‘Let Us Commit Them to the Flames’: The Comic Book Burnings of the 1940s

At the height of anti-comics hysteria, youth groups, churches, and schools arranged for big bonfires. And no comics—not even ‘Archie’—were spared.
Organized comic book burnings were a thing in the late '40s.
Organized comic book burnings were a thing in the late '40s. / Ted Shreshinsky/Corbis Historical via Getty Images (Comics) // Sean Gladwell/Moment via Getty Images (Flames)

The 160 boys and girls in Corpus Christi Memorial Stadium eagerly waited for someone to start the fire. It was February 27, 1948, and the children were gathered around a stack of comic books—superhero adventures, crime tales, and lurid horror titles. The pile had been assembled thanks to a clever ploy by organizers: Bring three comics and gain free admission to a movie at the nearby theater.

“We are not adverse to good comics,” said Reverend Peter Rinaldi of the Corpus Christi Church. “In fact, we subscribe to them. But we are out against those which inflame the minds of our youths by playing up crime serials accompanied with sexual drawings.”

It was a scene repeated in towns large and small across the country. Religious leaders, parental groups, youth societies, local government, and others, all concerned with the growing influence of comics, were holding ritualistic bonfires of publications like Crime Does Not Pay and Tales From the Crypt. The spectacle was intended to marshal support for the abolishment of the illustrated stories thought to be corrupting impressionable young minds.

After the movie, it was time. The mayor approached the pile and set it ablaze. As the comics crackled and burned, the kids drew close to the heat of the fire. According to one observer, they “cheered lustily” at the sight of the flames. The comic book was now public enemy number one.

The Comic Concern

Millions of American children spent their idle time with comics before the advent of television, widescreen movies, or video games. The medium, first introduced in the 1930s as a means to collect comic strips, came of age with the debut of Superman in 1938. A parade of superheroes followed, all with powers that may have seemed lackluster in prose or unconvincing on a movie screen but ideal in sequential art. By the end of World War II, comics sold tens of millions of copies monthly. Publishers like National Comics Publications (the precursor to DC Comics), Timely (the future Marvel), and EC all profited handsomely from the phenomenon.

Their fever grip on kids did not go unnoticed by adults, who worried the more sensational and violent books could potentially warp young minds. The concern was fueled by the media, which quickly circulated associations between comic consumption and delinquency. When 10-year-old George Nail of New Castle, Pennsylvania, was killed by his shotgun-wielding younger brother, 6-year-old Sammy, a coroner’s inquest found Sammy’s comic book habit partially liable. The Redwood City Tribune wrote of a 13-year-old boy who “smothered” an 8-year-old girl who coveted his comics. This “comic book murder,” the paper intoned, would not be “our last.” In La Porte, Indiana, five men implicated in a burglary ring were said to have gotten nefarious “ideas” from comics.

Nor were superheroes exempt from such critiques. Some chastened that vigilantes like Batman and Superman were wrong for taking the law into their own hands, unaccountable to anyone but themselves.

A child is pictured with a 'Superman' comic
The perceived authoritarianism of Superman was a target of the anti-comics crusade. / Historical/GettyImages

Such was the moral hysteria that one divorced father found himself under court order not to offer his children any comic books while they were in his care. Karl Drewes of Chicago was told by a judge to keep his two boys, 8 and 12, away from comics and gangster movies; their mother insisted they were “nervous” following such exposure. (The judge also ordered Drewes to pay more child support, from $15 to $17 weekly.)

Some objective voices raised above the din. In California, the Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA) commissioned Stanford graduate students to analyze comic book reading habits to see if there was any link between the comics and crime or diminished intellect. Stanford failed to find one, but that didn’t quell the concern. In fact, by the time of that 1947 study, the comic book burnings had already begun.

One of the earliest burnings dates to 1945, when SS Peter and Paul school students in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, followed guidelines set out by Reverend Robert Southard of Loyola University in Chicago. Comics, Southard believed, could be assigned to one of three categories: harmless, questionable, and condemned. Harmless consisted mainly of Disney titles like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; questionable books included Superman and Archie, the latter presumably for the titular character’s hormonal behaviors; and condemned titles featured the likes of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Suspense. Titles from the latter two labels were gathered, piled, and burned. (The first bonfire was canceled on account of rain.)

Because such stunts were publicized, they resulted in copycat efforts. Burnings were arranged in Buffalo; Memphis; Waterbury, Connecticut; Vallejo, California; Louisville, Kentucky; and elsewhere. In Rumson, New Jersey, Cub Scouts rounded up comics while perched on a fire truck. In Port Huron, Michigan, St. Stephen Catholic School students sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” after the cheap paper was lit. In Freeport, Illinois, one Boy Scout troop had a fire attended by the local assistant fire chief, who lectured on fire safety as copies of Little Lulu went up in flames.

One of the most colorful bonfires came in 1948, when 13-year-old David Mace of Spencer, West Virginia, led a gathering of 600 students to condemn comic titles. Backed by the city’s PTA, it was more of a tent revival experience than campfire, as Mace led the assembled children in a vow.

“Believing that comic books are mentally, physically, and morally injurious to boys and girls, we propose to burn those in our possession,” Mace intoned. “We also pledge ourselves to try not to read any more. Do you, fellow students, believe that comic books have caused the downfall of many youthful readers?”

“We do,” the crowd responded.

“Do you believe that you will benefit by refusing to indulge in comic book reading?”

“We do.”

“Then let us commit them to the flames.”

With that, Mace and the others watched as about 2000 comics went up in smoke. A wry newspaper columnist observed that the boy’s precocious speech must have been written by a PTA member or “a student with a well-developed sense of humor.”

The Wertham Accelerant

Few, however, found this form of censorship funny. Book burnings, which have persisted throughout history, have often been associated with fascism. (It was telling that one such comic book burning from this era occurred in communist-controlled East Berlin.) There was little evidence to indicate a cause-and-effect between reading comics and criminal intent. (Young Sammy Nail, who had turned a shotgun on his brother, was also said to be consuming Western movies before the deadly assault.)

A child is pictured next to comic books
Copies of 'Lassie' and 'Blondie' threaten to warp this young boy's mind. / Steven Gottlieb/Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Perhaps the key reason the theory was being taken so seriously was Dr. Frederic Wertham. A German-born psychiatrist, Wertham had spent years treating youth patients at a Harlem psychiatric facility. His work was summarized in a 1948 issue of Collier’s magazine in which Wertham insisted comics fueled delinquency and influenced sexuality. Perhaps his most infamous assertion was that Batman and his boy ward, Robin, represented a gay ideal, or “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Wertham’s views were validating for those already inclined to hate comic books. But the genre also had a staunch defender, or a kind of Superman to Wertham’s Lex Luthor: a 14-year-old named David Wigransky. The kid advocate openly rebutted Wertham and other critics in a letter published in the erudite Saturday Review of Literature, where he condemned censorship and suggested, in so many words, that adults were on a power trip. (One counter-critic observed that the apparently well-read Wigransky was not the sort of kid they were worried about.)

“Unlike other critics of comics, I possess a first-hand knowledge of them,” Wigransky wrote. He dismissed the 25 or so “delinquents” discussed by Wertham out of an estimated 70 million comic readers. “A good many of the delinquents mentioned happened to be readers of comic magazines just as are 69,999,975 perfectly healthy, happy, normal American boys and girls, men and women. It is ridiculous to suppose that 69,999,975 people are law-abiding citizens just because they are comic book readers as it is to suppose that 25 others are depraved criminals due to the same reading habits.”

Though noble, Wigransky’s efforts did little to quell the flames. Shortly after his letter was published, children in the upstate New York hamlet of Binghamton arranged for what might have been the most well-publicized torching of comics that decade. A student committee went door-to-door in the city, soliciting comic donations for their pyre. Some even visited delis, drug stores, and shoe repair shops, asking owners to sign a “pledge” not to sell sensational comics in the first place, thereby extinguishing the problem at the source. If stores refused, they faced a boycott.

Come the big day, kids flocked to a kiln near a handball court on the grounds of St. Patrick’s School. Classes were let out to allow students to watch as over 2000 comics were incinerated, singing the school’s alma mater song as the books burned. An image of the blaze was later published nationally in Time magazine.

“The publishers,” their ringleader told a journalist, “are gradually improving their books and they are cleaning them up. Time will tell what improvements they are making.”

The Bonfire Gets Extinguished

As theatrical as the comic book burnings were, comics publishers hadn't seen the worst of it. In 1954, Senate hearings debated the merits of crime and horror comics. The EC titles were singled out for their bloody mayhem: Publisher William Gaines tried to protest that a severed head was in good taste relative to the standards of a horror title. It didn’t seem convincing.

Soon, the industry opted to police itself rather than have the government do it. The Comics Code Authority (CCA) was instituted to restrict depictions of amorality, which largely eliminated what one newspaper dubbed “gutter muck.” Romance and superhero titles flourished, as did titles like Lassie and Popeye. Overall, readership was being affected by the increasing affordability of television. Why read Superman when you could watch his adventures on TV?

A publicity still from 'The Adventures of Superman' is pictured
Superman's live-action exploits--and TV as a whole--drew attention away from comics. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

The need for comic book bonfires seemed to be slipping away. In 1955, a Boy Scout troop in Rhode Island saw plans for one scrapped when New York media framed it as censorship. Rather than invite negative publicity to the Scouts, organizers called it off.

It wasn’t until some decades later that Wertham’s assertions, though long criticized, were labeled the work of a man who had worked studiously to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. In 2013, Carol Tilley, assistant professor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, shared research into Wertham’s personal papers at the Library of Congress. Wertham, Tilley maintained, saw hundreds of at-risk youth in Harlem, not the thousands he had claimed; his supposition of Batman and Robin as gay icons was at odds with the testimony of two gay teens he spoke with, one of whom said he actually preferred Tarzan.

Comic book burnings are no longer in fashion, but censorship endures. Most recently, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his family’s experiences during the Holocaust, was banned in 2022 and 2023 by school boards in Tennessee and Missouri for its sexual content. (What little nudity there is in the book is hardly intended to be titillating.) “It’s one more book … just throw it on the bonfire,” Spiegelman said. A bonfire that no longer rages, but clearly one with lingering embers.

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