Attracting Mature Readers
By Peter W. Y. Lee
Among the 1954 Comics Magazine Association of America’s Comic Code’s many regulations was a directive to company admen: “Liquor and tobacco advertising is not acceptable” (Nyberg 168). The ubiquity of alcohol in mainstream media certainly concerned social guardians in post-war America (Rotskoff). However, liquor manufacturers did not solicit to minors in the comics, but another demographic group: their parents.
The first part of my article looked at how Lev Gleason Publications responded to the public alarm over comic books. Gleason and his chief editor, Charles Biro, pushed comics as a progressive medium with educational and artistic merit. This second part explores their second strategy: courting adults. Gleason hoped that an expanded readership would bolster support and offset rising production costs. However, critics rejected comic books’ potential beyond that of disposable children’s entertainment. The Comics Code sanitised comic books and stigmatised readers beyond middle-school age.
In the US, comic books thrived during World War II, but after the war rationing and price control ended, the demand for raw material skyrocketed, leading to inflation. Print media raised prices to counter escalating costs, made worse by paper mill shortages and increased paper products/packaging in a booming consumer society (Ericson 17). By June 1950, the Wall Street Journal reported that the price of “novel news,” a newsprint gradient used for comics and pulp-based periodicals, had “been jacked up an average of 5%” in the past six months (Rutledge 1). Along with higher labour and distribution costs, comic book publishers found diminishing profits.
Normally, manufacturers pass higher costs to consumers, but comic book publishers had kept the cover price at a dime per copy since the industry’s birth. During the Depression and the war, publishers feared raising retail prices would drive away their core audience of 6-16 year-olds. Several publishers reduced the page count per issue to maintain the tenable 10¢ price tag, while others hoped the Office of Price Stabilization would decrease minimum print runs to cut the number of unsold copies returned from newsstands (“Grocery Profits Studied” 64). Yet companies refused to drop lines, despite market over-saturation. Comic books’ main selling point was the attractive covers, not the interior art. One rep from St. John Publishing explained, “To boost circulation, you publish more different magazines each month—and so offer more covers” (Kligfeld 10). Lev Gleason lamented, “We’ve been forced in the scramble for readers to publish three more magazines today than five years ago, but total circulation for all Gleason comic magazines is up only 10%” (Kligfeld 10).
Unable to improve their supply chain and hungry for sales, publishers looked for new readers. Gleason pointed to adults as an untapped market: “Comic magazine circulation is constantly veering towards older age groups” (Kligfeld 1). He noted that 40-60 percent of sales were “bought by adults for their own reading pleasure” (Gleason 14). Even Dell Comics, which later successfully sidestepped the Code with all-ages characters, observed, “There seem to be more adults than ever reading our comic publications” (Kligfeld 1). The industry juggled adult and child sensibilities, with Gleason and Biro justifying comics as adult “literature” comparable to how “millions of American adults” flock to lowbrow B-westerns instead of “the finest production of Macbeth” (Gleason 14). Gaudy, gory crime stories appealed to mature readers and Gleason emphasised how crime comics were a family affair: “GET ‘CRIME DOES NOT PAY’. SHOW IT TO DAD, HE’LL LOVE IT!” read one house ad in Gleason’s Boy Comics (Advertisement).
Some adults needed no encouragement to read comic books. Those who were children during the Great Depression were adults after World War II, but did not necessarily outgrow comics. During the Senate hearing on juvenile delinquency in the late 1940s, social scientist Norbert Muhlen argued that “low-cost books,” such as pulps and comics, were “the basic staple of the new book-reading public” prior to World War II (United States Congress 202). During the war, kids-turned-G.I.s bought comics over national magazines 10 to 1 in army outposts and continued to read comics when they were demobilised (United States Congress 202). Muhlen claimed that lowbrow comic books differed from the “older, much-censored, and more refined newspaper comic strips” due to “repetitious showing of death and destruction” (United States Congress 202). But he rejected the notion that comic books desensitised readers and he asserted that readers were “neither illiterates nor morons” (United States Congress 203). The Christian Science Monitor concurred, noting how “parents, librarians and some educators have fought the comics for years, but the youngsters still grow up into dads (and mothers) who turn to them” for reading pleasure (“Comics”).
For critics, however, crime comics were too successful in peddling sex and violence across generational lines. At the 1948 General Federation of Women’s Club’s “Improving the Stand of Programs for Children” conference, Henry E. Schultz, the executive director of the Association of Comic Magazine Publishers, confessed he was not sure “whether comic books are read more by adults or children,” but, he immediately clarified, “Crime comics are not pitched to children readers but to grownups” (Reynolds B4).
Schultz hoped to deflect criticism against lurid titles, but his admission that he did not know who read crime comics did not encourage guardians. Neither did vendors who sold comics to anyone with a dime. States, cities and foreign markets debated and established ordinances to limit sales of comics to minors, but not to adults (“Crime Comics” 2; “Crime Comics” 8; “Baltimore” 9; “U.S. Crime Comics” 1). When Los Angeles druggist William Dickey sold Crime Does Not Pay to a 13 year-old boy in April 1949, he faced being charged with misdemeanour (“Comic Book Sale” 4). The Los Angeles County Court struck the ordinance down as unconstitutional, arguing that prohibiting murder from children’s books could censor the assassination of Abraham Lincoln from textbooks, dooming them to reliving the lessons of history (Parson 104).
Schultz saw the Court’s decision as a sign of decreasing hysteria: “Sanity is creeping into the entire picture on the comics” (Loeb 22). Hopeful that mature topics had marketability to children, the Association awarded industry members star seals on covers, indicating that the issue passed the industry’s standards for presentation. Gleason went one step further; in Crime Does Not Pay #63, Biro outlined to readers house guidelines sent to “every writer, artist and contributor to our magazines” (“A Message”). Biro listed twelve points, stating that “although we have followed most of these directives for many years, this is a more solidified and sterner reiteration,” suggesting that he was doubling down on potentially offensive content (“A Message”). Such commands included:
- Criminals must not be shown to enjoy a criminal act. This means no laughter or glee during the commission of a crime. […]
- In the illustration of wounds, they must not be shown open. Blood must not be shown flowing from the face or mouth of a man and no blood to be shown flowing from women (“A Message”).
Biro initialled the conclusion, asserting, “I cannot stress these points hard enough” (“A Message”). While Gleason’s comics routinely violated these oaths—even in the issue that featured this manifesto—Biro shielded kids while adults read between the lines. In 1950, Gleason, by then president of the Association, informed the Senate subcommittee that while his readers were, on average, 12-13 years old, 57 percent of Crime Does Not Pay’s readers were over 21 (United States Congress 136). Gleason even contended he did not publish “crime comic books” per se; he preferred the label “anticrime comic magazines,” with a more adult connotation (United States Congress 136).
Unfortunately for Gleason, critics negated the appeal of comic books to “normal” adults. Psychologist Fredric Wertham proclaimed that “the healthy normal adult” rejected superheroes and other “masochist” fantasies, which he considered pornographic (182 and 234). This classicism discouraged adults from associating with lowbrow kiddie books. One reviewer favourably likened Wertham’s work to other recent social critiques: Mortimer Smith’s The Diminished Mind and Alan Valentine’s The Age of Conformity. These authors attacked a “cultural decline” due to “cheap claptrap” like comic books that lowered the literate, democratic “common man” to a “moron level” (Jordan-Smith D6). Some titles rhetorically clung to grown-ups, like Atlas’s Amazing Adult Fantasy, which claimed to respect readers’ intelligence, but fooled no one.
In the 1960s, comic books became fashionable again for young adults. Fans pointed to creators who tackled social issues, thereby legitimising their hobby. In 1968, comics historian Ted White argued that reformers created the Comics Code specifically to destroy EC Comics and Lev Gleason Publications. Gleason comics, White recalled, had a lower-class sensibility; growing up in a small town, he sneered at Crime Did Not Pay, but as an adult, he recognized the stories characterised working-class urban violence (Schelly 67-68). Gleason’s adult outreach blurred the boundaries on what and for whom comic books were. The great “scare” included adults who lowered the country’s literacy at the onset of the Cold War. The Code censored the industry to contain the comics as harmless funny books for kids.
Crime Does Not Pay folded in 1955 and Gleason and Biro exited the industry the following year. For comic book fans, Lev Gleason comics’ reputation has remained primarily that of Crime Does Not Pay and its glorification of violent crime. Yet Gleason and Biro had greater ambitions, imbuing a genuine affinity for social progressivism and artistic potential into their work. They hoped to legitimise comic books as an art form and a source for education by reaching out to adult readers, thereby rebutting critics. Their efforts failed and the Comics Code not only gutted the industry, but it also stopped creators from having a voice in public affairs for the next five years.
Peter. W. Y. Lee is an independent scholar focusing on youth culture and American popular culture. He completed his doctorate in American history and culture from Drew University. He has edited anthologies on Star Wars (2016), Star Trek: The Next Generation (2018), and Peanuts (2019), and has published many articles and essays on comic books and film history. He is the author of From Dead Ends to Cold Warriors: Constructing American Boyhood in Postwar Hollywood Films, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.
“A Message From…” Crime Does Not Pay #63, May 1948, inside front cover.
Advertisement. Boy Comics #7, Dec. 1942, inside front cover.
“Baltimore Set For War on Crime Comics.” The Washington Post, 2 Mar. 1949, p. 9.
Biro, Charles. Crime Does Not Pay #78, Comic House/Lev Gleason Publications, Aug. 1949, cover.
“Comic Book Sale Charge Will Take Druggist to Court.” Los Angeles Times, 23 Apr. 1949, p. 4.
“‘Comics’ Have Champions.” The Christian Science Monitor, 5 Feb. 1944, p. 16.
“Comics Not Held Delinquency Cause.” Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1950, p. 20.
“Crime Comics Ban Bill Meets Defeat.” The Los Angeles Times, 24 Jun. 1949, p. 8.
“Crime Comics Not Funny Say School Pupils.” The Christian Science Monitor, 22 Apr. 1949, p. 2.
Ericson, George. “No Near Relief Seen for Paper Shortage.” The Christian Science Monitor, 1 Nov. 1947, p. 17.
Gleason, Leverett S. “Comics Censorship Opposed.” The New York Times, 5 Feb. 1949, p. 14.
“Grocery Profits Studied.” The New York Times, 20 Dec. 1951, p. 64.
Jordan-Smith, Paul. “Books and Authors.” The Los Angeles Times, 9 Jan. 1955, p. D6.
Kligfled, Stanley. “Comic Magazines.” The Wall Street Journal, 12 Jan. 1953, pp. 1, 10.
Loeb, Madeleine. “Anti-Comics Drive Reported Waning.” The New York Times, 21 Jan. 1950, p. 22.
Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
Reynolds, Genevieve. “Club, Industrial Leaders Debate Youth Programs.” The Washington Post, 30 Oct. 1948, p. B4.
Rotskoff, Lori. Love on the Rocks: Men, Women, and Alcohol in Post-World War II America. Chapel Hill University Press, 2005.
Rutledge, J. Howard. “Paper Prices.” The Wall Street Journal, 20 Jun. 1950, p. 1.
Schelly, Bill. “The Forgotten ‘50s: Will Comics Ever Again Be as Exciting as EC?” Alter Ego #59, Jun. 2006, pp. 67-71.
United States Congress. Senate. Subcommittee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Juvenile Delinquency: A Compilation of Information and Suggestions Submitted to the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce Relative to the Incidence of Juvenile Delinquency in the United States and the Possible Influence Thereon of So-called Crime Comic Books During the Period 1945 to 1950. Government Printing Office, 1950.
“U.S. Crime Comics Banned in France,” The Christian Science Monitor, 20 Jul. 1949, p. 1.
Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1954.
 Wertham’s popular and sensational Seduction of the Innocent (1954) heavily contributed to the formation of the Comics Code.
 The tale is well-known among comic book fans: the series faced cancellation and Stan Lee swapped the word “adult” for a superhero, Spider-Man, presumably aimed at young readers rather than grown-ups.