October 25, 2016
By Nastasia Porras, Daniel Soto, Chris Walds
Who: William Gaines, EC Comics, and Judge Charles Murphy
What: Judgement Day
Where: United States of America
Why: The featuring of a black astronaut
It is suddenly thousands of years into the future, a man in a bright red space suit climbs down from his gleaming spaceship and steps foot on to foreign ground. “Welcome! Welcome, Earthman” a crowd cheers, as he is greeted by a mass of orange and blue robots on this planet called Cybrinia (1). Years before, humans placed “a small handful” of robots on this planet to see how they would develop and survive (2). This earthman, named Tarlton, has now arrived to inspect and decide whether or not the society it has fostered is ready to be integrated into Earth’s human civilization.
One of the orange robots takes Tarlton on a lengthy tour through the city in an attempt to showcase the development and success of Cybrinia’s robot population. Speeding through the gleaming capitol buildings, Tarlton becomes impressed. Not only have the robots mastered innovative engineering, but they have also have developed a democratic government. It is not until the ardent orange robot invites the earthman to inspect the “assembly plant” (where the planet’s robot population is created) that he notices a peculiarity (2).
“I see only orange workers! What about the blue robots?” Tarlton inquires (2). The confused orange robot responds by explaining that only the orange robots are created here; the blue robots are assembled in their own plant on the other side of town. Hiding his concern, Tarlton dismisses the subject and the tour of the assembly plant continues.
As his guide concludes his explanation of the creation process and they exit the building, Tarlton asks his companion where the blue plant is located and to take him there immediately. It is in “blue town…on the south side of the city,” the robot replies, and he suggests that they take a bus (4).
They arrive at a bus stop, clearly separated into a blue section and an orange section, and Tarlton asks his companion whether the robots on Cybrinia “differentiate between blue and orange robots” (4).
“Of course!” the tour guide exclaims, “otherwise there’d be trouble! Have to keep them in their place you know” (4).
This statement begins to worry Tarlton, and he begins to notice just how separated the blue and orange robots really are. The bus, for instance, is separated into a clearly labeled “ORANGE” section in the front, and a “BLUE” section in the rear. Moreover, the charging station (the human equivalent of a restaurant) just outside the window has a large sign stating “ORANGE ONLY” (5).
Moving through building, both Tarlton and his orange guide see that every step of the blue robot creation process is identical to the orange robots’ production; the only difference being a blue shield is attached to the outside instead of orange.
Tarlton climbed back into his shining silver spaceship and waved good-bye to the land of Cybrinia. Within seconds, his aircraft was soaring into the infinite void of space and he takes off his space helmet, and shakes his head, and allows the “beads of perspiration on his dark skin to twinkle like distant stars…” (7).
This story was the plot of the 1953 graphic novel “Judgement Day” published by EC Comics and illustrated by Joe Orlando. Although an inspiring story to readers today, this comic was extremely controversial in the 1950s, a time when discrimination of African Americans was still quite prominent. The plot, which scrutinizes a segregated society and features a black astronaut, went against many of the popular beliefs at the time and gave the Comics Code Authority the perfect excuse to drive the publisher, Bill Gaines, out of business (Coville).
EC Comics and The Comic Code Authority
This arrangement turned out to be a poor one for the comics industry as the experts had experience testifying in court and many of the representatives from the companies had little knowledge of the content that they produced. The main exception to this trend was William Maxwell “Bill” Gaines, who was the publisher of Entertaining Comics (EC) (Figure 8). This comic book company was the main producer of horror comics; the genre that most people were campaigning against. Gaines was clear in describing his position and was unfazed even when he was repeatedly questioned as to whether his comic books were in “good taste” or not (see full transcript of his testimony here). But this did not change the overall outcome of the trial which was an advisement from the Senate to comic companies to essentially perform a “competent job of self-policing.” Thus, Gaines met with representatives of other companies and formed the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) and its Comics Code Authority (CCA) on October 26th, 1954. However, once this association was formed, Gaines refused to join because it was not what he had intended to create, and he believed that the CCA guidelines were too strict (see full guidelines here). Despite his refusal, the association was still approved by the Senate in its final report in 1954 where it stated that the CCA represented “steps in the right direction” (Coville). It should be noted that the Senate did not fully endorse Dr. Wertham’s studies because it only focused on juvenile delinquents. In addition, Dr. Wertham was not fully satisfied with the result of the trial and did not approve of the CCA because he believed the companies would be unable to perform an adequate job policing themselves.
Therefore, the Comics Code Authority was formed “in response to intense political and media pressure,” with “Gaines’ vision for it being more as a public relations gesture,” states Coville, but it instead turned into a “dictatorial censorship organization” that was headed by Judge Charles Murphy (interview). This placed strict guidelines on art and content that publishers had to follow in order to earn a stamp of approval (Figure 1), and comics that lacked this stamp were not picked by distributors. This led to many smaller companies falling into financial ruin because they appealed to a niche market in which the consumer liked aspects that were prohibited by the Code. However, larger companies were also effected in terms of sales because all of their stories were considered tame in comparison to pre-code comics. This led to hardships on the part of the artists. Coville remarks:
A lot of artists just left the field of comics due to a lack of work, and artists that remained said they were regularly being told that they’d have to accept a lower pay rate in order to keep working in comics.
EC, in particular, faced extreme hardships by the CCA, which targeted it targeted and censored most of its content to try to drive it out of business. This effort was spurred on, in part, because of resentment that Gaines refused to join the association and only began to curb his content after newsstands and dealers refused to carry non-stamped comics. The CCA maintained a general disdain toward Gaines as he came to represent “the face of ‘evil’ comic book publisher who was ‘corrupting’ kids and turning them into juvenile delinquents” after his testimony in the Senate hearings (Coville). The comics that EC produced would not circulate among the general censoring staff and would instead be scrutinized directly by the administrator, Judge Charles Murphy.
With Judgment Day, the CCA told Gaines and Al Feldstein, the writer of the story, that they could not publish the comic book if the final panel had a black astronaut. For Murphy, the final panel was too controversial for 1950s America, a time when segregation and systemic racism were still accepted parts of society. This story was likely perceived as too critical of contemporary society. This outraged EC and Gaines threatened to sue the Authority. Murphy then chose to compromise and said that EC could publish the comic if it removed the astronauts beads of sweat. Gaines and Feldstein responded with “Fuck you!,” hanging up the phone (Von Bernewitz, Fred and Grant Geissman, 88).
Nonetheless, EC decided to publish the story without revisions, and it received several letters in response with only one criticizing the story. In fact, the comic drew the admiration of esteemed American writers, such as Ray Bradbury, the famed writer of Fahrenheit 451, who wrote in as well, praising the story for its message and saying that it should be required reading for everyone within the United States (see Figure 9).
However, despite Gaines winning the battle to publish Judgment Day, the overall war between Entertaining Comics and the Comics Code Authority was lost by EC when its distributor fell into financial ruin and it was forced to stop production of each of its comic books.
After resigning from the CMAA, Gaines moved on to distribute his magazine, MAD. Shawna Kidman, a graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, relays that Gaines believed EC’s “closure was the best thing that could’ve happened to [him]” (31). Gaines’ success can primarily be attributed to Independent News, the distributor for Marvel and other businesses, because strong distribution was the main way for publishers to survive.
The industry of comic books was already in decline before the creation of the CCA, so after new regulations were implemented, sales continuously dropped. One of the leading factors in the decline was the distribution. According to Kidman, overproduction and public resistance to comics reduced the profit being made by distributors, which results in less profit for publishers and artists (29). For these reasons, the CMAA targeted small distributors and small publishers in order to try and stabilize the market. However, the status of the industry significantly worsened. As a result of the codes, comic books turned into a “children only” medium (Coville). This thought discouraged adults from reading comic books. This diminished the adult fanbase.
It would not be until the new, “Silver Age” of comics before the comic book market would rise. Ths new age is normally marked by the release of DC’s Flash, a more mild, light-hearted style of comic. Coville claimes:
“Most of their [Marvel and DC’s] crime and horror stories were fairly tame by industry standards… They also started looking for other genres of comics to publish since the usual genres of crime, horror, and romance were now being censored and watered down.”
Coville, Jamie. “Re: Interview Questions.” Received by Nastasia Porras, 2 October 2016.
Coville, Jamie. “Seduction of the Innocent and the Attack on Comic Books.” Integrative Arts 10. Pennsylvania State University. http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk4cca.html Accessed 20 Oct. 2016.
Coville, Jamie. “Testimony of William Gaines.” The History of Comic Books. http://www.thecomicbooks.com/gaines.html. Accessed 6-20 Oct. 2016.
Kidman, Shawna. “Self-Regulation Through Distribution.” Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal Of Film & Television no. 75, 2015, 21-37.
Nyberg, Amy Kiste “Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval.” CBLDF. http://cbldf.org/comics-code-history-the-seal-of-approval/ Accessed 6-20 Oct. 2016.
Park, David. “The Kefauver Comic Book Hearings as Show Trial: Decency, Authority and the Dominated Expert.” Cultural Studies vol. 16, no. 2, 2002, 259-88.
Von Bernewitz, Fred and Grant Geissman. Tales of Terror: The EC Companion Gemstone Publishing and Fantagraphics Books,Timonium, Maryland and Seattle, Washington, 2000, 88.