3. The Child Readers of Comics: Concerns and Numbers
Section 3 explores how the content of Crime and Horror comics in particular provoked a great deal of outrage in the press. Perhaps a less immediately evident source of adult concerns over comic books came, however, from how ubiquitous they had quite suddenly become in the 1940s, and from how children were reading and circulating them. Readership figures from the 1940s and 1950s reveal a mass culture phenomenon of unprecedented scope. A publishers’ survey taken in 1944 calculated that 95 percent of boys and 91 percent of girls between the ages of six and eleven were regular comic book readers who read an average of twelve comics a month. This figure shrank only marginally in the twelve to seventeen age category, where 87 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls read comics at a rate of seven or eight a month. American sales figures climbed rapidly every year throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, reaching a peak in 1952 when it is estimated over a billion comic books, representing over 130 titles, were published each month. To put this staggering figure into perspective, the population of the United States was under 158 million, meaning there were approximately six comics sold for every person living in the country each month. These publication numbers do not even accurately translate into readership numbers because of the phenomenon of “pass-along circulation”, which was conservatively estimated by publishers to multiply readership by five.
Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults were startled by the sheer number of comics young people read, but what made the comics craze even more worrisome was the fact that it was a print phenomenon operating by and large outside of adult control. Priced at ten cents an issue, one twentieth the cost of an average picture book, and available at any local newstand or drugstore, comics were easily accessible to child buyers. A 1947 study found that 75% of all comic books were purchased by children. Futhermore, young people commonly produced and shared (or even sold) their own comics, and often developed “unofficial markets” in the form of rent-a-book libraries. Finally, even the artists and writers of commercially-produced comics were themselves typically very young, often in their late teens and early twenties. Taken all together, the comics represented an unprecedented children's print culture phenomenon, independent of the usual adult gatekeeping, with materials selected and circulated by young people.