On January 24, Archie Comics abandoned the Comics Code Authority, following a similar decision by DC Comics last week. The Comics Code is officially dead, though it had been dying the slow, painful death of irrelevance for some time. But way back when I was a youngster, the CCA was still a significant part of the comics industry, so I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the Code.
Most of the readers of this blog are probably familiar with the history of the CCA, but for those of you who aren’t comic historians (in other words, you have a life), I’ll go over the basics. By the early 1950s, there were an increasing number of comics that had nothing to do with superheroes, including rather violent horror and crime comics. Concerned about the unsavory content of these titles, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, which accused the comics industry of harming young readers and leading them to a life of crime and sexual deviancy. That same year, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held public hearings and threatened to establish a federal censorship authority for comics. To preempt the government, the major publishers created the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship regime loosely based on the Hays Code used by Hollywood studios. While not enforceable by law, most retailers refused to distribute comics that were not approved by the CCA, effectively ending the publication of dozens of titles.
But cultural values changed, and over the last three decades the Comics Code was frequently revised or ignored by the major publishers. Faced with an aging reader base, Marvel and DC continually upped the violence and sex to sustain sales. A new generation of mainstream publishers like Image Comics rejected the CCA outright, instead relying upon in-house content rules. Underground creators and the “artsy” publishers did not censor their works at all (not formally, at least). And then there was manga. By the time Marvel abandoned the CCA in 2001, the CCA seal of approval had become a largely meaningless label.
But in its early years, the Comics Code was a comprehensive and profoundly restrictive instrument. The original draft from 1954 is available on WikiSource. Below, I list what I believe to be the most significant sections. Also included are examples of comics affected by the Code.
Violence and Gore
“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.”
Excessive? Maybe a little
“All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.”
Gory? Perhaps for the faint of heart
“All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.”
Gruesome? Hell yeah!
“Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.” [zombies are bad, call them zuvembies]
“No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.”
Putting the word “horror” twice on the cover wasn’t the best idea
Crime and Law Enforcement
“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.”
Who could sympathize with a babe in a low cut dress?
“Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” [obey!!!]
“The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.”
It’s about CRIME
“Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.”
The dialogue was not photo-shopped
“Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and, wherever possible, good grammar shall be employed.”
Religion and Race
“Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.” [But Communists? Go to town]
Nudity and Sexuality
“Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.”
“Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.”
Suggestive AND salacious
“Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” [Never enforced]
“Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.”
Zombie lovin’ is abnormal
“The treatment of live-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.”
“Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.”
Even bad art can stimulate base emotions
“Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.”
Code for Advertising Material
“Liquor and tobacco advertising is not acceptable.”
“Advertisement of sex or sex instruction books are unacceptable.”
“Advertising for the sale of knives or realistic gun facsimiles is prohibited.”
“Advertising for the sale of fireworks is prohibited.”
[No fireworks?!!! Are we in fuckin’ North Korea?!!]
Following an influential storyline in Amazing Spider-Man, The Comics Code was updated in 1971 to allow for the limited depiction of illegal drugs.
“Narcotics or Drug addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit. Narcotics or Drug addiction or the illicit traffic in addiction-producing narcotics or drugs shall not be shown or described if the presentation:
Tends in any manner to encourage, stimulate or justify the use of such narcotics or drugs; or …
Stresses, visually, by text or dialogue, their temporary attractive effects; or …
Emphasizes the taking of narcotics or drugs throughout, or in a major part, of the story, and leaves the denouement to the final panels.”
To be up front about my biases, I’m a free speech absolutist, and more importantly, I’m a vulgar degenerate who loves stories with the Three B’s (blood, breasts, and bad words). My natural inclination is to condemn the Comics Code. It stifled free speech, convinced an entire generation of Americans that comics were exclusively “kid’s stuff,” and encouraged conformity and blind obedience to authority. Nor does censorship address the ultimate causes of juvenile delinquency: bad homes, bad neighborhoods, poverty, etc.
On the other hand, I’m not a parent. For someone raising a child, especially in less-than-ideal conditions, the dangers of censorship are probably low on their list of concerns. Looking at the comic covers above, it’s not hard to see why parents and legislators were upset. While there is no definitive evidence showing a causal link between entertainment and criminality, most people believe that comics and other popular media have at least some impact on juvenile attitudes and behavior. That’s hardly a radical notion. And I imagine most parents, even today, would freak out if they discovered their child reading some of those titles. Perhaps someone with children can offer their thoughts.
But even if these comics were dangerous, a ratings system that distinguished between child and adult comics would have been preferable to a blanket censorship regime that effectively killed entire genres. Adults could find books tailored to their tastes while parents received guidance on which titles were age-appropriate for their children. Unfortunately, such ratings did not exist in 1954 (the motion picture industry did not adopt a ratings system until 1968). And by the time ratings became more common in other media, mainstream comics had settled into their comfortable superhero dependency.