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How Comic Books Work

Kryptonite to the Authority

In 1954, psychiatrist and author Frederic Wertham published a book titled "Seduction of the Innocent," which scapegoated horror comics, in particular, as a cause of adolescent depravity and misbehavior. Parents everywhere were alarmed, and a cultural crusade to clean up comics began.

To save their industry, comics publishers created a self-censoring Comics Code Authority (CCA), which set standards for comics content. Mostly, they whitewashed their comics to make them completely non-offensive, politically correct, and non-threatening to children and institutions of the time. For example, no title could use the words "terror" or "horror." Other prohibited characters and themes included vampires, zombies, torture and werewolves.

Mainstream comics became banal ghosts of themselves. And, thanks to the prominent Comics Code Authority label, parents felt comforted that the materials their children were reading wouldn't eventually turn their offspring into serial murderers.

The CCA may or may not have prevented comics from inspiring legions of Jeffery Dahmers, but it did help spark an underground comics movement. In the 1960s, independent publishers and authors, unbound by the CCA rules, began making comics featuring every sort of subject that mainstream comics couldn't -- sex, drugs, politics, and both visual and written obscenities of every kind. These alternative, underground comics were often called comix. Comix spawned their own superstars, including "Fritz the Cat," "Trashman" and "Wonder Wart-Hog."

The unbridled creativity of comix heralded another new era of the comic book medium. Unburdened by sales quotas and censorship, artists crafted comics with more sophisticated storylines and themes, often trading campy superhero fluff for mature, literary writing styles matched by equally advanced artwork.

The lowly comic book, which had been vilified by the press, derided by lovers of "true" art and ripped from the hands of countless students by ticked-off teachers, suddenly began gaining respectability. On the next page, you'll see how comics traded in their superhero trappings and found soft spots in the hearts of even their harshest critics.