As a horror fan, I've seen controversies come and go for decades by now. Nevertheless, I'm still surprised at what causes the controversies, and the strange details that surface in the discussion about each controversy. Case in point: DC's recent decision to pull the alternative Killing Joke cover from a recent issue of the Batgirl comic book series.
Even though many online geeks believe that this decision was DC's caving to a mob of angry Batgirl fans, that's actually not true; instead, DC pulled the cover at the artist's request because people were harassing the people who disliked the cover. In other words, the delicate, easily-offended snowflakes here are the people who love The Killing Joke so much that they are willing to threaten people who do not. (Rob Bricken at io9 wrote a great commentary post about the cover controversy here.)
Another topic that's popped up as part of this cover controversy is the question of censorship, whether DC's refusal to publish a controversial cover is whether it is a sign of a larger trend of censorship at work within the comic book industry. I don't think it is because not only have comic books been censored before, but superhero comics actually thrived from that censorship instead of being hindered.
Here's a little history lesson: Back in the 1940s and early '50s, comic books in the U.S. covered a wide range of genres, including "true crime" and horror. Superhero comics were just one genre among dozens on the magazine rack, and they had faded in popularity in the years since World War II. In 1954, the Senate held hearings about the content of comic books; these hearings were prompted by the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a book by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. In his book, Wertham accused comic books of inciting juvenile delinquency on an epidemic level.
By the end of the hearings, the comic book industry implemented a self-regulating Comics Code Authority (CCA) just so it could stay in business. As a result, most of the other genres disappeared from the comic book scene, leaving superheroes to dominate the medium ever since. (Had the hearings not happened and the CCA not been implemented, the comic book scene in America might have possibly evolved into something as dynamic and varied as Japanese manga is today.) Thus, it's a bit hypocritical to hold Alan Moore's The Killing Joke up as an example of a ground-breaking story within the superhero genre, since such a book probably wouldn't have been published at all without a few decades of censorship beforehand that made the superhero genre the dominant influence within the comics medium.
Below are 10 comic book covers that were published before the CCA was implemented, some of which were actually used as "evidence" in the Senate hearings. I've also included a few quotes from the hearings and other sources concerning the cultural impact of comic books during the pre-CCA era. The complete transcripts of the hearings can be found here. For other examples of media censorship, see the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. the Hays Code) and the "Video Nasty" list.
"I would like to point out to you one other crime comic book which we have found to be particularly injurious to the ethical development of children and those are the Superman comic books. They arose in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune. We have called it the Superman complex. ... In these comic books the crime is always real and the Superman’s triumph over good is unreal. Moreover, these books like any other, teach complete contempt of the police. ... All this to my mind has an effect, but it has a further effect and that was very well expressed by one of my research associates who was a teacher and studied the subject and she said, 'Formerly the child wanted to be like daddy or mommy. Now they skip you, they bypass you. They want to be like Superman, not like the hard working, prosaic father and mother'" - Dr. Wertham, during his testimony with the Senate Committee
"What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to read or do? Do we think our children are so evil, so simple minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery? Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic. ... (A) little healthy, normal child has never been made worse for reading comic magazines. The basic personality of a child is established before he reaches the age of comic-book reading. I don’t believe anything that has ever been written can make a child overaggressive or delinquent. The roots of such characteristics are much deeper. The truth is that delinquency is the product of real environment, in which the child lives and not of the fiction he reads." - EC publisher William Gaines, during his testimony with the Senate Committee
"The reading of crime comics stimulates sadistic and masochistic attitudes and interferes with the normal development of sexual habits in children and produces abnormal sexual tendencies in adolescents." - New York State Joint Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comics, 1951 report findings
"Every parent, every responsible adult, should be shocked by the prediction of 400,000 juveniles in court as delinquents during 1954. This represents a 33 percent increase over 1948, just as 350,000 in court during last year was 19 percent higher than prior years. Delinquency is on the march, ever increasing, ever destroying our youth. ... Why are 400,000 delinquents slated for 1954? It cannot be attributed to an overnight personality change, it is not a population factor alone. ... There is a destructive factor that is universal. It is the arrogant, defiant publishing and distribution of thousands upon thousands of filth-drenched pocket books and magazines of the girlie-gag variety. This printed poison drips with astounding ads, sadistic rape-murder stories which mask as true reporting. These perverted magazines contain instructions in crime, narcotic uses, and sex perversions and moral degradation. This evil literature floods each community by the truckload. It is produced in corruption as maggots are produced and made available to your children." - from Brain Washing: American Style, Exhibit 5 in the hearings
"The artists working this turf back then were virtually all war vets (it seems) with varying sorts of emotional damage (let’s be honest). The writers were virtually unknown haggard hacks and a few really f#$ked up madmen tossed in to the stew. Combine that with a forgotten generation of comic book professional hacks and an entire new generation of adult men who entered WW2 and the Korean war as children (and had to grow up way too fast) and you begin to see a crazy new market emerging. The truth was that these horror comics weren’t really made for 'kids' at all. They were made for new postwar damaged adults taking over the new modern world." - graphic designer Art Chantry