Quick – what is the first thing that pops to mind when you hear the word “comic book”? If you were born or spent a lot of your life in the United States, you probably think of Superman, Batman, Spiderman…point is, The Superhero. Some man (or women, or alien, or…thing) that puts on tight fitting spandex and fights crime with the aid of powers or his bank accounts. Of course, not all comic books are like this – think of Maus, the award winning graphic novel about how the author’s father survived the Holocaust. Nonetheless, in America, the comic book is inexorably linked with The Superhero. There are a few reasons for this:

The quick answer is to look at the market. As of 2008, Marvel and DC, the two largest comic book companies in the United States, dominate over 80% of the market and have been for decades. What are the mainstay of the DC and Marvel Universes? Superheroes.  The obvious conclusion is that, since Marvel and DC dominate the market, and they make mostly superhero comics, of course there would be a glut of those kind of comics in the United States.

However, it goes back much, much further than that, to 1954. Prior to this date, there were many different genres of comic books – crime, horror, and of course, superheroes. Even romance had a large niche in the market, because back in the day, the gender ratio among comic book readers was actually about equal. However, in 1954, Psychologist Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which insubstantially asserted that the violence in comic books led to spikes in juvenile delinquency much like violent video games are claimed to do so today. As a result, there was a panic across America, and congressional hearings were even held to decide on the issue. The comic book industry, fearing a sales backlash, quickly reacted by forming the Comics Code Authority as a form of self-policing. The Code essentially banned all depictions – even negative ones – of violence, sex, and drugs. To give you an example of the sheer level of destruction that ensued as a result of the Code, the entire horror genre of comics disappeared overnight because use of the word “horror” in a title was completely banned. With it, the crime and romance genres were eliminated, leaving only superheroes to fill the gap. Even they were hit hard,though; Batman, for example would actually kill criminals prior to 1954, but comic depictions of him afterwords make the Adam West version seem badass in comparison.

So that old stigma about comics being “for kids”, the domination of superheroes – all thanks to the Code. Eventually (in 1971, to be exact), its stranglehold was broken when Stan Lee, creator of Spiderman, tried to release an anti-drugs story, only to find he “couldn’t” because even negative depictions of drugs were banned. He published it anyway, without the Code seal (which before was technically possible, but rarely done because stores would refuse to sell comics lacking it), and it made a bucket load of money due to the controversy surrounding it. Afterwords, the seal didn’t hold much power, and comic book artists and authors had more flexibility with what they could or could not portray. Nonetheless, the stigma has followed comics for years, and even to this day, people like my mother at best will call them a “fun” read before going back to their copy of Jane Eyre. *pointed stare*

That’s where we are, kinda, nowadays, if I gloss over the various “ages” of comic books, phases of camp vs. gritty, etc. But that’s just over here. It’s totally different overseas…but for that – I’LL SEE YOU TOMORROW.


  1. regallahue says:

    Your project is very interesting, Katie! As someone who hasn’t really read many comic books, I always only associated superheroes with them–if there was any crime or romance, it was always linked to somehow superheroes in my mind. My friends and I passed a comic book store in Granada, Spain, and in the window there was a huge poster of Superman displayed. After reading your post, I’m wondering what influence American comics have had on Spanish comic books, and to what degree superheroes are represented in them. Thus, I’m excited to read more about your research regarding comic books in other countries!

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I might have mentioned this somewhere, but prior to WWII, American Comics were really popular, Superman in particular. But, with the Nazi occupation of many European nations, importation of these was understandably curtailed. I believe at one point, even, Goebbels threw a copy of Superman down on a desk and condemned it as evidence of Jewish insinuation into modern society (both Siegel and Shuster, his creators, were Jewish or of Jewish descent). Afterwords, I can tell you that the Franco-Belgian school has tried to distance itself somewhat from the American school, although in nations like Great Britain, the super hero genre has remained somewhat popular (Alan Moore anyone?) I guess what I find funny today is that the greatest “threat” to bande-dessinée is not the influence of our comics, but that of the Japanese! In my research, I have seen plenty of examples of the style absorbing characteristics of manga. It’s rather interesting…