-comics movement. This was instigated by angry parents during a boom in graphic horror comics, and fueled by psychologist Dr Frederic Wertham's 1953 book Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed comics for "different kinds of maladjustment" in young minds. Soon, comics had such a bad reputation that distributors even refused to open their batches of comics. By the mid-1950s, almost 75% of the U.S. comic book industry had been forced out of business.
The Comics Code was the only way out "“ with its long and stringent set of guidelines, prohibiting everything from "excessive levels of violence" to "self-destructive use of tobacco." The Code thought of everything!
But Wertham hadn't just complained about horror comics. In fact, much of his book raged against the popular true-crime comics of the time, with titles like Crime Does Not Pay, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, Crime and Punishment and Crimes by Women. The word "crime" seemed to bother Wertham, and he possibly would have wanted it removed. Instead, the Code decreed that the word "crime" could stay in the title, but rather than taking pride of place, it could be no bigger than the other words. Hence, you could buy the latest edition of Crime DOES NOT PAY. That's telling 'em!
2. The Sins of a Comic Book Artist
While American comics were winning the wrath of parents, comics on the other side of the Pacific were also being targeted for all kinds of moral depravity. It didn't help that one of Australia's top artists was Len Lawson. Lawson's most famous character was the Lone Avenger, a masked vigilante of the 1870s American West. (Yes, even Aussies did westerns.) While the Lone Avenger was a good guy, his creator was slightly more disturbed. In 1954, Lawson was imprisoned for 14 years for rape. One newspaper, "exposing" this rapist as a comic book artist, described Lawson as "the artist of violent comics, which frequently depicted bosomy heroines." Almost immediately, The Lone Avenger was banned in Queensland, followed by several other comics. Afraid that other states would follow suit, distributors Gordon & Gotch imposed their own censorship.
Soon after his release in 1961, Lawson made headlines for killing two teenage girls, one of them accidentally, in a struggle at a girls' school chapel. Anti-comics crusaders had a field day. Fortunately, most comic book artists have not killed anyone, though American artist Bob Wood was sent to prison for three years after killing a woman in 1958. Wood's most famous comic? Crime Does Not Pay.
3. The Devil Made Them Do It
In the sixties, the Comics Code stamp of approval was essential for any comic book that wanted to get on the newsstands. In 1961, however, an edition of Marvel Comics' Strange Tales nearly broke one of the rules. Artist Steve Ditko's story told of a vengeful socialite who meets a guy dressed as the Devil at a costume party, and falls for him. But at midnight, when it's time to unmask"¦ you can probably guess the rest. "Mask?" says the Devil. "What mask, my love?"
However, the editors were afraid of what the Code might think, so they removed the final panel (which presumably suggested a terrible fate for the socialite) and hurriedly replaced it with two small panels, drawn by another artist, in which she faints, recovers and resolves to change her malicious ways, while the "Devil" (who is obviously somewhere else) pulls of his mask, and is revealed to be one of her would-be victims in disguise. Yes, they included all of that. When you're censoring a story, you can squeeze a lot into two small panels.
4. The Code Freaks Out
In the comics, Spider-Man has long been a hero who gets in trouble with the authorities, no matter how much he tries to do the right thing. He even faced that problem in the real world, when he ran afoul of the Comics Code. In 1971 the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached his publisher, Marvel Comics, to alert their readers to the dangers of drugs. Marvel was happy to oblige, so in one story, a "freaked out cat" was so stoned that he threw himself off a building, only to be saved by the web-swinging hero. A few issues later, one of Spidey's friends was revealed to be an addict. While both stories were decidedly anti-drug, they weren't approved by the Comics Code. However, they were published anyway, drawing media coverage and public support. Eventually, the Code was modified, allowing drug usage to be shown within reason. Before long, even a superhero (Green Arrow's sidekick, the appropriately-named Speedy) was revealed as a drug addict. The Code let that one through.
5. The Final Censorship
No comic book writer can claim to have suffered for their art as much as Hector Oesterheld. Long regarded as Argentina's greatest comic book writer and publisher, he became very political in the sixties, most notably with Vida del ChÃ© (1968), a comic book biography of revolutionary ChÃ© Guevera, drawn by Alberto and Enrique Breccia. After Argentina's military coup of 1976, Oesterheld and his family joined the banned anti-government group, the Montoneros. Oesterheld also started a new story in his popular time-travel epic El Eternauta, showing a future Argentina ruled by a brutal dictator.
At the end of 1976, Oesterheld and his four daughters were arrested by the government and never seen again. Italian journalist Alberto Ongaro, investigating his fate three years later, was allegedly told by a government official: "We did away with him because he wrote the most beautiful story of ChÃ© Guevara ever done." Unable to censor his comic book politics, the regime dealt with the man himself.
Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at markjuddery.com.