For decades, the Comics Code Authority — keepers of the Comics Code — served as one of America's premier Censorship Bureaus. This site even named said page after the Code for a time.
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 supposedly demonstrated an influential connection between severely troubled children and the comic books they read. (It wasn't until many years later that researchers discovered Wertham had based his conclusions almost exclusively on data that was distorted or selective at best, and outright fabricated at worst).
In 1954, the U.S. comic book industry, trying to head off growing backlash and subsequent calls for government regulation, formed the Comics Magazine Association of America. The CMAA was initially led by major publishing houses Archie Comics (protected by an image of "wholesome American youth")note and DC Comics (which made a lot of money from kid-friendly romance and science fiction titles during this time period). The group subsequently set up the Comics Code Authority, or CCA, as a self-imposed censorship bureau; in hindsight, this move likely led to tighter censorship than was actually necessary to get their rules approved by the government.
The CCA's charter, known simply as the Comics Code, prohibited (amongst other things) the questioning of public authority figures, displays of moral ambiguity, any suggestion of sexuality (up to and including seductive posing), and any display of narcotics in any possible context. Every story had to have a happy ending (i.e., one in which evil acts were punished and good acts rewarded); multi-part stories with cliffhangers had to be specially approved by the CCA before publication. The Code also regulated what could be advertised in comic books as well, but most of those types of restrictions (e.g., liquor, tobacco, weapons, fireworks, gambling equipment) were fairly common-sense, the sole bit of self-regulation that actually seems sensible even in the 21st century.
The effect of the Code's harsh censorship on the minds of young comic readers remains unknown, but it definitely worked to the detriment of the medium's artistic maturity. The "wholesome" entertainment created in the Code's wake stereotyped graphic storytelling (of any kind, regardless of whether they were CCA approved or not) as silly fluff fit only for children — a stigma that, at least in the United States, persists to this day. As a side effect, the Code was designed to favour stories with a very conservative, pro-authoritarian message.note The medium's most talented writers and artists of the period, growing frustrated because they could not tell stories the way they wanted, soon resorted to Getting Crap Past the Radar in increasingly creative ways.
Numerous publishing houses folded after the formation of the CCA because their more adult-themed subject matter could not pass the Code... which coincidentally happened to cut down the amount of competition to Archie, DC, and DC-owned Independent News (then the largest distributor in the CMAA). William Gaines's EC Comics, the industry's most notorious publisher during the backlash, tried to operate under Code compliance 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. That objection had no basis whatsoever in the Code; it was blatantly motivated by Comics Code Administrator Judge Charles Murphy's own racist views, and it confirmed EC editors' suspicions that they were being deliberately harassed into oblivion. Ultimately, EC won the battle and reprinted "Judgement Day" unedited (largely thanks to threats of legal action and bad publicity), only to lose the war: the story appeared in the final issue of their last comic title, after which they abandoned the newsstand comics business altogether. Instead, EC altered its focus exclusively onto MAD Magazine. note
Two publishers, Dell Comics and Gilberton (publisher of Classics Illustrated), never bothered to submit to the CCA — there was no actual legal obligation to.note Dell believed their company brand and reputation would reassure parents, as per their slogan, "Dell Comics are Good Comics." Neither publisher's lack of a CCA stamp harmed their profits for most of the Code's heyday. In an ironic twist, this situation allowed Dell (and Gold Key Comics, which "spun off" from Dell in 1962) to occasionally publish comics the Code would not allow, 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 Stan Lee wrote for Marvel Comics "Green Goblin Reborn!", a Spider-Man story that not only portrayed drugs in an extremely negative light, but had been written on the explicit recommendation of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. That fact in particular made the CCA look damned foolish when it refused to approve the story because it showed... a character using drugs.note Since Marvel had earned the clout to defy the CCA, it simply removed the Code Seal from the comics containing the storyline, which appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. The story received considerable public appreciation and critical acclaim.
This all was something of a wake-up call to the CCA: they had found out just how far they had fallen out of touch not only with the industry but with society in general. Thus they issued two major revisions to the Code, which either relaxed or dropped many of its more archaic rules. A revision in 1971, after "Green Goblin Reborn!" was published, tried to update the original Code without altering the basic structure. A second revision in 1989 combined notably fewer and looser restrictions with Politically Correct injunctions against stereotyping minority characters.
None of these changes, however, prevented the Code's eventual lapse into complete irrelevance. As "direct market" comic book specialty stores (which the Code did not cover) rose to prominence and 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. Newer publishers who needed a way to stand out from the existing pack would produce comics aimed at older teens and adults that ignored the Code.
DC Comics generally stopped using the Code Seal after the turn of the 21st Century. Marvel Comics formally withdrew from the CCA at around the same time, despite Stan Lee having kicked the door in three decades prior and having more or less flauted the Code for decades already. According to some sources, the CMAA barely existed in the final year or two. One person would check the few DC books that the company still submitted, while Archie simply assumed their comics would always pass muster because... well, why wouldn't they? After all, it wasn't like they were ever going to star their iconic uber-wholesome teenage cast in a zombie horror spinoff, or something, right?
In January 2011, DC formally abandoned the Code in favor of an in-house rating system. Archie Comics, the Code's sole remaining participant and administrator, decided the Code no longer served a purpose in light of the company's publishing standards — "We aren't about to start stuffing bodies into refrigerators!"note — so it abandoned the Code just a day after DC. With that, the Comics Code Authority was gone once and for all... and almost immediately thereafter, Archie debuted Afterlife with Archie, the company's first "direct market" title. Afterlife featured a full-on Zombie Apocalypse, which would never have been allowed under the Code. The first issue of Afterlife sold out — twice.
On September 29, 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 that year's annual Banned Books Week campaign.
To learn more about the Code's origins and how it ultimately affected the comic book industry, check out The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu.
See also The Hays Code, another self-imposed and equally-restrictive "taste and decency" code that covered Hollywood studio movies from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s.
One final irony: Frederic Wertham, whose book started the whole moral panic in the first place, later denounced the Code as a whitewash that made comics worse — because it allowed comics to depict violence without realistic consequences. (He had wanted a ratings system in the first place.)
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."
- "If crime is depicted, it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity."
- Shallow villains popped up out of nowhere with little backstory, because otherwise the writers risked giving them sympathetic pasts.
- "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 even 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 to the point where even two-part cliffhangers had to be specially approved.
- "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 could not show blood, gore, or more than a few flying bullets, 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 rule — the pettiest provision of the Code — was likely implemented to drive EC Comics, known for publishing a litany of horror comics, out of business.
- "All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, and masochism shall not be permitted."
- "All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated."
- This rule limited artists stylistically, which helps explain the simple and often drab artwork associated with this time period.
- "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."
- "Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden."
- "Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure."
- "Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable."
- "Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities."
- Comics could not have large-breasted female characters — the CCA decided what was "large", of course — nor could any depiction of women focus on breasts.note
- "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 could not show homosexuality, bisexuality, pedophilia, open relationships, sadomasochistic relationships, incestuous relationships, relationships with transvestites or transsexuals, or interracial relationships. Note that, like with depictions of drug use, no depictions were allowed at all. They could not show such relationships even if the bad guys were the ones in them!
- "Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested."
- "Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden."
- Openly gay characters could not 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."
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 that comics could show drug addiction. The rule boiled down to this: "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 were allowed, but the heroes always had to catch these evildoers so they would not become recurring characters — in other words, they were isolated aberrations in an otherwise 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, publishers interpreted the Code as prohibiting the death of any law enforcement officers in any situation.
- While there is no specific language about it, publishers interpreted the 1971 revision 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 did not 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, that image 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."
- Women could wear Stripperific outfits so long as the story justified them or they reflected contemporary fashion/culture.
Media referencing the Comics Code:
- One issue of Deadpool shows the eponymous merc-with-a-mouth in the upper left corner of the cover, giving a thumbs-up and a wink with the Comics Code's famous stamp displayed in his word balloon. This happened at a point when Marvel had decided to stop using the Code completely — and done with a character that would have never received approval from the CCA when the Code was in full force.
- 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 an earlier issue of the same series, during a fight with Daredevil's foe Stilt-Man (yes, Stilt-Man), her sidekick Weezie asked how come Shulkie's business suit got shredded but her silken undergarments remained intact. She-Hulk responded by showing a tag on her camisole that declared the underwear "Approved by the Comic's Code Authority" so it couldn't be destroyed and leave her naked.
- In Dan Slott's run, the Comics Code is an essential in-universe part of the narrative. Marvel Comics exists within the Marvel Universe — yes, really! — and 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. In other words: Within the Marvel Universe, Marvel comics can be submitted as legal evidence at a trial.
- One issue of Excalibur contained nothing that could plausibly be considered offensive, yet featured a cover mocking the Comics Code with a "warning" that the issue was CCA-approved but might still offend natives of the Alpha Centauri star system.
- Even Archie Comics, a company that followed the Comics Code pretty well (given that it also maintained the Code), lampshaded it in one "Jughead's Diner" issue. Jughead and his friends are interrupted at occasional bits in the story by a representative from the CCA, who claims that what the other characters have done in the comic (e.g., talking about burgers in the presence of a cow, sumo wrestling, hang gliding) could not be shown. The representative then gets brutally injured by stepping into the middle of a sumo wrestling match.
- The 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens on an "Approved by the Comics Code Authority" stamp before showing the rest of the production logos. Possibly it's included as a throwback reference to older versions of Spider-Man (given that the main character, Miles Morales, was created post-Code), but likely as a jab referencing Spider-Man's role in the Comics Code Authority's fall from power.