Welcome back to Multiversity’s column on comic book history. I had planned to cover several items from the last 70 years of the comic industry today, but the coverage of the first event ended up running article length by itself. Please enjoy this trip down memory lane as we revisit October 1954 and the formation of the Comics Code Authority.
Following the industry’s poor showing during the Senate hearings in April 1954, many comic publishers felt compelled to show they were taking the public’s concerns seriously. Parents across the nation were convinced comics were harmful to children, despite evidence to the contrary. The argument that some comic books were not intended to be read by children wouldn’t hold water even though there was a known large adult audience because it would shift the burden of monitoring a child’s reading material to the complaining parents, and that would taken as blaming the victim.
Seeing only one option forward, the head of EC Comics suggested the publishers unite and cooperate to improve their image. Over the course of four meetings, the number of participating publishers grew to 38 and they chartered the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA). The group’s main goal was to establish guidelines for comic book content that would address offensive content. The new guidelines would be enforced by the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which would be funded by member dues to the CMAA. The code was announced to the public on October 26, 1954 and went into effect for comics cover dated January 1955.
The Code was a list of rules prescribing what could not be depicted in comic books. After a book was drawn and lettered, it was submitted to the CCA for review. The CMAA chose Charles Murphy, a New York Municipal Judge and devout Catholic to be the CCA administrator and gave him an annual budget of $100,000. He hired a staff of reviewers who were almost exclusively retired teachers over the age of 65. These reviewers looked over black and white photostats of the artwork and indicated the problems they saw with blue pencil. At least a few of the CMAA members expected the code to be a rubber stamp like the ACMP was a few years earlier, but Murphy played his role straight. In their first three months of operation, the reviewers evaluated over 400 comics, completely rejected over 100 of them, and requested over 5000 changes to the others. Once the changes were made, the publisher was allowed to put the CCA stamp of approval on the cover. In the beginning, the stamp was so large and prominent, it sometimes obscured a portion of the book’s title.
The Code did not impact all publishers equally. Prior to its implementation, DC Comics was already applying in-house content standards that were code-compliant. DC’s affiliate distributor, Independent News, also enforced content restrictions on the publishers it serviced. Archie Comics and Harvey Comics were unaffected because their target audience had always been children, and their material was therefore acceptable under the CCA. In fact, Harvey increased profit margins over the next few years by reprinting old material under the CCA seal. Marvel Comics were in a similar situation, although their status would best be described as ‘surviving,’ not ‘thriving.’ Notably, these four publishers who fared well were also the four largest publishers in the CMAA.
The smaller members experienced the CCA quite differently. Fiction House, a company started in the 1920s and known for its barely-dressed women in suggestive poses, was out of business three months after the CCA took effect. Several of its peers did as well, without even attempting to alter their content. With so many artists working at a flat pay rate instead of a salary, the time and cost of having them alter their artwork ate into the artist’s income, the publisher’s profit, or both. Some companies did try to make a go of it under the CCA rules, but 24 of the 29 initial members of the CCA shuttered their doors by the end of 1958.
You probably noticed the number of publishers participating in the CCA was lower than the number who chartered the CMAA. One of them was EC, the publisher who initiated the CMAA meetings. When the code was coming together, EC head Bill Gaines felt some of the rules targeted him personally for his poor performance at the Senate hearings. He walked out of the meeting to try surviving on his own, but soon found his books were being returned unopened by retailers who didn’t want to be associated with him. He soon capitulated, but CCA Administrator Murphy personally reviewed EC titles with the base assumption that everything in them was wrong. With the seal on his books, Gaines found his sales increased but were still unprofitable. He exited the comic book business in 1956 to focus on “Mad Magazine” instead. The loss of EC’s pre-Code sales put its main distributor, Leader News Company, into a financial crisis and eventual collapse. LNC closed with unpaid debts to its other comic publisher clients, which accelerated their demise.Continued below
There were two publishers who avoided the code but continued to thrive: Dell and Gilberton. During the clamor against comic books, both companies had avoided any criticism by limiting themselves to content that was above reproach. Dell was best known for its licensed Disney comics, and Gilberton was focused on its educational “Classics Illustrated,” which adapted classic literature into comic books. Dell didn’t want to lend its clean brand name to many of the disreputable competition who needed the CCA, and retailers didn’t want to lose Dell’s enormous sales. In contrast, Gilberton couldn’t survive under the code because beloved treasures like “Romeo & Juliet” would never survive the censors, what with all its underage premarital sex, murder, disrespect for authority, and suicide.
Over the next fifteen years, the code reviewed over 18,000 comics. The surviving publishers were reduced to “all ages” material that children outgrew by the age of 12. This extended period trained a generation to believe the medium was inherently childish. The stigma has been weakened in stages over the last 40 years or so, but still lingers today. The CCA, thankfully, is no longer with us.