Violence in Media: How Comic Books Faced the Fire First!

Recently, video games have faced an onslaught of critics denouncing the industry’s development of violent video games like the Grand Theft Auto or Gears of War franchises. In a recent Supreme Court Decision, Brown vs. EMA (Entertainment Merchants Association), the court upheld that California’s law to prohibit the sale of violent games to children under 18 was unconstitutional.

The majority opinion written by Justice Scalia compares the current video game argument to that of comics fifty years earlier. Justice Scalia writes:

The crusade against comic books was led by a psychiatrist, Frederic Wertham, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee that ‘as long as the crime comic books industry exists in its present forms there are no secure homes.’ Wertham’s objections extended even to Superman comics, which he described as “particularly injurious to the ethical development of children. But efforts to convince Congress to restrict comic books failed.

Here is the historical context of Scalia’s statement. In 1954 Dr Frederic Wertham published the book, Seduction of the Innocent, which correlated reading violent depictions in comics with juvenile delinquency. Seduction was the capstone to Wertham’s attack on comics, and in 1955 a US Senate hearing was held to argue the validity of Wertham’s findings.

The Senate concluded that the comics industry should create a regulating body that identified violent content. To avoid government censorship, the industry reacted by creating the Comics Authority Code.

After the adoption of the code, the debate fizzled with the last comic book burning. That’s right folks! Here. In the United States. American Citizens were burning books. But I digress…

The code was implemented, like those of the MPAA or the ESRB, by affixing a stamp of approval on the comic, deeming the book appropriate for all readers. The difference between the Comics Authority Code and other media regulating bodies was that if a publisher, writer, or illustrator did not follow the guidelines, the comic in question was doomed to fail.

By the mid-1980’s, creators began combating the code by completely ignoring the guidelines and as a result redefined the industry. The Code has since died out completely, and publishers have created other rating systems.

As the debate over violence in media continues keep in mind that it is not a new phenomenon. The comics industry took its licks way before video games, and I would wager that the video game industry will thrive similarly to its comic book forefather.

– Jason Allen

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