Useful Notes: The Comics Code

Approved by humourless 40-year-olds for concerned parents.

"Comics were investigated after a certain Doctor Fredric Wertham brought out a book called Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, calling for the introduction of a self-regulating body known as the Comic Code Authority, that had such ridiculous rules as, you could not use the word 'flick' in a comic for fear that the 'l' would run into the 'i' and Spider-Man would be saying, 'Look, he's got a fuck knife!'"
Jonathan Ross on QI. The specific alleged rule is just an urban legend, and Spider-Man didn't exist yet, though comics editors were aware of The Problem with Pen Island.

For decades, The Comics Code served as one of America's premier Censorship Bureaus (this site even named said page after the Code for a time).

Back in the 1950s, a moral panic about the corrupting influence of crime and horror comics swept North America, thanks in part to psychologist Frederic Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. (Just to note, it turns out that the content of Wertham's book was pretty much fabricated in various ways - in other words, this entire mess was partially started by a man whose defining work was entirely composed of lies, half-truths, omission of facts, and modifying his patients stories to achieve his desired conclusion.) To head off calls for government regulation, the comic book publishers formed the Comics Code Authority as a self-censoring body to prevent the government from stepping in and making a mess of things — which likely led to even tighter censoring in order to get their ruleset approved by the government.

Among other things, the CCA (and its governing rules, known as The Comics Code) prohibited depictions of characters questioning public authority figures, revealing clothing, and narcotics (in any context). The Code also banned certain words from comic titles ('horror' and 'terror', most notably) and forced every story to have a happy ending - even multi-part stories with cliffhangers had to be specially approved. The Code regulated what advertising could appear in comic books as well, but most of the restrictions it put into place wouldn't count as surprising or controversial even now (no ads for liquor, tobacco, weapons, fireworks, or gambling equipment).

Once in place, The Code killed off adult interest in comic books and stereotyped the medium as fit only for children. William Gaines' EC Comics, the most notorious publisher during the popular backlash, tried to operate under the Code, but gave up when a science fiction story, "Judgement Day," was reprinted and the CCA vetoed it simply because the main character was an African American. With Gaines at the end of his patience dealing not only with the CCA's stifling rules, but now also its unalloyed racism, EC essentially left the newsstand comics business to focus on MAD. note  Incidentally, Dr. Wertham (whose book started the whole moral panic in the first place) denounced the Code as a whitewash that made comics worse by causing violence to be depicted without realistic consequences.

Major publishing houses Archie Comics (protected by its image of "wholesome American youth" and the controller of the Comics Code Authority) and DC Comics (which made most of its money from kid-friendly romance and science fiction titles during this time period) more or less forced the Code onto the entire comics industry. Numerous publishing houses folded after the formation of the CCA because their subject matter couldn't pass the Code — which just happened to cut down on Archie and DC's competition, as well as the competiton to DC-owned Independent News, then the largest distributor in the Comics Magazine Association of America (the Code's governing body).

Dell Comics and Gilberton (publisher of Classics Illustrated) stayed out of the CCA; Dell believed their company brand and reputation would reassure parents, which led to the company advertising its comics with the slogan "Dell Comics are Good Comics." Neither publisher's lack of a CCA stamp harmed their profits, as both companies' comics sold well for most of the Comics Code's heyday. This also allowed Dell (and Gold Key Comics, which "spun off" from Dell in 1962) to occasionally publish comics that would not pass muster under the Code, such as an adaptation of Dark Shadows featuring vampire Barnabas Collins.note 

The Code began to lose power in the 1970s when Stan Lee wrote a Spider-Man story involving narcotics. Even though he portrayed drugs in an extremely negative light and wrote the story on the recommendation of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the CCA refused to place a seal of approval on the story because of the depiction of a character using drugs. In contrast, the CCA approved an earlier Deadman story where the superhero fought drug smugglers because the story focused on the wholesale handling of narcotics (the CCA always handled its own rules in an inconsistent way). Lee defied the CCA by removing the Code Seal from the storyline, which appeared in Amazing Spider-Man issues #96-98.

When Lee's story gained considerable public appreciation and critical acclaim, all the egg on its face forced the CCA into changing the Code to allow portrayals of drug abuse provided that it was clearly shown in a negative light — but even with the change, the CCA would never recover from the damage to its reputation.

Two major revisions (one in 1971 and another in 1989) either relaxed or dropped many of The Code's stricter rules. The 1971 revision altered some of the stricter and more outdated provisions of the original Code without altering its basic structure, while the 1989 revision combined less restrictive views on old "crime, punishment, violence and sexuality" issues with Politically Correct injunctions against stereotyping minority characters.

The Code lapsed into true irrelevance during the 1980s when "direct market" comic book specialty stores (which the Code didn't cover) cut into the sales of comics on the newsstands (which the Code did cover). As "direct-only" comics from the established publishers became more common, said publishers published more and more comics without the Code Seal, and newer publishers (who often produced comics aimed at older teens and adults) ignored the Code entirely.

DC Comics dropped the Code from the majority of its titles shortly after the turn of the 21st Century; Marvel Comics withdrew from the Code entirely at around the same time period. In January 2011, DC abandoned the Code entirely in favor of its own in-house rating system. After those major departures, Archie Comics remained the Code's sole participant and administratornote . Archie figured that the Code served no purpose in light of its publishing standards note , Archie abandoned the Code the day after DC's abandonment. The Comics Code had officially died.

(According to some sources, the CMAA barely existed in its final year or so anyway. One person would check the few DC books that still used the code, and Archie just assumed that their comics would always pass muster because... Well, why wouldn't they? Once again, this was before Archie decided to become more bold with content in its flagship franchise.)

On September 29th 2011, the CMAA announced it had sold the intellectual property rights of the Comics Code seal to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (a U.S-based non-profit organization which helps to protect the First Amendment rights of comic creators, publishers, and retailers via covering legal expenses). In a nice little twist, the sale coincided with the annual Banned Books Week campaign.

To learn more about the Code, including its origins, read The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu.

The Code (1954 version):

The code (1971 revision):

  • "Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world."
    • (We can do Monster Mash comics again! But no zombies, which had no accepted "literary" pedigree. Marvel got around this with the Zuvembie, a voodoo-zombie in all but name.)note 
  • "Narcotics or Drug addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit."
    • (With a list of specified ways it can be presented. The rule boiled down to "The portrayal of drug use is okay, so long as you portray it in a negative light and don't glamorize it.")
  • "Seduction may not be shown."
    • (But unlike rape, seduction can be suggested, meaning that Femme Fatale and Casanova characters are now permissible, to a point.)
  • "Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall not be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority. If any of these is depicted committing an illegal act, it must be declared as an exceptional case and that the culprit pay the legal price."
    • (Corrupt government officials and cops are allowed, but they must always be caught, so they can't be recurring characters. Also they must be depicted as isolated aberrations in a mostly-honest system.)
  • "Instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities should be discouraged, except when the guilty, because of their crime, live a sordid existence and are brought to justice because of the particular crime."
    • (Before, the Code was interpreted as prohibiting the death of any law enforcement officers, ever.)
  • While there's no specific language about it, the 1971 revision was interpreted as allowing Anti-Hero or Anti-Villain characters up to a point - e.g., the Western Anti-Hero Jonah Hex and Marvel's supervillain Sandman, who was often portrayed as a Punch Clock Villain.
  • The wording of prohibitions against "excessive" violence and bloodshed didn't change, but the interpretation apparently did. Under the 1954 Code, pretty much any depiction of blood was considered "excessive." After the 1971 revision, it was possible to show, for example, Superman bleeding on the cover of the June 1972 issue of ''World's Finest'' (not a major wound, but given his Nigh-Invulnerability, an image that would have surprised readers at the time.)

The code (1989 revision):

  • "In general recognizable... social, political, cultural... groups will be portrayed in a positive light. These include... social groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals...."
  • "Stereotyped images and activities will be not used to degrade specific national, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups."
    • (Self-explanatory: Don't use racial or ethnic stereotypes.)
      • Ironically, the Code office itself tried to use their power for this exact purpose at least once back in the '50s. One of the last EC stories, a science-fiction piece called Judgement Day, focused on a planet of intelligent robots - who have a strict segregation between orange- and blue-plated robots, despite all being made from the same parts - being denied membership in The Galactic Republic by a human diplomat named Tarleton. In the final panel, Tarleton finally removes his space helmet, revealing that he's a black man - and realistically-drawn, without giant lips or googly eyes. The Code authority tried to force EC editor Bill Gaines to change the ending, because, in their exact words: "You can't have a Negro."
  • "Costumes in a comic book will be considered to be acceptable if they fall within the scope of contemporary styles and fashions."
    • (Stripperific looks are OK if there's a story justification or it just reflects contemporary fashion or culture.)

Media referencing the Comics Code:

  • She-Hulk frequently lampooned the Comics Code.
    • In one cover from John Byrne's run (which is the image for the Fanservice page), the naked She-Hulk covers herself up with a giant "Comics Code Approved" stamp.
    • In Dan Slott's run, the Comics Code is actually essential in-universe to the narrative. Marvel Comics turns out to exist within the Marvel Universe (yes, really!), publishing comics of the "real life" superheroes and their true adventures. Their comics being screened by the CAA makes them recognized as legal government approved documents, meaning comic books can be used as evidence in a trial.

Alternative Title(s):

Comics Code Authority, Comics Code