Combatting “Filth for Profit” – The New York State Legislature’s Investigation into the Comic Book Industry, and the Leading Role Played by a Columbia Law School Alumnus

Nathaniel Sans

Much like today, seventy years ago parents and policymakers were alarmed by the content of their kids’ reading material. In Austin, Texas, a “major [Parent-Teachers Association] project” sought to “[get] to the heart of the matter in their study of comic books,” while West Palm Beach’s City Commission considered legislation that would bar the sale of “crime, horror, and sex ‘comic books’” but was dissuaded from doing so when a civic organization worked with local distributors to cease sale of “very objectionable” publications.[1] Closer to home, the Connecticut Parent-Teachers Association established the abolition of “unwholesome comic books” as one of its major goals for the second half of 1954, and in New York, parents investigated and argued against comics through local government and in civil society groups.[2]

Congress eventually responded to public concern with three days of hearings held in 1954 by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency (the “Senate Subcommittee”). While the Senate Subcommittee’s hearings were undoubtedly the most prominent government action to address the topic, by the time the U.S. Senate arrived on the scene, a New York Joint Legislative Committee (the “Joint Committee”) had dogged the heels of the comic book industry for years. Authors chronicling the period have acknowledged the Joint Committee’s work—David Hajdu mentions it several times in his lively history of the cultural controversy swirling around comic books, and Amy Nyberg treats it in her history of the Comics Code—but the Joint Committee investigation merits a closer look because of its longer life, and its role in the enactment of state legislation targeting the comic book industry.[3]

The New York State Legislature established the Joint Committee in March 1949 and charged it with making “a thorough study and survey” of comic books, including the extent to which comics offended “accepted standards and the public interest, [and] the dangers and evils” potentially inculcated by comics.[4]

The Joint Committee produced regular reports on its work, and by 1951 had reached several conclusions:  crime comics represented a “contributing factor leading to juvenile delinquency”; publishers of those comics were fighting efforts to limit publication of crime comics; and evidence gathered by the Joint Committee “[made] some action by the State imperative to protect its children.”[5] In that report the Joint Committee called for self-regulation by the comic book industry, but was not subtle in stating its readiness to resort to regulation if the industry failed to act with sufficient urgency:  “regulation can be self-imposed by [the comic book industry]. It can be in the form of governmental regulation. The Committee ardently hopes for the former.”[6] It also pointedly observed that a patchwork of regulations across the forty-eight states could be fatal to the industry.[7]

In its 1952 report the Joint Committee continued to express its preference for self-regulation by the comics industry, but it also had a set of legislative measures prepared by unanimous agreement, including, a provision that would bar sale of comic books “devoted to the publication. . . of fictional deeds of crime, bloodshed, lust or heinous acts, which tend to incite minors to violent or depraved or immoral acts.”[8] It also recommended establishment of a comic book division within the state Department of Education that would inspect and permit comic books, and a requirement that publishers furnish local district attorneys with copies of unpermitted books.[9]

By 1954, Assemblyman James FitzPatrick ascended to chair the Joint Committee. FitzPatrick, a Columbia Law School alumnus (class of 1941), was a comic book skeptic who in 1949 had cosponsored a version of the comic book division proposal that appeared in the Joint Committee’s 1952 report.[10] The Joint Committee’s 1954 report dropped the comic-division recommendation, and included a slightly tweaked version of the 1952 proposal to modify the prohibition on distributing obscene materials.[11] It also attacked the practice of tie-in sales, whereby a distributer or wholesaler would condition its provision of popular magazines to a retailer on the retailer’s acceptance of other, racier titles.[12] Other recommendations in the 1954 report included raising the minimum fine for distribution of obscene material, and expanding the scope of town officers eligible to pursue an injunction barring distribution of obscene material.[13] These last three measures were enacted into law in 1954.[14]

Later in 1954, FitzPatrick testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency; he trumpeted the Joint Committee’s work and its 1954 legislative successes.[15] He also called for federal legislation, including federal expansion of New York’s prohibition on tie-in sales, a broad ban on the sale of horror comic books (it is not clear whether the ban would apply to all sales or only to sales to children), empowerment of the U.S. Postmaster General to take action against objectionable material, and modifications to the federal antitrust legal regime to permit collusion by comic book publishers in support of a self-regulatory program.[16]

The federal legislation FitzPatrick sought was not forthcoming. In its March 1955 report, Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency, the Committee on the Judiciary declined to adopt FitzPatrick’s recommendation regarding tie-in sales, or recommend any other legislation.[17] In contrast to the explicit threat of state regulation in the Joint Committee’s 1951 report, the Judiciary Committee’s report merely stated “if [the nascent Comics Magazine Association of America] does not succeed, then other ways and means must—and will—be found to prevent our Nation’s young from being harmed by crime and horror comic books.”[18]

Despite the lack of federal action, the year 1955 saw New York’s heaviest blow against the industry when it passed legislation prohibiting publication of comic books with titles including the words “crime,” “sex,” “horror,” or “terror,” or that were “principally made up of pictures or accounts of methods of crime, of illicit sex, horror, terror, physical torture, brutality or physical violence…”[19] Hajdu wrote that this act “essentially outlawed comic books, with the possible exception of Archie.”[20]

The New York State Legislature’s willingness to impose such far-reaching legislation is even more surprising given the concentration of comic book publishers in New York; a list of comic book publishers and titles included in the Judiciary Subcommittee’s interim report lists 111 publishers, 101 of which had New York addresses.[21] New York’s legislature clearly understood that regulation, if adopted across many states, could be fatal to the industry, but it forged ahead anyway.[22] While the Senate Subcommittee hearings may have been higher profile, the Joint Committee’s work posed an ominous, impactful threat to the industry in its home state.



[1] P-TA, Guardian of Youth, Austin American, Feb. 6, 1955, at B1; Editorial, A Job Well Done, Palm Beach Post-Times, Jan. 23, 1955.

[2] Conn. P.T.A. Asks Comic Book Ban, N.Y. Herald Trib., May 2, 1954, at 67; Clean Comics Fight Pressed in Queens, N.Y. Times, Jan. 27, 1950, at 26.

[3] See generally, David Hajdu, The Ten Cent Plague:  The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (2008); Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code (1998).

[4] N.Y. State J. Legis. Comm. to Study the Publ’n of Comics, 167-35, 2d Sess., at 7.

[5] N.Y. State J. Legis. Comm. to Study the Publ’n of Comics, 168-15, 1st Sess., at 9.

[6] Id. at 9-10.

[7] Id. at 21.

[8] N.Y. State J. Legis. Comm. to Study the Publ’n of Comics, 168-65, 2d Sess., at 16-19.

[9] Id. at 21.

[10] Mark A. Uhlig, James FitzPatrick, Power Agency Head and Lawmaker, 71, N.Y. Times, Feb. 15, 1988, at A18. [] []; Amy Kiste Nybert, Seal of Approval:  The History of the Comics Code (1998) at 42-43.

[11] N.Y. State J. Legis. Comm. to Study the Publ’n of Comics 169-37, 2d Sess., at 39-43.

[12] Id. at 20-21 (description of tie-in sales); id. at 39 (proposal criminalizing tie-in sales of “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, or disgusting” publications).

[13] Id. at 41-42.

[14] Juvenile Delinquency (Comic Books):  Hearings Before the S. Subcomm. on Juv. Delinq. of the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 83d Cong., 203-04 (1954) (Testimony of James A. FitzPatrick, Chairman, New York State Joint Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comics). 

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 208-212.

[17] S. Rep. No. 84-62, at 24 (1955).

[18] Id. at 32.

[19] N.Y. State J. Legis. Comm. to Study the Publ’n of Comics 170-32, 2d Sess., at 117 (1956 report); Richard Amper, Assembly Votes Comic Book Curb, N.Y. Times, Mar. 23, 1955, at 33; ‘Comic’ Book Ban Signed, Wash. Post and Times Herald, May 3, 1955, at 41.

[20] David Hajdu, The Ten Cent Plague:  The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (2008) at 312.

[21] S. Rep. No. 84-62, at 39-43. The same report noted that “…while there are 112 seemingly separate and distinct corporations engaged in the publication of comic books, these corporations…are in actual fact owned and controlled by a relatively small group of men and women. Thus the 676 comic-book titles are published by 111 corporations owned by only 121 persons or families…” id. at 4.

[22] N.Y. State J. Legis. Comm. to Study the Publ’n of Comics 168-15, 1st Sess., at 20-21. (1951 report)