Grace Dearborn: History Researcher and Comics Fan

A history enthusiast since childhood, Dearborn explores the impact of 1950s comics, shedding light on parallels to modern-day censorship debates.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024
Grace Dearborn presenting her poster at the American Historical Association's annual conference
Grace Dearborn presenting her poster at the American Historical Association's annual conference

Grace Dearborn (’24) found her love of history at an early age. As a latchkey kid, she spent her afternoons home alone watching the History Channel. Her father was a fan of old-time radio dramas and she would listen with him to such programs as  “Suspense”, “Fibber McGee and Molly”, and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”

As a San Diego County native, San Diego State University was a natural choice for college, and history was a natural choice for her major.

The class Cold War Comics with Gregory Daddis sparked a particular interest in comics and visual culture depictions of American family life. A campus job in the University Library Special Collections with Pamela Jackson, Popular Culture librarian and co-director of the Center for Comic Studies, further enhanced her interest.

Daddis encouraged her to consider a senior thesis and introduced her to Elizabeth Pollard, co-director of the Center for Comics, who agreed to serve as her advisor.

As she searched for a focus area, her memory of listening to the radio dramas came back to her. She remembered, “‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ follows the dynamic of a couple and has some very goofy storylines. ‘Suspense’ was thrilling and scary. The interests that developed from these two shows are extraordinarily prevalent with my current interests in representations of mid-20th century domesticity.”

Thus was born the project, “Shocking Tales of Domesticity in EC Comics: The Impact of a Code.” Dearborn looked at a specific comics publisher, EC Comics, and how their depictions of the American family changed after the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency encouraged the Comics Magazine Association of America to institute the Comics Code of 1954, which detailed what comics should and should not portray to discourage juvenile delinquency.

Dearborn concentrated her research on EC Comics because the brand was known for lurid suspense and horror stories, which needed to be revised following the institution of the Comics Code. She especially noticed women had much less agency in the post-Code comics, and were more likely to be portrayed as ideal housewives and mothers.

Dearborn hopes her project will help people understand the power of government censorship. She sees parallels between what happened to 1950s comics and today’s efforts to censor video games and other popular art forms to combat a perceived rise in violence. She wonders what is lost when brands are forced to change to suit government policy, regardless of what people want to buy, read, or use.

“I also want to encourage other humanities students to pursue their research as their ideas, questions, concerns, and interests matter. I believe that students want to do research, they just need help getting started,” she said.

Dearborn’s research project drew the interest of the American Historical Society and she was invited to present a poster at their annual conference. She will also present her poster at the upcoming S3 (SDSU Student Symposium) on campus.

Daddis said, “Grace is a standout undergraduate student and excelled in my Cold War Comics course last year. She did primary source research in our library's special collections to examine how conceptions of post-World War II domesticity played out in popular comics. Given the shifting gender norms of the time — Rosie the Riveter returned home from the wartime defense industry to suburbia in much of the early Cold War pop culture — Grace wanted to explore how some comics like EC pushed back against the consensus of domesticity. She made SDSU proud by representing all of us at a premier academic conference.”

Dearborn was grateful that the SDSU Comic Arts Collection contained the volumes of EC Comics she used in her research. Pollard noted, "Grace's work is proof-positive of the value of an extensive comics collection, combined with a university curriculum, that not only supports but also stimulates research."

She is also grateful for the guidance Jackson was able to provide. Jackson said, “Helping students like Grace connect their subject discipline to comics is one of the more rewarding parts of my job. Seeing the passion and joy students bring to their comics research is exciting.”

Dearborn is applying to graduate school programs to continue her historical research and to encourage student historical research and scholarship. She said, “As a first-generation college student, thinking about a career in academia is a little scary, but it is what I love and I want to go for it.”

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