Amy Kiste Nyberg’s Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, is the best resource out there on the topic of censorship in comics, especially its historical context during the 1940s and 1950s. Nyberg is a communications professor, and she brings to her subject matter a cultural history perspective. In fact, she looks at the comic-book controversy within a larger cultural context, seeing it as part of a much broader effort on the part of parents and community leaders to limit the freedoms of youth in the post-war years, which many saw as delinquent, and try to control what young people consumed. In this way, her book is not dissimilar to Bradford W. Wright’s Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, which was a historical approach to American comic-book history. These books would have a completely different tone if they were written by a literary scholar or even an art scholar, and in this way, both books are refreshing and insightful. (It’s not that I dislike literary approaches to comics. I am a literary scholar, after all, so of course I privilege that approach in certain ways. But it’s nice to see someone from a different discipline focus on comics in their own way.) Nyberg follows the trajectory of comic-book censorship from the early part of the century, tracing its roots in the kind of concerns generated by the pulp fiction that proliferated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The core of her monograph, however, centers around the public’s problems with comics in the post-World War II years. With the decline of superhero comics in the wake of the war, and the rise of other genres in the medium–e.g., crime comics, horror comics, and even romance comics–many parents, educators, and community leaders were concerned with the kind of material their children were reading. Nyberg does a wonderful job at outlining the details of their objections and historicizing the events surrounding community concern. As one would expect, a good part of her analysis focuses on Fredric Wertham, his crusade against comics, and the repercussions that resulted up to the late 1990s (when her book was published). However, unlike other books that explore Wertham–including Wright’s book as well as David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America–Nyberg attempts to take a more empathic approach to the (in)famous psychoanalyst, looking at his antipathy to comics within Wertham’s own broader political/cultural philosophies. The result is a more human portrait of Wertham, not just the big bad boogie man who helped bring down Gaines’s EC Comics and whose actions resulted in the Comics Code. In Nyberg’s own words from her introduction, this is how she frames her approach to Wertham and the code:
First, I argue that Wertham’s role in the crusade against comics has been largely misinterpreted by fans and scholars alike, who dismiss his findings as naive social science, failing to understand how his work on comic books fits into the larger context of his beliefs about violence, psychiatry, and social reform. Second, I reject the view that the comics code nearly destroyed the comic book industry, suggesting that this is far too simplistic a conclusion to draw about the impact and significance of the code.
The author is definitely swimming upstream with her approach, and that’s part of what makes this book so insightful. She doesn’t go for the easy answers, and she’s certainly not quick to assign blame to the hit that comics took in the 1950s. Also, and as one would expect, there’s quite a bit in this book on William Gaines and the history of EC Comics. That, along with the focus on Wertham, take up a good part of the text. Nyberg does a good job at creating an engaging narrative from the many historical documents she references. Perhaps my only criticism of the book is that the rhetoric is nothing special. Nyberg’s style is straightforward, which in some ways is good, but in other ways it makes for dry reading. Nonetheless, the book is a valuable resource, as well as an engaging read, for anyone interested in comic-book history and the censorship wars and the code that resulted from those skirmishes.
Side comment: It’s important to note that now we have reproductions of many of the comics that Wertham and others objected to. Several years ago Gemstone (now defunct) began reproducing a number of titles from EC, including The Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenseStories, Tales from the Crypt, and Shock SuspenseStories, among other titles (GC Press has just recently taken over the publication of the EC Archive editions). And just this year Dark Horse has begun publishing Crime Does Not Pay, the first volume of which just came out last month. It’s about time this title was collected in nice editions, as the EC titles are being collected (slowly, but surely).