Dope! That’s what comic books are! Dope! And those dirty books should be scrubbed, put through the wringer and have the dirt squeezed from them!
At least, that’s the gist of this December 30, 1948 column in the Steamboat (Colorado) Pilot by George Bowra, an (at the time) relatively well-known figure in the American West. The tone of the article is over the top, bordering on satire — which might make sense considering Bowra’s history as a colorful character. But we’re not so sure he was joking.
Bowra’s reference to “dope” likely was heroin and not weed, but since it’s ambiguous and marijuana was dubbed a narcotic in most popular media at the time, we’ve decided to include it here. Either way, the theme is the same: comic books are the drugs of the literary world.
Bowra was a familiar writer from the period who even cameos in a late 1940s tale of UFO sightings in New Mexico. The most notable of these was the alleged UFO crash in Roswell, but apparently there was a lesser-known incident near Aztec about a year later, whereby a UFO was supposedly shot down in Hart Canyon and witnesses reported seeing sixteen dead “childlike” human-like beings dead at the site. These reports are the basis for the famed Hangar 18 rumor, as that is where the bodies of the aliens were reportedly taken.
Bowra is listed as one of the Aztec witnesses, which some observers see as proof that the whole thing was a hoax. See, Bowra, who was editor of the local Aztec Independent Review and a deputy sheriff in Aztec, wasn’t above a dropping a little satire into his news. Bowra told a UFO magazine in the mid-70s that he had written a very “tongue-in-cheek” article about being abducted by “little green men” and that there never was a UFO landing in 1975.
“Everybody pretty much knew he did these things and nobody thought anything about it,” Bob Weaver, president of the Aztec Museum Board of Directors, told the Albuquerque Journal in 1998.
So the guy had a funny bone. But does that make his screed against comics a work of satire as well? We don’t think so. Or, if it was, his tone was so dry that it clearly fooled even the Steamboat Pilot editors who re-ran it with no sense of irony. (We assume that it was syndicated [likely simply stolen]from the pages of the Aztec Independent Review.)
While the piece is so outrageous that it reads like a joke, we’re pretty sure he was serious based on the era, because comics were very much under fire at the time. This article was penned in 1948, the same year that the Association of Comics-Magazine Publishers (ACMP) formed to regulate comic books due to public outcry that the “funnies” were causing kids to become juvenile delinquents. Among those on the panel was Bill Gaines, founder of MAD magazine, which in the 1950s would wage it’s own battle against censorship. The group lasted for a few months before the United States Supreme Court ruled that a New York Law prohibiting the publishing of “pictures and stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime” was unconstitutional.
The code also declared:
• Sexy, wanton comics should not be published. No drawing should show a female indecently or unduly exposed, and in no event more nude than in a bathing suit commonly worn in the United States of America.
• Crime should not be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy against the law and justice or to inspire others with the desire for imitation. No comics shall show the details and methods of a crime committed by a youth. Policemen, judges, Government officials, and respected institutions should not be portrayed as stupid, ineffective, or represented in such a way to weaken respect for established authority.
• No scenes of sadistic torture should be shown.
• Vulgar and obscene language should never be used. Slang should be kept to a minimum and used only when essential to the story.
• Divorce should not be treated humorously or represented as glamorous or alluring.
• Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible. (Some would also say there was a silent rule to never promote any other race or religious group as being equal to WASPs, either and you’d never see an ethnic hero in a story in this era.)
They also banned certain words and phrases. Gaines — whose comics during the era of the ACMP included Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock SuspenStories, Weird Science and Two fisted Tales — offered this explanation in a 1983 interview with The Comics Journal: “They wrote a Code, and the Code forbade the use of the words horror, terror, or crime — this was all my books — and weird, even weird! So that would wipe me out.”
By 1954, the Comics Code Authority had been formed in response to further threats of government regulation of comics. It was basically self-censoring by the comics industry, though it wasn’t any better than government censoring likely would have been. The main focus was on violence, blood and sexual themes. While the CCA curtailed major comic books style to some degree, it also led to the proliferation of underground comics and artists like the great satirist Robert Crumb. The Comics Code Authority loosened its grasp over the decades — at one point in the early 1970s, zombies were banned — but remained a dominant force until 2011, when D.C. Comics became the last comic publisher to abandon the code.
Bowra closes his article by noting: “To tell a man that he can’t produce a certain item because it is not to your liking is an infringement upon his liberty.” But he also concedes that if something can be proven subversive, then it should be illegal. He sums up by saying: “It is possible that some of the comics have that purpose. Anything that tends to upset the human mind is subversive to good living and there is no doubt that many of the comics do that.”
So, while we missed National Comic Book Day on September 25, we think you should all celebrate this afternoon with a legal spliff and some classic horror comic covers.
Here’s to you, Bowra!