Useful Notes / The Comics Code

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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.note 

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 early 1950s, a moral panic centred around crime and horror comics swept North America, thanks in significant part to psychologist Frederic Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent, a scholarly study which seemingly demonstrated an influential connection between severely troubled youngsters and the comic books they read. (It wasn't until much later that Wertham's conclusions were discovered to have been almost exclusively based on data that was distorted or selective at best, and fabricated at worst).

By 1954, the backlash had gotten so bad that the comic book publishers themselves—as led by major houses Archie Comics (protected by its image of "wholesome American youth")note  and DC Comics (which made most of its money from kid-friendly romance and science fiction titles during this time period)—decided to head off calls for government regulation by forming a industry-imposed censorship bureau called the Comics Code Authority, or CCA...which likely led to tighter censorship than was actually necessary to get their ruleset approved by the government.

The CCA's charter, known as the Comics Code, prohibited amongst other things characters questioning public authority figures, characters possessing the slightest moral ambiguity, any suggestion of sexuality up to and including seductive posing and any display of narcotics in any context. Every story now had to have a happy ending (ie, one in which evil was punished and good rewarded), 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 may-or-may-not have been a boon for tender young minds, but it was unquestionably a blow for the medium's artistic maturity, resulting in often-absurdly "wholesome" entertainment that effectively—and to a large extent permanently—stereotyped graphic storytelling as silly fluff fit only for children. Numerous publishing houses folded after the formation of the CCA because their more adult-themed subject matter couldn't pass the Code...which of course 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 nominal governing body).

William Gaines' EC Comics, the industry's most notorious publisher during the popular backlash, tried its best to operate under the Code despite mounting frustration, but gave up within a year when a planned reprint of the Aesop-heavy "Judgement Day" was vetoed anyway because the main character was a black man—an objection that had no basis in the Code, and thus seemingly confirmed the EC editors' suspicions that they were being deliberately harassed into oblivion. EC did eventually win the battle to print "Judgement Day" unedited (largely by threatening actual legal action), but the story appeared in the final issue of their last comic title, after which they abandoned the newsstand comics business altogether to focus on MAD Magazine. note 

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, as per the slogan "Dell Comics are Good Comics." Indeed, neither publisher's lack of a CCA stamp harmed their profits for most of the Comics Code's heyday. Ironically enough, this situation 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 first serious challenge to the Code's effectiveness came in 1971, when Marvel Comics' Stan Lee wrote "Green Goblin Reborn!", a Spider-Man story that not only portrayed drugs in an extremely negative light, but had even been written on the explicit recommendation of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. All of which made the CCA look more than a bit foolish when they refused to place a seal of approval on the story because it showed a character using drugs.note  Especially since Marvel by then had the clout to defy the CCA entirely simply by removing the Code Seal from the issues containing the storyline, which duly appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. The story gained considerable public appreciation and critical acclaim, further exposing how far the CCA had fallen out of touch with its own industry.

In an attempt to catch up, subsequent major revisions in 1971 and 1989 either relaxed or outright dropped many of the Code's more archaic rules. The 1971 version attempted to update the original Code without altering its basic structure, while the 1989 revision combined notably fewer and looser restrictions with Politically Correct injunctions against stereotyping minority characters. None of it, however, was enough to prevent the Code's eventual lapse into complete irrelevance. 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. Meanwhile, newer publishers—who, looking for a way to stand out from the existing pack, 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. 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? It wasn't like they were ever going to star their iconic uber-wholesome teenage cast in a zombie horror spinoff, or anything.

In January 2011, DC abandoned the Code entirely in favor of its own in-house rating system. Archie Comics, the Code's sole remaining participant and administrator, figured the Code no longer served a purpose in light of its publishing standards, reiterating that "We aren't about to start stuffing bodies into refrigerators!"note  so it abandoned the Code just a day after DC, killing the Comics Code once and for all.

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 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 CCA, said comics are recognized as legal government-approved documents...which means comic books can be used as evidence in a trial.
  • Oddly enough, for being a company that followed the Comics Code pretty well, Archie Comics lampshaded it in one "Jughead's Diner" issue where Jughead and his friends in Dinersville are interrupted at occasional bits in the story by a representative from the Comics Code Authority claiming that what they've done in the comic (talking about burgers in the presence of a cow, sumo wrestling, hang gliding, among other things) couldn't be shown- then he gets brutally injured by stepping into a sumo wrestling match.

Alternative Title(s): Comics Code

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