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!'"
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
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 removing the consequences of violence.
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).
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
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, and sexuality" issues with Politically Correct
injunctions against stereotyping.
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.
- "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."
- "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, or portrayed as cool or sexually desirable.)
- "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal [shall be] punished for his misdeeds."
- "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."
- (No blood, no gore, and judicious use of guns, placing limits on action scenes and the weapons a hero can use.)
- "No comic magazine shall use the word "horror" or "terror" in its title.
- (Possibly the pettiest provision, this was intended, so far as can be determined, wholly and solely to put EC Comics - which were known for 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, and so had to resort to a lot of gloating and outrageous schemes to Take Over the World. Also, no 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."
- "Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited."
- (No more zombie stories.)
- "Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden."
- (No bad words or offensive imagery.)
- "Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure."
- (No nudity or skimpy outfits.)
- "Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable."
- (Worth noting that characters weren't even allowed to sit around and look sexy.)
- "Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities."
- (No large-breasted female characters were allowed - and of course the CCA decided what was 'large' - nor was any focus on breasts allowed.)
- "Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable."
- (Basically, limited who the hero could have a romantic relationship with and what kind of relationship it could be. No homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, pedophilia, open relationships, sadomasochistic relationships, incestuous relationships, relationships with transvestites or transsexuals, or interracial relationships, even if it was by the bad guys.)
- "Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested."
- "Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden."
- (Gay characters flat-out didn't exist, though the Ambiguously Gay might occasionally be encountered.)
- "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."
- "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."
- (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.)
- "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.