In the last twenty-five years or so, though, the Code’s influence has waned sharply, and superhero comics have marched from G, past PG, to at least PG-13 — and some particularly unpleasant PG-13 at that. In DC’s 1988 Killing Joke, Batgirl — Batgirl, mind you — is shot in the stomach, turning her into a paraplegic, and then the Joker strips her and takes nudie pictures to show to her father. (When Alan Moore, the writer, spoke to editor Len Wein to ask if this plot point was okay, Wein reportedly responded, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”) In 2004’s Identity Crisis, Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man — of the Elongated Man, mind you — was raped. And then she was murdered. Oh, yeah, and she was pregnant at the time. Meanwhile, over at Marvel, one of their most successful projects has been Marvel Zombies, a group of miniseries and one-shots set on an alternate world where all the superheroes are turned into undead monsters who eat every civilian on earth. While we were in a comic shop, my son saw one of these uplifting tales on the shelf and asked, with mild concern, “Daddy, why do all the superheroes look scary on that cover?” “Oh,” I said. “That. We’re leaving now.”
Hop on over and read the whole thing as they say in the business.
Back yet? Okay. So I was talking about this piece a little with my friend Bert Stabler, and he asked me if I thought the Comics Code had been a good thing, inasmuch as it for years it forced comics to keep to G (or at least PG) content.
I had to stop and think about that for a bit. Ultimately, I decided that I don’t believe the Comics Code was positive…in fact, it seems to me that the reason we have adult storylines inappropriately and (most often) idiotically grafted onto super-hero comics is because of the Comics Code. Before the Code, it seems like a much greater range of comics genres were viable (horror and crime, for example.) The Code made these more or less impossible to sustain, so that all was left were the genres that were aimed at kids (super-heroes and stuff like Archie, basically.) There was still a demand for more mature material, though, especially as comics audiences aged. So you end up with a situation where the majority of comics fans are committed to the super-hero genre, and at the same time they demand more mature material. And so you get a goofy character clearly invented for kids — like, say, Batgirl — being brutally crippled and sexually assaulted, or spitting out obscenities, or whatever. Which really, to me, seems much more unpleasant than some bloody decapitation in a horror comic that’s straightforwardly intended for an older audience.
So I guess to me the Comics Code actually seems to me to be a good example of why censorship can have unintended and unfortunate consequences. I suspect that if it the Code had never existed, super-heroes would still be much more clearly for kids. And (despite my love of Watchmen) I think that would overall be a good thing.
I’d be curious what other folks think, though. I’m not incredibly conversant with all the ins and outs of Code history, so it’d be interesting to hear from folks with a bit more of a background, if any cared to comment.