"Comic books, yelled Sammy, right to her face."
Bookplate of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) showing Tarzan holding the planet Mars
Public DomainBookplate of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) showing Tarzan holding the planet Mars - Credit: Studley Oldham Burroughs

Cartoon sequences have appeared from time to time since the eighteenth century.  The comic strip, as developed in the United States, first appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Three names are associated with its beginnings: Richard F Outcault, James Swinnerton, and Rudolph Dirks

In the 1930s the comic/funny character was replaced by the adventure motif.  The syndication of comics, around World War 1, resulted in their publication in hundreds of newspapers across the United States.  With the outbreak of World War 2, many emphasised military themes. One of the earliest of the fantasy strips was Tarzan, first appearing in 1929.  Superman appeared in 1938. 

The format of the comic magazine, a pamphlet of about 48 colour pages, roughly 7 x 10 inches, printed in bright colours on newspaper print, took shape in the 1930s. At first the magazines contained reprints of popular newspaper strips, but soon they developed strips of their own.  In 1939-40 there were about 60 comic magazines; in 1941 this number had risen to 168.  By 1946 the sale of comic books had reached 40 million per month. 

The ten leading comic magazines in the 1940s were Walt Disney’s Comics, Batman, Captain America, True Comics, Ace Comics, Calling All Girls, King Comics, Crackajack Comics, World’s Fair Comics, and Military Comics. 

Criticism of comics grew during the 1940s. They were seen in some quarters to be encouraging delinquency among young people, as well as offering inappropriate depictions of scantily-clad and invariably well-endowed female characters.  In 1947 the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers was formed.  This included 35 publishers with an estimated output of 60 million comics a month.  They drafted a code which, though largely ineffective because only a small percentage of publishers belonged to the organisation, included prohibitions on any comic showing “a woman or girl more nude than in a bathing suit commonly worn in the United States,” and a commitment that “busts should not be unduly accentuated or exposed.” The Code also provided that “no woman or girl should be shown in the arms of a wild beast or should be shown having her clothes torn off her”; “no comic should make a hero of a criminal even though he is caught at the end”; and “comics should not use swear words and profane language, and slang should be kept to a minimum.”       

Negative public reaction continued however, fanned in large part by Dr Fredric Wertham, a prominent critic of the effects of comic books on the development of children.  His 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, led to a US Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry, and the creation of the Comics Code.  The Association of Comics Magazine Publishers gave way to the Comics Magazine Association of America, with a mandate to improve the content of comics.  A Comics Code Authority was established, presided over by a New York City Magistrate, constituting a voluntary code of self-censorship containing 41 points. 

Seduction of the Innocent described overt or covert depictions of violence, sex, drug use, and other adult fare contained in comics, and asserted that reading this material encouraged similar behavior in children.  It also suggested that Batman and Robin were gay partners, and that Wonder Woman’s strength and independence made her a lesbian.

In extensive testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, Wertham claimed that comics were a major cause of juvenile crime, and suggested an age threshold of fifteen for access to comics. The committee’s final report recommended that the comics industry tone down its content voluntarily.  The subsequent Comics Code Authority banned violent images and dictated that criminals must always be punished.