Paul Levitz’ The Golden Age of DC Comics 1935-1956 is a history, told largely through illustrations, covering the years from the publisher’s founding through the near-demise of entire comic book industry. The endpoint for the golden age corresponds with the rising “moral panic” over the perception — fueled by J. Edgar Hoover’s pronouncement of a “youth crime wave” sweeping the US, and adults’ perplexed anxiety over the burgeoning youth culture — that juvenile delinquency was putting the very United States at peril.
Although DC may not have been the most egregious, and certainly not the sole offender, comic book content of the day provided abundant ammunition to those, including educators and the clergy, eager to point out deleterious influences on children. The accusing finger of blame need only point out, from examples included in Golden Age, bloody stabbings, gangsters popping off rounds from tommy-guns, topless women, and even Batman wielding a machine gun, in the first issue of his own title.
There was Hawkman clubbing a Japanese soldier with a spiked mace, Wonder Woman in chains and bondage mask and, in the first issue of Detective Comics, Slam Bradley swinging one Asian (who, like most non-Caucasians in American comics of this vintage, is rendered as sub-human) by his ponytail, into another. Later in the same issue, a scantily-clad woman is seen about to be whipped by the Asian villains. At least two images show bound teenage sidekicks (one, long-suffering Green Arrow pal, Speedy, in the ironically-titled More Fun Comics No. 85) being tossed from towers. And then, there was that panel of Bruce (Batman) Wayne sharing a bed with Dick (Robin) Grayson.
The comics’ depictions of crime (especially without consequence for the criminal), violence, crude language, sex, and nudity all were cited by the social watchdogs as negatively influential on America’s youth. A trip to the nearest newsstand was sufficient to observe the kids’ unfettered access to, and eager consumption of this material.
In the U.S. government’s usual superficial manner of addressing social crises, congressional hearings were convened. Testimony was heard and, again per usual, the cranks and those of questionable legitimacy were credited as expert and allowed to shape the findings, while industry insiders were badgered and ridiculed. Still, as witch-hunty as the Kefauver Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency became, and despite the fervent wishes of star witness for the prosecution, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, no legislation immediately resulted.
What did result was the comics industry’s attempt at self-regulation, the formation of the Comic Magazine Association of America and development of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), better known as the Comics Code. The Code identified 41 “problem areas” — including sex, violence, appropriate dialogue, ridicule of religious and racial groups, and depictions of crime — that were to be used as standards for appropriate content. A chintzy-looking CCA stamp of approval on a comics’ cover indicated compliance; non-compliant publications likely never saw the spinner rack or newsstand shelf.