Comics & Literacy

Anti-comics sentiment in 1940s America

Sterling North
Views of comics as either beneficial or detrimental to child literacy in America grow out of the intense public scrutiny, criticism, and eventual self-censorship of American comics that came to a head in the 1950s.  The beginnings of American anti-comic book sentiment are widely attributed to an influential editorial first printed in the May 8, 1940 issue of the Chicago Daily News, written by Sterling North and entitled “A National Disgrace” (see, e.g. Witty, 1941; Zorbaugh, 1944; Schultz, 1949; Nyberg, 1998; Ellis & Highsmith, 2000; Beaty, 2005; Lopes, 2006).

North (1940) examined 108 periodicals, and found “At least 70 per cent of the total were of a nature no respectable newspaper would think of accepting,” which lead him to describe the rise of comic books as a “poisonous mushroom growth” because “Ten million copies of these sex-horror serials are sold every month” (p. 56).  This editorial established the criticisms of comic books that persisted throughout the public discourse of 1940s and 1950s America, and for far longer in library literature and academic perceptions. For example, in a 2004 article entitled “Are Comic Books a Worthy Consideration on Scholary Grounds?”, Matz states, “The challenge to alter the conventional perception of comic books as trashy and juvenile is considerable…” (2004a, p.78).   

The crux of North’s argument is that comic books are solely intended for children, and harmful to them: “Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed—a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems… Their crude blacks and reds spoil the child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories.”  North’s answer to this problem, the “antidote” to comics, are print classics such as Treasure Island and children’s literature, which parents must locate for their children in “any good bookstore or library.”  So, as early as 1940, comic books are described as being in opposition to proper literacy through literature, represented by library materials library materials; comics are the poison, library books the antidote.

The influence of North’s criticisms of comic books can in part be attributed to their enthusiastic adoption and promotion by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers.  Mrs. Harry M. Mulberry (1943) discusses how she, in her role as chairman of Reading and Library Service of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, “…proceeded to enlist the parents and teachers of America in this crusade and started by mailing copies of this editorial to every state chairman in the Congress” (p. 164).  Like North, Mulberry describes comic books as a children’s genre that is harmful to youth in ways both physical and psychological.  Mulberry’s article is but one example of how comic books received critical attention from teachers and librarians “parroting” North and each other (Ellis & Highsmith, 2000).  Nyberg (1998) efficiently summarizes the psychological and physical harm teachers and parents feared comics would cause: "…comics tend to crowd out reading of a more desirable type; they are too easy to read and spoil the taste for better reading; the adventures are so fantastic that children do not acquire an understanding of the world that comes from better literature; there is little progression of reading experience in comics; the artwork is of inferior quality; the books are poorly printed on cheap paper and hard on the eyes" (p. 9).