Useful Notes: The Comics Code
"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!'"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):
- "Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals."
- (Law enforcement officers were not allowed to seem incompetent or corrupt, and there was no such thing as an antagonist who dabbles in villainy only as a hobby.)
- "If crime is depicted, it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity."
- (Villains popped up out of nowhere with little backstory.)
- "Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation."
- (Criminals were not allowed to be portrayed as persistently successful, cool, or sexually desirable.)
- "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal [shall be] punished for his misdeeds."
- (This "The Good Guys Always Win" restriction limited the potential of story arcs.)
- "Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated."
- (Comics couldn't show blood, gore, or judicious use of guns, which placed limits on action scenes and the weapons a hero could use.)
- "No comic magazine shall use the word "horror" or "terror" in its title.
- (This is the pettiest provision of the Code; this rule was intended, so far as anyone can tell, specifically to put EC Comics—known for its horror comics—out of business.)
- "All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, and masochism shall not be permitted."
- (Villains could not torture, murder, or sexually assault their victims; they had to resort to a lot of gloating and outrageous schemes to Take Over the World. Comics also couldn't run stories centered on sexual perversion, consensual or otherwise.)
- "All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated."
- "Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader."
- (This rule forced the use of Black and White Morality.)
- "Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited."
- (Comics couldn't run zombie stories.)
- "Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden."
- (Comics couldn't use bad words or offensive imagery.)
- "Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure."
- (Comics couldn't show nudity or have characters dress in skimpy outfits.)
- "Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable."
- (Comics couldn't even show characters sitting around and look sexy.)
- "Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities."
- (Comics couldn't have large-breasted female characters—the CCA decided what was "large", of course—nor could they focus on breasts.)
- "Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable."
- (This rule limited who the hero could have a romantic relationship with and what kind of relationship it could be. Comics couldn't show homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, pedophilia, open relationships, sadomasochistic relationships, incestuous relationships, relationships with transvestites or transsexuals, or interracial relationships—even if the bad guys were the ones in such relationships.)
- "Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested."
- "Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden."
- (Gay characters flat-out couldn't exist, though comics could get around this with an occasional case of Ambiguously Gay.)
- "Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals."
- (This rule was a forced aversion of Sex Sells.)
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."
- "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."
- "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 fine...so 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.