Antiquated California Law Singles Out Horror Comic Books

It's Halloween, and to celebrate the occasion, comic book publishers have long released seasonally appropriate fare like Dark Horse Comics' "Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven and The Red Death," or Vertigo's "The Witching Hour" anthology. But what most people are likely unaware of is, those comics -- and a whole lot more -- could potentially run afoul of an odd California state law that's a product of the "Seduction of the Innocent" era.

Wacky, antiquated laws that are somehow still on the books have long been a source of humor -- "It's illegal in Arizona for a donkey to sleep in a bath tub," that type of thing -- but the still-active Section 16603 of California's business and professions code, specifically targets horror comics, stipulating that an entity cannot require the purchase of "any horror comic book" in order to sell any other type of magazine, book or publication. Or, translated into non-legalese by COMICS SHOULD BE GOOD blogmaster and CBR's resident legal expert Brian Cronin: "DC Comics cannot say that if you want to buy 'Superman' you have to buy 'House of Mystery,' or a distributor saying that if you want DC Comics then you also have to buy EC Comics."

That would be odd enough, but the law's definition of "horror comic book" is surprisingly broad, encompassing the depiction of any of the following: "arson, assault with caustic chemicals, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, kidnapping, mayhem, murder, rape, robbery, theft, or voluntary manslaughter." So not only would "The Walking Dead" fit this criteria, but so would pretty much every superhero title, along with comic book stories of various genres. As one might guess, online sources state that it was enacted in 1955 (one year after Fredric Wertham's infamous "Seduction of the Innocent" was published).

The punishment is fairly steep, too: A misdemeanor with up to six months in county jail or a maximum $1,000 fine -- or both.

To make it even clearer that the law was the product of 1950s comic book fear-mongering, the following entry in California's business and professions code, Section 16604, is a nearly identical provision, except much broader, stating that you can't require someone to buy "any magazine, book or other publication" in order to sell "any other magazine, book or other publication" -- seemingly making the "horror comic book" law redundant.

Odder still, the California legislature unsuccessfully attempted to have it amended as late as 1993, modernizing the language to include carjacking as one of the crimes whose inclusion constitutes a horror comic book.

And, since it's amusing to see how it's spelled out, the section's legalese definition of a comic book is "a series of five or more drawings or photographs in sequence, which are accompanied by either narrative writing or words represented as spoken by a pictured character, whether such narrative words appear in balloons, captions or on or immediately adjacent to the photograph or drawing."

Though obviously outdated, evidently redundant and in the opinion of one attorney consulted by CBR News, unconstitutional, the law will probably stay on the books of the most populous state in the union for the foreseeable future. As with many of these archaic statues, odds are low it will be seriously challenged without someone being prosecuted under it , a scenario that's simply not likely to happen.

Thank you to Friend of CBR Justin Levine for suggesting this story.

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