Welcome to the first Sequential History! In this bi-monthly column I’ll focus on the history of comics. Our first adventure into history takes us back to the 1950s, for a look at the birth of the Comics Code Authority. Now, before you lose your voice from all the booing and hissing at the thought of any type of censorship, read on with an open mind.
The Comics Code Authority (CCA) was created in 1954 for the purpose of regulating the content of comics. Yes, comics were censored in a big way, and some still are. Is such censoring a gigantic evil? The result of the McCarthyism of the 1950s perhaps? Was there some force in the powers that be whose hatred of comics was the impetus for this move? Was it beneficial for the comics industry? Necessary even?
First, let’s take a look at what led up to the creation of the CCA. We’ll start in 1948, a busy year. This year finds comics not as beloved as they once were, at least not by all. There was public criticism, city ordinances banning some comics, and even reports of comic book burning in several towns across the country. Oh, and there was also this psychologist named Fredric Wertham. Ah… those dear, lovable, sensible shrinks of the forties and fifties. Dr. Wertham’s articles, which helped influence public sentiment toward comics, claimed that the little books led America’s youth to crime. The Publisher’s Code, released by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers (ACMP) in 1948, restricted comic creators. It strove to regulate the portrayal of racism, sexy scenes, crime, divorce, language, torture and so on. I was especially amused by the rule that “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.” Wow! Needless to say, publishers disliked all of this, and some refused to cooperate with the code or join the Association. In 1950, according to its director, Henry Shultz, the Association as well as the code were out of business. Had Dr. Wertham’s articles and the book burnings failed in their mission? Would the youth of America continue to be corrupted by the evil cartoonists? Not to fear my conservative reader, for 1954 soon rolled around.
The year 1954 saw more trouble for comics. There was growing public concern about the content of these illustrated books. Dr. Wertham had gone from writing articles to books, with Seduction of the Innocent, and was spear-heading an effort to stop comics from corrupting the minds of young people. There were even congressional hearings. What!?! Yes, in the midst of Senator McCarthy chasing communists, these guys were investigating whether or not comic books were detrimental to the minds of their young readers. Stranger and stranger these 1950s become the more I delve into them. Were they serious about comic books leading young people to commit crimes? Does that sound crazy to anyone else?
This year also saw the creation of the ACMP’s successor, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). The Comics Code Authority is part of the CMAA. How it worked was simple. Publishers submitted their books to the CCA prior to publication. They were then checked for compliance to the code. If the book passed the check, the publisher was allowed to use the CCA seal on the book. I’ll get to why the seal was important later on. The complete code can be found here. Some excerpts from that code…
The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.
All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited.
Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.
Advertisement of medical, health, or toiletry products of questionable nature are to be rejected.
I love that last one! What in the world were toiletry products of questionable nature?
So, you may be wondering why this thing was created in the first place. I mean, if the CCA is part of an organization of comic publishers, why would they limit themselves. Yes, they were limiting themselves. Books with titles containing “terror”, “horror”, and “crime” were prohibited by the code. This hurt popular titles like Tales from the Crypt, published by EC Comics. Still, the CCA had no legal authority to restrict what was published. So, how was all of this enforced? Distributors would refuse to carry a book without the seal, and that had all the weight in the world. How could you sell your book if your distributor refused to carry it? This drove some publishers to success, some to change their offerings, and others out of the business altogether.
So, why did they create these regulations themselves? Well, they were afraid of government regulation. They had good reason to be, things had gotten really serious. William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, was called to testify before congress during their investigation. Distributors were returning comics unopened, including Donald Duck and Archie. The CCA was a drastic measure, but the alternative looked grim indeed. At least this way, they could still make comics, even if some publishers felt crippled by the code. Some publishers were mostly unaffected by the code, I’m sure. When we look back at Marvel in the early sixties, does it look like they suffered because of censorship? By the way, does them regulating themselves to avoid government doing it for them remind anyone else of Marvel’s Civil War storyline? I can’t be alone with that one.
There were tons of books published with the CCA seal for years and years. There were also lots of books that ignored it. Then there were people like Stan Lee who did some of both. Issues 96 through 98 of The Amazing Spider-Man were published without the code’s approval. Lee had been approached by the US Dept. of Health to do a story that showed the negative effects of drug use. The CCA didn’t approve the story, and Lee, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, published it anyway, without the seal.
I said, ‘Screw it’ and just took the code seal off for those three issues. Then we went back to the code again. I never thought about the code when I was writing a story, because basically I never wanted to do anything that was to my mind too violent or too sexy. I was aware that young people were reading these books, and had there not been a code, I don’t think that I would have done the stories any differently. — Stan Lee in a 1998 interview
There were also many books released that were in violation of the code due to a complete lack of adherence. By the late sixties a comic underground was busy creating stories that dealt with material banned by the code. Since they were without code approval, these books had to bypass the conventional distribution methods. Make no mistake however, there were some quality creators in this scene, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman. The code wasn’t completely without its problems in this battle over comic book content. In 1955, Gaines had a story, Judgment Day, which was rejected by the CCA. The CCA’s Comics Code Administrator would initially only let the story be published if the main character was changed. This main character, an astronaut, was black. Gaines refused, and threatened to expose the reason for the CCA rejecting the story. The CCA eventually backed down, and the story was published uncensored with the CCA seal of approval. Major revisions to the code followed in 1971, and again in 1989.
In 1971, the code underwent a revision which relaxed the restrictions on certain things. Horror, well, certain kinds, were now being permitted. Things like vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were now allowed as long as they were treated in a classical manner consistent with Dracula, Frankenstein and other literary works. Corruption of public officials and stories of sympathy for criminals were now somewhat more allowable, as long as the culprit was punished. Zombies were still forbidden, although this didn’t stop Marvel from doing “zombie” stories in the 1970s. In more than one book, Marvel had deceased characters that were still “alive”, including a reanimated Wonder Man. Marvel got away with this by calling them zuvembies. Take that censors!
The year 1989 brought another revision. A major part of the revision was that the mention of homosexuality was now permitted by the code.
In general recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups, religious institutions, law enforcement authorities will be portrayed in a positive light.These include… social groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals…
Several openly gay characters, as well as situations depicting alternative lifestyles, have since shown up in Marvel and DC books.
In recent years the CCA seems to have completely lost its teeth. In 2001 Marvel said goodbye to the CCA and adopted its own Marvel Rating System. This system is flexible, with ratings ranging from ALL AGES up to MAX: EXPLICIT CONTENT. As for the CCA loyal, DC Comics and Archie Comics are the only two major publishers still submitting to the CCA, as of 2007. However, not all of DC’s books get submitted, and some get published even if submitted and not approved by the CCA.
I used to think of the CCA as this big evil entity. Now I understand that yes, at times it was doing bad. However, we may never know just what would have happened back in the 1950s had the CCA not come along. Would the fanatics like Dr. Wertham have gotten their way? Would congress have done away with the industry altogether? Was creating the Comics Code Authority the best decision to be made at that time? It was a rough time for some in this country back then. Racism abounded, you had McCarthyism, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness, frontal lobotomies were being performed with terrifying frequency, and then you had the “funny books” being assaulted in congress. Right or wrong, creating the CCA is part of the history of comics. It’s part of what got comics to where they are now, whether they held them back, or afforded them a measure of freedom by keeping the government off their heels. Or both perhaps? I think it’s safe to say we have a pretty decent selection of quality books to keep us busy nowadays. I’m pretty satisfied with the current state of comic affairs.
What about you, what do you think of the Comics Code Authority?