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Comics Code Authority

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The Comics Code seal, designed by DC Comics logo designer and cover letterer Ira Schnapp.

The Comics Code Authority (CCA) is part of the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), and was created to regulate the content of comic books in the United States. Member publishers submit comic books to the CCA, which screens them for conformance to its Comics Code, and authorizes the use of their seal on the cover if the books comply. At the height of its influence, it was a de facto censor for the U.S. comic book industry.

Contents

Founding

Atlas Comics' pre-Code Astonishing #30. Art by Joe Maneely.

The CCA was created in 1954 as part of the CMAA in response to public concern about what was deemed inappropriate material in many comic books. This included graphic depictions of violence and gore in crime and horror comics, as well as the sexual innuendo of what aficionados refer to as good girl art. Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent rallied opposition to this type of material in comics, arguing that it was harmful to the children who made up a large segment of the comic book audience. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954, which focused specifically on comic books, had many publishers concerned about government regulation, prompting them to form a self-regulatory body instead.

The CCA code was based upon the largely unenforced code drafted by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948, which in turn was modeled loosely after the 1930 Hollywood Production Code. The CCA, however, imposed many more restrictions than its predecessor.

Like the previous code, the CCA prohibited the presentation of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions ... in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority." But it added the requirements that "in every instance good shall triumph over evil" and discouraged "instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities." Specific restrictions were placed on the portrayal of kidnapping and concealed weapons.

Depictions of "excessive violence" were forbidden, as were "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations." Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies could not be portrayed. In addition, comics could not use the words "horror" or "terror" in their titles. The use of the word "crime" was subject to numerous restrictions.

Where the previous code had condemned the publication of "sexy, wanton comics," the CCA was much more precise: depictions of "sex perversion", "sexual abnormalities", and "illicit sex relations" as well as seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were specifically forbidden. In words echoing the Hollywood Production Code, love stories were enjoined to emphasize the "sanctity of marriage" and those portraying scenes of passion were advised to avoid stimulating "lower and baser emotions."

Advertisements for liquor, tobacco, knives, fireworks, nude pin-ups, postcards, and "toiletry products of questionable nature" were all prohibited.

Criticism and enforcement

The CCA had no legal authority over other publishers, but magazine distributors often refused to carry comics without the CCA's seal of approval. Some publishers thrived under these restrictions, others adapted by canceling titles and focusing on Code-approved content, and others went out of business.

Publisher William Gaines believed that clauses forbidding the words "crime", "horror" and "terror" in comic book titles had been deliberately aimed at his own best-selling titles Crime SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror, and Tales from the Crypt. These restrictions, as well as those banning vampires, werewolves, and zombies, helped make EC Comics unprofitable; all of its titles except MAD, which was changed to magazine format to circumvent the code, were canceled in the year following the CCA's introduction.

Wertham dismissed the Code as an inadequate half-measure. Scott McCloud, on the other hand, has commented that it was as if, in drawing up the code, "the list of requirements a film needs to receive a G rating was doubled, and there were no other acceptable ratings!"

Non-Code comics

The first comic to be released in (semi-)violation of the comics code appeared as early as 1955, when William Gaines reprinted the story "Judgment Day" from Weird Fantasy #18 (1953) in Incredible Science Fiction #33 (Jan-Feb 1955). "Judgment Day" was a replacement for a Code-disapproved story, but was itself also "objected to" because of "the central character being black."

Gaines' story (illustrated by Joe Orlando) was "a strong allegory on the evils of race prejudice," which point was necessarily "nullified if the lead character" was not black. Gaines informed the Code Authority that "if they did not give that issue the Code Seal, he would see that the world found out why," causing the Authority to reverse its initial decision and allow the story to run. Soon after, however, facing the severe restrictions placed upon his comics by the CCA, and with his "New Direction" titles floundering, Gaines "quit comic book publishing to concentrate on MAD."

Undergrounds

In the late 1960s, the underground comics scene arose, with artists creating comics that delved into subject matter explicitly banned by the Code. Since these comics were distributed largely through unconventional channels, such as head shops, they were able to skirt the authority of the Comics Code and achieve a certain amount of success without CCA approval.

Updating the Code

The Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971), the first of three non-Code issues that prompted the CCA's first update, allowing comics to show the negative effects of illegal-drug use. Note the cover-blurb reference to "The last fatal trip!" Cover art by Gil Kane

In 1971, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare to do a comic book tale of drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part Spider-Man story portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous. The CCA, in the person of Archie Comics publisher John L. Goldwater, refused to approve the story because of the presence of narcotics, deeming the context of the story irrelevant (code administrator Leonard Darvin "was ill" at the time, allowing Goldwater's decision to stand). Confident that the original government request would give him credibility, and with the approval of his publisher, Martin Goodman, Lee published the story in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May-July 1971), without CCA approval. The storyline was well-received and the CCA's argument for denying approval was deemed counterproductive. "That was the only big issue that we had" with the Code, Lee recalled in a 1998 interview: "I could understand them; they were like lawyers, people who take things literally and technically. The Code mentioned that you mustn't mention drugs and, according to their rules, they were right. So I didn't even get mad at them then. I said, 'Screw it' and just took the Code seal off for those three issues. Then we went back to the Code again. I never thought about the Code when I was writing a story, because basically I never wanted to do anything that was to my mind too violent or too sexy. I was aware that young people were reading these books, and had there not been a Code, I don't think that I would have done the stories any differently."

The Code was revised a number of times during 1971. Initially "liberalized" prior to Marvel's Spider-Man story on January 28, 1971 to allow for (among other things) the sometimes "sympathetic depiction of criminal behavior... [and] corruption among public officials" ("as long as it is portrayed as exceptional and the culprit is punished") as well as permitting some criminal activities to kill law-enforcement officers and the "suggestion but not portrayal of seduction." Also newly allowed were "vampires, ghouls and werewolves... 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". Zombies, lacking the requisite "literary" background, remained taboo. However, Marvel skirted the zombie restriction in the mid-1970s by calling the apparently deceased, mind-controlled followers of various Haitian super-villains "zuvembies". This practice carried over to Marvel's super-hero line. In the Avengers comic, when the reanimated super-hero Wonder Man returned from the dead, he was also referred to as a "zuvembie".

Stan Lee and Marvel drew criticism from DC head Carmine Infantino "for defying the code," stating that DC will not "do any drug stories unless the code is changed." As a result of publicity surrounding the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare's sanctioning of the storyline, however, the CCA revised the Code to permit the depiction of "narcotics or drug addiction" if presented "as a vicious habit".

"Wolfman" and credits

At the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention panel "Marvel Comics: The Method and the Madness", Marv Wolfman told the audience that when he began writing for DC, he was forbidden to use the name "Wolfman" in print due to the Comics Code Authority's ban on werewolves. In 2007 Wolfman elaborated that in House of Secrets #83 (Jan. 1970), the narrator introduced Wolfman's story "The Stuff that Dreams are Made of" as having been told by "a wandering wolfman". The CCA rejected the story and flagged the "wolfman" reference as a violation. Fellow writer Gerry Conway explained to the CCA how the story's author was in fact named Wolfman, and asked whether it would still be in violation if his name were clearly stated on the first story page. The CCA said it would then not violate the Code, so Wolfman received a writer's credit for the story.

By the 1980s, greater depiction of violence became acceptable—for example, Elvira's House of Mystery #2 (February 1986) contains numerous decapitations and is still Code-approved. The following issue forewent the code and contained references to masturbation, but the Code seal was reinistated with issue #4.

21st century

Despite periodic revisions to the Code to reflect changing attitudes about appropriate subject matter (e.g., the ban on referring to homosexuality was revised in 1989 to allow non-stereotypical depictions of gays and lesbians), its influence on the medium continued to wane, and publishers gradually reduced the prominence of the seal on their covers. The development of new distribution channels, especially "direct market" comics specialty shops, provided additional means for non-Code books to reach a large audience, while newsstand distribution — a shrinking component of industry sales — became less important.

A new generation of publishers emerged in the 1980s and '90s, distributing solely to specialty shops and not wanting CCA membership or approval. DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and other CCA sponsors began to publish comics for adult audiences, without the CCA seal. For example, in the 1990s Milestone Media's Milestone imprint (published through DC Comics) submitted its books to the CCA, but published them regardless of the CCA's ruling, placing the seal only on issues that passed. In 2001, Marvel Comics withdrew from the CCA in favor of its own ratings system. DC Comics and Archie Comics are the only major publishers submitting comics for Code approval; DC only submits comics from their Johnny DC and DC Universe superhero lines, but DC Universe titles are sometimes published without Code approval.

1954 Code highlights

  • 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.

Allusions within stories

In the Marvel Comics universe, a fictional Marvel publishes comic books based on the "real-life" exploits of superheroes. The 2000s series She-Hulk established that the fictional Marvel submitted its publications to the Comics Code Authority for approval, until breaking with the CCA in 2001 as the real-life Marvel did. This fictional CCA is vaguely identified as a federal agency, and CCA comics based on "true" events are considered to be legal documents usable as evidence in a court of law. The fictional law firm of Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg & Holliway in She-Hulk has an extensive library of CCA-approved Marvel comics for reference purposes.

In the 1990s Marvel series The Sensational She-Hulk, the title character is asked how, despite the fact her clothes are frequently being torn up, she always remains "decent". She-Hulk responds by showing the label in her clothing: the Comics Code seal.

See also

Footnotes

References

  • Dean, M. (2001) Marvel drops Comics Code, changes book distributor. The Comics Journal #234, p. 19.
  • Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
  • Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: History of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
  • Original Comics Code
  • 1971 Revision
  • 1989 Revision

External links