Comics: Censorship and Moral Panics
Comics offer greater freedom to represent controversial issues. However, the
symbolism used in them can be misinterpreted and rapidly transformed into a fear or
hatred of what has been shown. Look at the current response globally to the Danish
cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Moral panics are when the media make events seem much more extreme than they
are. E.g. exaggerate facts. Stanley Cohen (1972) developed this theory – this is
what‟s happening over the Mohammed cartoon at present (Muslims are all terrorists
if you believe what you read in the papers!) and is seen regularly in the British press
(e.g. recent scare story that paedophiles were being allowed to work as teachers).
Moral panics and comics (USA):
In the 1920s Hollywood developed its own censorship code, called the Hays Code.
However, comics had no such code and their content in the 1950s was becoming
increasingly violent and explicit. A researcher, Dr Frederic Wertham investigated. In
one edition of a comic he found:
- 19 murders
- 45 threats of murder
- 17 deaths by acid baths or hanging
A Senate hearing followed which led to the introduction of the Comic Code of
America in 1954 (revised 1971 and 1989).
Wertham himself wrote in his book, Seduction of the Innocents (1955) that Batman
was „psychologcally homosexual‟, WonderWoman was „the lesbian counterpart to
Batman‟, while the heroes were „pure white American‟ while villains were „foreign-
born, Jews, Orientals, Slavs, Italians and dark-skinned races‟.
Comics and censorship (UK):
In the UK many organisations became worried about the influence of American
comics on young people. The National Union of Teachers in 1952 launched a
campaign “to remove this corrupting influence from the bookstalls”.
The British Wertham was George Pumphrey who attacked the violence he saw in
comics. In 1953 the Comics Campaign Council was formed and this called for
censorship. In fact, it was quite hard to obtain American comics but a moral panic
followed, leading to a debate in Parliament. The Children‟s Dept of the Home Office
argued that there weren‟t many comics available and evidence of them influencing
young people to commit crime was small. On the other side, campaigners claimed it
was wrong to let young people see such material and the effect was cumulative (you
begin with reading comics, you end up eventually copying what you see). In 1956 the
Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act was passed. It is still in force
Media Theory and Comics:
Effects Theory: Consumers are influenced by the media they read/see/hear. They
are passive recipients. Later on this developed into the Hypodermic Syringe theory,
which suggests that the media sends out deliberate messages to influence consumer
In 1992 two boys kidnapped a toddler, Jamie Bulger, and took him to a railway track
where they tied him down. A train ran over him. They claimed they‟d been watching
Child‟s Play 3, in which the character of Chuckie does something similar. This
sparked a moral panic on the issue of how effective the media is at influencing
behaviour in the young.
There are other theories that you can use:
Marxist Media Theory: The media is controlled by a ruling elite who impose their
own views on consumers. This is applicable to the 20th century history of comics,
where both American and British governments have sought to make comics conform
to a certain set of conventions (i.e. rules) regarding the type of content that can be
shown. The rising popularity of Japanese Manga comics, which show a more violent
and subversive view of life, might be attributed to Western audiences looking for an
alternative graphic representation of the world around them.
Uses & Gratifications Theory: This suggests that media consumers are more
savvy than suggested by the Hypodermic Syringe model. In fact, we choose what
media texts to consume, whether it‟s comics, films, web sites or illegal music
download sites. We do so in the full knowledge of how media producers are
attempting to manipulate our emotional responses, and in fact make an active
decision what types of media to consume, in order to fulfil a particular need. We
consume the media in order to satisfy a variety of different desires, whether it be the
need to communicate, find out more about our favourite actress, or listen to the latest
single by a preferred musician.
Finally, the active pursuit of known media products, in order to make ourselves feel
happy, is known as the Pleasure Principle, which suggests that we are driven by a
never-ending desire to find enjoyment through our consumption of the media.