To illustrate these points, four pivotal events in the history of the American comic book industry, two of relatively recent vintage, will be discussed. Each is centrally concerned with distribution, and each had a profound effect on the content of comic books and what became possible in the marketplace. Without understanding the role that distribution played, it is difficult to fully appreciate the changes in content that took place.
The Comics Code (1954)
The first event is one that is arguably the most important in understanding the American comics industry (Daniels 1971; Gabilliet 2010; Hajdu 2008; Nyberg 1998; Palmer 2010; Schelly 2013). By 1954, the industry faced an existential threat from which its very survival was legitimately in doubt. There arose a furor over the content of many comic books, particularly crime and horror comics, stoked in large measure by Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent and by hearings conducted by the US Senate Judiciary Committee in April and June of that year. The involvement of the US Senate carried with it the real threat of government intervention in the industry, providing strong evidence for the role of Peterson’s (1985) constraint of the law.
Due to heightened parental concerns over adult and graphic content, and calls for “something to be done,” the industry faced a public relations nightmare. Of critical note is the pressure that distributors (and retailers) felt to cease distributing (and selling) comic books with questionable content. The publishers, and by extension the creators, may have been the ones put in the public spotlight, but it was the distributors and retailers who were the ones taking the risks and facing possible penalties. By refusing to carry controversial material, distributors, in turn, put pressure on the publishers to modify the content (Daniels 1971; Gabilliet 2010; Hajdu 2008; Nyberg 1998; Palmer 2010; Schelly 2013).
In an attempt to head off possible governmental regulation and in light of existing ordinances and restrictions, the industry turned to selfpolicing. Many of the major publishers banded together as the Comics Magazine Association of America and created the Comics Code Authority, which, based on a set of guidelines, would assure the public of the appropriateness of the content of comic books, and would assuage the fears of distributors by offering some mechanism to deflect criticism and possible prosecution (Daniels 1971; Gabilliet 2010; Hajdu 2008; Nyberg 1998; Palmer 2010; Schelly 2013).
Although certain stigmatized genres (e.g. horror, crime) were not necessarily “outlawed” by the Comics Code, they were severely constrained by the fact that if they did not pass muster, then they would not be distributed, and no publisher would waste resources to produce comic books that could not be offered for sale. Many other genres were still available (e.g. westerns, funny animals, humor, war, science fiction), although all were under increased scrutiny. So even though crime, horror, and romance were still permitted, their content was much toned down, which resulted in less appeal for older readers and fewer sales. Since the content no longer targeted older readers, it should come as no surprise that readership by this segment declined. As a result, readership began to skew younger (Daniels 1971; Gabilliet 2010; Nyberg 1998; Palmer 2010; Schelly 2013). By favoring comic books explicitly targeted at children, the fact that comic books increasingly became identified as a product for children was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Critics of comic books could then point to these comic books and say, in effect, “see, comic books truly are for children, and we were justified in protesting the questionable content so as to protect the children.”
In an effort to placate and protect distributors and retailers, the Comics Code wrought many changes on the industry, especially on the content of comic books and the public perception of comic books. For a time, the very real threat of being denied distribution compelled publishers and creators to restrict allowable content and served to limit experimentation. To properly analyze the content of comic books in the later 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, until attitudes began to noticeably shift and the influence of the Comics Code waned, the impact that the threat of not distributing a title created must be considered. Although technically not the buyers of comic books, in the sense that they did not legally take title to them, distributors, in this incident, exercised great influence over the industry and certainly over the content, or the culture, that was produced.