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. (The content of Wertham's book was pretty much fabricated in various ways, which means this entire mess is partially to blame on a man whose defining work used lies, half-truths, omission of facts, and the modification of patient stories to achieve his desired conclusion.) Comic book publishers decided to head off calls for government regulation by forming a industry-imposed censorship bureau in the Comics Code Authority (CCA)...which likely led to tighter censorship than may have been necessary to get their ruleset approved by the government.

The CCA's governing rules, known as The Comics Code, prohibited (amongst other things) characters questioning public authority figures, characters wearing revealing clothing, and any display of narcotics in any context. The Code also banned certain words from comic titles—most notably horror and terror—and forced every story to have a happy ending, which meant multi-part stories with cliffhangers had to be specially approved by the CCA. The Code regulated what advertising could appear in comic books as well, but most of the restrictions it put into place (liquor, tobacco, weapons, fireworks, or gambling equipment) wouldn't count as surprising or controversial even today.

The Code's harsh censorship soon effectively killed off adult interest in comic books and stereotyped the medium as fit only for children. William Gaines' EC Comics, the industry's most notorious publisher during the popular backlash, tried to operate under the Code, but the company gave up when a science fiction story, "Judgement Day," was set to be reprinted and the CCA vetoed it because the main character was an African American ("You can't have a Negro"). Gaines was nearly out of patience in dealing with the CCA's stifling rules, but when faced with its unalloyed racism, he decided that enough was enough. EC republished "Judgment Day" in its original unedited form as part of its last comics publication, then turned away from the newsstand comics business to focus on MAD Magazine. note 

Major publishing houses Archie Comics (protected by both its image of "wholesome American youth" and its status as controller of the CCA) 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 competiton to DC-owned Independent News, then the largest distributor in the Comics Magazine Association of America (the CCA's governing body).

Two publishers, 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 

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics scribe Stan Lee wrote a Spider-Man story that portrayed drugs in an extremely negative light; the story was even written on the recommendation of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. But the CCA refused to place a seal of approval on the story because it showed 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 by criminals. The CCA always handled its 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. The story gained considerable public appreciation and critical acclaim, while the CCA was left embarassed by a censorship code that had stifled the industry until Lee's defiant act.

Two major revisions in 1971 and 1989 either relaxed or outright 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. But even these changes couldn't undo the damage to the CCA's reputation—nor could they prevent the Code's lapse into true irrelevance during the 1980s. As "direct market" comic book specialty stores (which the Code didn't cover) cut into the sales of newsstand comics (which were all covered by the Code) and "direct-only" comics from the established publishers became more common, existing comics companies published more comics without the Code Seal, while 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, while Marvel Comics withdrew from the Code entirely at around the same time. In January 2011, DC abandoned the Code entirely in favor of its own in-house rating system. Archie Comics remained the Code's sole participant and administratornote , but the company figured the Code no longer served a purpose in light of its publishing standards note , so it abandoned the Code just a day after DC, killing the Comics Code once and for all.

According to some sources, the CMAA barely existed in its final year or two. One person would check the few DC books that still used the code, while Archie assumed their comics would always pass muster because...well, why wouldn't they? (Again, this was before Archie decided to become bolder with the content of its namesake franchise.)

On the 29th of September 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 that helps to protect the First Amendment rights of comic creators, publishers, and retailers by covering legal expenses). In a nice little twist, the sale coincided with the annual Banned Books Week campaign.

To learn more about the Code, its origins, and its impact on the comic book industry, check out The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu.

Oh, and one last thing: Dr. Wertham, whose book started the whole moral panic in the first place, later denounced the Code as a whitewash that made comics worse by causing violence to be depicted without realistic consequences.

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."
    • (This restriction came With a list of specified ways drug addiction could 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."
    • (Unlike rape, seduction could 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 become recurring characters, and 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 this revision, the Code was interpreted as prohibiting the death of any law enforcement officers in any situation.)
  • 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; 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, practically 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."
    • (Essentially: "Don't use racial or ethnic stereotypes.")
  • "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 long as the story justifies them or they reflect contemporary fashion/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 essential in-universe to the narrative. Marvel Comics exists within the Marvel Universe—yes, really!—and it publishes comics of the "real life" superheroes and their true adventures. Because their comics are screened by the CAA, said comics are recognized as legal government-approved documents...which means comic books can be used as evidence in a trial.

Alternative Title(s):

Comics Code Authority, Comics Code