This past week was a bit of a watershed moment for comics…and I bet most readers didn’t notice or care and, frankly, I’m gonna go ahead and say thats a good thing (for once). Even without the graphic to the left, you’d probably recognize the familiar seal of the Comics Code Authority. It’s been prominent on most comic covers for longer than most of us have been alive, let alone collecting comics. However, on Thursday, DC Comics announced that it would no longer be seeking the approval of the CCA on its comics starting in April. DC had been one of the biggest names still submitting to the authority of the Code, so this move was a huge blow to the organization. As it turns out, the hits kept coming as on Friday Archie Comics, the only company left submitting to the code, also announced they would no longer be submitting their books for approval, leaving the CCA affectively defunct. While many fans and commentators (myself included) see this as a monumental entry in the “win” column, I want to take a moment to look back at the history and reign of the Code and break down the implications of this particular sunken ship.
Story time kiddies! Back in 1954 a delightful man named Fredric Werthem wrote a book called The Seduction of the Innocent, in which he unabashedly accused comic books of negatively influencing the youth of the day and encouraging values contrary to traditional American values. Blah blah blah, scared old people creating a scapegoat. It was done then and lord knows it was done hundreds of times since with every new trend, fad or popular form of media (video games being just one of the more recent ones.) Entire books have been written on Seduction of the Innocent and its impact alone and it is very much not the point of this article. However, it would be impossible to write about the CCA without mentioning it.
Because were it not for the moral panic instigated by Werthem’s book, the CCA would never have existed. The united comic publishers became so fearful of government regulation of their craft that they resolved to create a self-regulatory body to rate and approve its work, similar to the Motion Picture Association of America’s Production Code created in 1930. The 1954 code represented some of the most severe regulations not only on comic books, but on published media in general. Renowned comic book historian Scott McCloud commented on the code in his book Reinventing Comics, saying that it was like “the list of requirements a film needs to receive a G rating was doubled, and there were no other acceptable ratings!”
Now, I could comment on these regulations until I turn blue in the face, but it’s probably a lot better to let them speak for themselves in this instance. So, some of the regulations enforced by the 1954 code included (but were not limited to):
-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.
-Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
-In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal 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 comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
-All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
-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.
-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.
-Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
-Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
-Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
-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. (source)
It’s worthy of noting that comics COULD still be published code-less, but without that immediately recognizable seal on your book’s cover, the chances of those books being stocked anywhere within the direct market was slim to none. Now, the code WAS updated several times over the years to reflect the changing of times and became much less stringent. That said, the affect of it was resoundingly clear: the stories being written for comics were undeniably stunted for over 50 years. Not only that, but in implementing the code, some certifiably absurd cases of blatant censorship occurred.
For instance, in February 1956, now defunct published EC Comics went to war with the code behind closed doors when Code Administrator Judge Charles Murphy attempted to block the production of Incredible Science Fiction #33 due to the main character being black. The only reason the book saw print is because EC’s William Gaines threatened to reveal exactly why the book was not approved if Murphy did not change his stance. Another absurd instance of Code censorship is the censoring of writer Marv Wolfman’s name in one of his earliest works (House of Secrets #83) because the code mistakenly assumed the word was referring to the mythical monster who’s mentioning was banned and the then young writer’s name. The issue was eventually resolved (thanks to Gerry Conway, of all people), but its absurdity still lives on.
Now, not all creators felt restricted by the code, as Stan Lee famously stated that he wouldn’t want to write something inappropriate for younger readers anyway, so the code was almost an afterthought to him. This is, of course, ironic because Lee himself was responsible for the first comic (three of them, actually) to see print without code approval in order to tackle drug issues within youth culture before going back to seeking code approval afterwards. Of course, this bold move lead to one of the most significant amendments to the code, allowing for references to drugs and drug use within reason, but thats neither here nor there.
Speaking of publishing comics sans-code, flash forward to 2001 and a little book called X-Force #116. This book came right in the midst of the X-Revamp that famously brought Joe Casey and Grant Morrison to the X-Books and brought the line into sync with the X-Men movie status quo. Amongst changes to the core titles, X-Force probably underwent the most serious cosmetic enhancement as writer Peter Milligan and artist Mike Allred got rid of everything that made the title what it was and replaced it completely with character and situations all their own. While this story was initially controversial, it ended up becoming one of the most acclaimed runs in X-History. However, this is also not the point, as even more significant than the story details themselves are the circumstances of its publication. You see, the extremely violent content contained within X-Force #116 was almost immediately denied approval from the CCA. So, in a move that shocked many, Marvel not only ran a book code-less for the first time in decades, they announced they would no longer be submitting their books for code approval and, indeed, used the fact that the book was running code-less as a pseudo-marketing tool for the book itself (as indicated by the “hey kids! look, no code!” message where the CCA seal would normally reside on the comic.)In place of the Code seal, Marvel developed its own rating system for its books that they and only they would be responsible for implementing.
This move drew a very clear and obvious line in the sand: the biggest comic publisher at the time decided that it no longer considered the CCA as a valid representative of the medium’s best interests. However, unlike during the 1950s, the direct market AND the readership now placed their trust with the companies themselves as opposed to the omniscient regulatory body, and Marvel’s sales only increased in the months and years to come. From this moment on, the influence of the code began to wane and now, almost ten years later, DC has finally followed Marvel’s lead and Archie, one of the most family friendly and clean cut publishers in the world decided the code was superfluous given the standards they hold themselves to with their books and that their readership has come to expect from them as a default.Continued below
And so now we have a new status quo; the moral panic surrounding comics has officially and at long last subsided and the world once again trusts publishers to tell them whether their own comics are appropriate or not. Let the bells ring out and the banners fly, right? Probably. While this move was largely symbolic at this point, as no one really paid much regard to the Code in as long as I can remember, it certainly does say a lot about comics place in society. Like I mentioned, this certainly does mean the companies have earned the trust of their readers, but think about this for a minute: at the time the Code was conceived, there was a legitimate threat of the GOVERNMENT stepping in to regulate comic production. The gatekeepers of culture and society were THIS close to coming in and saying what could and could not be seen within comics exactly because comics, as a medium, were POWERFUL. They had an active ability to sway public (namely youth) opinion and the place they held within society was immensely influential. Flash forward once again to now, when the Code is dead and no one, NO ONE seems to care. Sure, the fans don’t care, but neither does the government or cultural pundits. This, more than anything else, is indicative of comics current standing in society…or rather, its lack of one.
In short, the code losing relevance means that COMICS have lost relevance too. The question now is what that means for the future of the medium, but that bit of speculation is best left for another time.