Comics Code Authority
| You gotta spin it to win it|
|Stop the presses!|
|We want pictures|
The Comics Code Authority, otherwise known as the CCA, was a North American regulatory body for comic books, part of the Comics Magazine Association of America.
The CCA was created by the comic book industry in 1954 after psychiatrist and activist Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent, which argued that comic books had a deleterious effect on children and encouraged juvenile delinquency, while retailers were essentially being held to ransom by publishers and distributors regardless of whether or not they actually wanted to carry such filth. While the man had his good qualities (support for civil rights, involvement in a Harlem youth clinic), scientific mettle and level-headedness were not among them. Nearly all of his evidence was anecdotal and suffered from the problem of correlation implying causation, and his analysis of the rising numbers of youth delinquents completely ignored the fact that these numbers tracked perfectly with America's rising population in the Baby Boom era. Still, Wertham caused a massive stir, such that the issue of the alleged effects on children of reading comic books was brought before a US Senate committee.
The CCA was created by the publishers to suppress parental outrage at what their children were reading in comic books, and forestall any attempts at government censorship. Although CCA approval was not required for comic books at the time, some shops would disallow comics without the CCA's stamp of approval rather than face angry mothers. Due to this, magazines such as Tales from the Crypt quickly went out of business.
Effects on artsocially conservative, politically correct norms of the mid 1950s and stripping them of nearly all of their depth in the process. Horror comics and supernatural characters such as vampires, ghouls, and lycanthropes were completely banned, as was the mere mention of the word "zombie". Comic depictions of good and evil became clear-cut, with no grey zones, and police and other authority figures could only be portrayed as morally upright. Dialogue became squeaky clean, and depictions of drugs, seduction, rape, "excessive violence", and "sex perversions" (which was '50s code for homosexuality and BDSM, whether explicit or implied) were expressly forbidden. Criticism of any religion or racial group was banned, a rule that was used to censor stories that took on a pro-civil rights stance. The "sanctity of marriage" was to be upheld; this meant that romantic stories had to end with the two characters getting married, that child characters were to respect their parents, and that divorce had to be presented as A Bad Thing. A dress code was enforced; women had to be drawn "realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities."
One thing that the CCA got right, at least in hindsight, was its restrictions on advertising. While the same rules concerning sexuality and violence were applied to the ads, they also went a step further and prohibited businesses selling quack medicine, tobacco, alcohol, weapons, fireworks, and sex-related or gambling-related material from running ads in comics. It would be many years before a consensus emerged in popular culture that maybe marketing dangerous products directly to impressionable youth wasn't such a great idea.
The CCA wound up going beyond even what Wertham proposed. His stated goal in Seduction of the Innocent was strictly to make it illegal to sell comics to those under the age of fifteen, not censor them to make them safe for kids to read. Ironically, his proposal might have had the opposite effect that the CCA had, destroying children's comics and ghettoizing what remained into an adults-only medium.
The rise of the CCA wound up having at least one unexpected consequence. While comics in scapegoated genres like horror and crime were killed virtually overnight, the implementation of the Comics Code is often credited with saving superhero comics from extinction. After the end of World War II took away the ready supply of easy-to-hate Nazi scumbags from their rogues' galleries, many superheroes went back to battling street-level crime, which proved substantially less interesting after tales of fighting to defend freedom and apple pie from fascist tyranny. Many attempts to "update" such stories for the times, like the self-explanatory Captain America: Commie Smasher, proved to be embarrassments. By the time Seduction of the Innocent was released in 1954, the lurid and controversial horror, crime, Western, and romance stories were eating their superhero rivals for breakfast. Of course, that controversy ultimately became their downfall, leaving publishers of superhero comics, with their straightforward stories of good vs. evil and righteousness triumphing over crime and villainy, the only ones to pick up the pieces of the shattered industry.
The Code weakens
In 1970, at the request of the Nixon administration, Marvel Comics published a Spider-Man story with an anti-drug message, portraying Spider-Man's friend Harry Osborn becoming addicted to otherwise unidentified "pills". The Code, at the time, forbade any depiction of illegal drug use, even a negative portrayal written with the backing of the US government. The CCA refused to approve the story, and Marvel published it anyway with no repercussions, leading the CCA to revise the Code to allow anti-drug messages. Some months later, DC Comics published a much stronger anti-drug story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, portraying Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy as an actual heroin addict, including depictions of hypodermic needles, which was published with CCA approval. The Code was gradually relaxed over the course of the '70s to allow anti-drug stories, horror themes, and more adult sexual themes; this period of loosening norms, darker storylines, and greater social commentary is known as the "Bronze Age" of comics, in contrast to the squeaky-clean "Silver Age" of the '50s and '60s. In 1985, DC published an Alan Moore-written Swamp Thing comic entitled "The Curse" (dealing with menstruation), which DC put out without CCA review. The lack of approval went almost completely unnoticed, though Swamp Thing was largely targeted at a mature audience anyway. Further decisions by major publishers not to bother with CCA approval, coupled with the rise of the independent "underground comix" in the '70s and the shift from newsstand distribution to comic book shops, rendered the CCA increasingly irrelevant.
Backlash against the Code reached its height from the late '80s through the mid-late '90s, during what's often known as the "Dark Age" of comics. After the critical and commercial success of Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, both of which pushed boundaries with stories that deconstructed and explored the dark sides of the superhero genre and mythology, comics entered a long period where explicit violence and sexual content became the norm, at least partly out of reaction against the restrictions that had been placed on comics for decades. While many writers and artists from this period won acclaim for their complex, sophisticated storylines that could never have been told in the days of the Code's strict enforcement, many more used the downfall of the CCA as little more than an excuse to indulge in gore, nudity, and macho posturing, their attempts to shock readers with "mature content" ironically coming across as more juvenile than the comics whose "immaturity" they were reacting to. Eventually, this produced a backlash of its own, this time from comics fans themselves who got sick of it, with comics like Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come directly attacking the trend towards violent content and anti-heroes who "do what they have to do". Together with other factors (most notably a speculator bubble that demonstrated a spectacular lack of understanding of basic economics on the part of nearly all involved), this sent the entire industry into freefall around 1996-97. The comics industry since has been about trying to find a happy medium between the puritanical restrictions of the CCA and the excesses of the Dark Age; how successful it's been at this depends on who you ask.
By 2011, no big name publishers truly adhered to the CCA. Marvel had moved towards an in-house ratings system and warning labels on the covers of comics with "adult" content near the turn of the century. DC still submitted a few books from time to time, but it eventually applied Marvel's ratings system approach to the entire DC line in January 2011. This left squeaky-clean Archie Comics, which rarely submitted comics for approval by then (and occasionally used the seal without submitting for approval), as the CCA's sole remaining participant and administrator. The day after DC abandoned the CCA, Archie did the same and ended the CCA as a result.
At the end of September 2011, the Comics Magazine Association of America sold the intellectual property rights of the Comics Code Authority seal to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit anti-censorship group that helps cover the legal expenses of comic creators, publishers, and retailers. The sale, which coincided with the annual Banned Books Week campaign, marked the final demise of the CCA.
The lesson to take from the Dark Age is a simple one: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Years of overbearing censorship, long after the threat of an even more odious government censorship board had faded, caused graphic violence and sex for their own sake to be seen as daring and rebellious artistic statements. The expression of these trends was amplified by comics having long existed just outside the mainstream, and thus having significant countercultural strains that weren't as tempered by the pressure of having to appeal to a mass market — again, partly because the CCA's censorship had caused the mainstream to treat comics as kids' stuff for decades, leaving many creators and fans desperate for their work and hobby to be taken seriously. Fear of a return to the bad old days of the CCA made it hard to criticize the turgid, lurid artists and writers of the time without being seen as the second coming of Fredric Wertham, and only when backlash reached a critical mass within the comics fandom and industry itself did it become safe to openly criticize.
A better way?
A comparison for the trajectory of comics during and after the enforcement of the Code would be that of television, an industry with a very similar business model of serialized stories created for the mass market guided chiefly by editors (or, in TV parlance, executive producers or show runners) working in tandem with a team of writers. Television had also been under the eye of regulatory authorities in many countries (the FCC in the US and Ofcom in the UK being two examples), and initially, it too was written off by highbrow critics as disposable junk, as exemplified by FCC chairman Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" speech in 1961. Wertham himself wrote a manuscript for a follow-up to Seduction of the Innocent, titled The War on Children, that would've taken aim at the television industry, though this book was never published.
However, the content restrictions on television made far more allowances for shows aimed at adults (such as the "watershed" in the UK and the "safe harbor" in the US), and because of this, by the end of the '60s the medium had already begun taking strides towards maturity that it would continue to take for the next several decades. While comics during the '70s/early '80s "Bronze Age" were only moving forward in fits and starts and running into opposition from the CCA at almost every point, TV was already starting to demonstrate its artistic credibility with groundbreaking programs like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Roots. TV's "shock the squares" phase also went much more gradually, first with the rise of 'jiggle shows' like Charlie's Angels and Three's Company that were explicitly designed to titillate male viewers (and which, in hindsight, are downright quaint), and only later pushing forward with raunchy sitcoms like The Simpsons and Married... with Children and violent dramas like NYPD Blue and The X-Files.
When the rise of pay TV and online streaming services in the 2000s and '10s, unbound by the guidelines of state broadcast regulators, led to the proliferation of very adult-oriented shows, the culture shock wasn't as severe, as television programming in many countries (even the comparatively restrictive US) was already at the point where it was showing content that would earn at least a hard PG-13 rating in a film. With less of a perceived need to use shock value to demonstrate how 'mature' they were, TV writers and producers instead used loosened restrictions and adult content to tell far more sophisticated stories than they ever could. The result is that, while relaxed censorship is remembered as having produced a dark age for comic books in the '90s, it is currently viewed as having produced a golden age for television from the mid-'00s onward. While this golden age was also initially defined by shows about amoral, masculine anti-heroes (The Sopranos could be seen as TV's Watchmen in this regard), more diverse content has since started entering the fray in a manner that it never really did for comic books on a large scale until well after the Dark Age.
On a lighter note...
A popular urban legend claims that MAD magazine was created out of spite for the CCA, though this is false. The conversion of MAD comics to magazine format was prompted by internal disputes between publisher Bill Gaines and writer/editor Harvey Kurtzman. Gaines and Kurtzman disagreed on the direction MAD was taking, particularly after Gaines released Panic as a companion title. Seeking a compromise, Gaines offered to 'upgrade' MAD to a magazine and give Kurtzman full editorial control. This arrangement only lasted one year, as Kurtzman left EC in 1956. However, by that time, the magazine was outselling most of its competitors and Gaines brought in Al Feldstein to take over editorial chores. The myth that MAD magazine was created to circumvent the restrictions of the code was popularized by Les Daniels in his 1971 book Comics: A History of Comic Books in America. This was one of a number of historical errors Daniels made in relation to EC and the Comics Code Authority.
The restrictions placed on comics writers and artists by the CCA were also an important factor in the emergence of underground comics ("comix") during the Bronze Age.
The '70s reboot of the pre-Code '40s comic The Spectre, about a cop who gets murdered by gangsters only to come back as a vengeful spirit on a mission from God, came up with an ingenious way around the rules against violence. Since the Code only prohibited graphic violence against human characters, editor Joe Orlando, writer Michael Fleisher, and artist Jim Aparo decided that, since the Spectre had reality-bending powers, he would use them so that the people he killed weren't technically human when they died. This allowed them to get away with having the Spectre turn a crook into a block of wood before sawing him to pieces, and turning others into solid wax and plastic before melting them — and making it clear that the victims were completely conscious and suffering as they died. All of this passed muster with the CCA because nothing it did was technically against the Code, even though it was often arguably more gratuitously violent than the normal human deaths of the original stories.
- Castillo v. Texas
- Moral panic
- Political correctness
- Parents Music Resource Center
- Fun:Death Note
- The full text of the original 1954 Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America. Inc.
- Heer, Jeet. "The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books." Slate, 4 April 2008 (recovered 11 December 2015).
- This led Marvel Comics to use otherwise indistinguishable "zuvembies" instead.
- Many anti-comics activists, including Wertham, read gay undertones into Batman and Robin's relationship and bondage themes into Wonder Woman, and used that as a rallying point against the medium. While Batman and Robin being gay was debatable, Wonder Woman being a PG-rated dominatrix wasn't — her creator, William Moulton Marston, was an early feminist who spoke enthusiastically about bondage, claiming that it would bring about a utopian matriarchy.
- Such as "Judgment Day" in 1956, which was nearly banned by the CCA because of its big twist at the end: the human astronaut judging the segregated alien society turns out to be black. EC Comics ultimately ran the comic uncensored by effectively shaming the CCA into accepting it.
- "Captain America...Commie Smasher!!!"
- It also showed that author Stan Lee had zero knowledge of the drug culture.
- Unlike the Spider-Man story, it was a realistic, for comic books, depiction of drug use.
- Flimgeeks: "A Brief History of Comics – Bronze Age and Dark Age."
- Beta Magnus. "Nerd Rage #14: The Dark Age of Comics." Beta is Dead, 25 April 2013 (recovered 22 August 2015).
- Serafino, Jason. "10 Reasons Why Comics Sucked During the '90s." Complex, 28 June 2011 (recovered 22 August 2015).
- It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. Short version: old, rare comic books from decades past were, by the late '80s, fetching thousands of dollars at auctions, leading to a surge of interest in comics as collectible items. Marvel and DC responded by running reprints of classic comics, running a lot of "big" storylines and creating new universes with their own debut issues, running scores of "variant" covers for issues designed to exploit a "collect them all!" mentality, and hiring superstar artists to draw their comics, all in an effort to appeal to collectors who wanted to own pieces of history that, in time (it was hoped), would be worth more than their weight in gold. (A virtually identical mentality affected the baseball card industry around the same time.)
The problem should be obvious at even the slightest glance: old, rare comics were valuable because they were old and rare, as most of them had been chucked into the trash after initial consumption, leaving very few of them lying around. Yet here were people trying to make comics collectible, with publishers responding by flooding the market with books designed to pander to them, often at the cost of quality writing. (Many shops still have gluts of "collectible" comics from the late '80s and early '90s that, more than twenty years later, have barely appreciated in value due to how many are still in circulation.) Meanwhile, thanks to the two major "direct market" distributors of the time reducing their ordering requirements, comic book shops were opening on every street corner, saturating the market further and cannibalizing each other's sales. When the bubble burst in the mid-'90s, two-thirds of them went bust, putting thousands of small business owners out of work as the savings they poured into their stores went up in smoke. The effects of the speculator bubble in destroying the comics industry have at times been overstated, but it definitely fed into everything that was wrong with the Dark Age.
- page on their acquisition of the seal
- Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest", address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C., May 9, 1961.
- VanDerWerff, Todd. "The golden age of TV is dead; long live the golden age of TV." The A.V. Club, 20 September 2013 (recovered 12 June 2016).
- Hendrix, Grady. "Watchmen Failed." Slate, 5 March 2009 (recovered 12 June 2016).
- Magnusson, Henrik. "5 Times Censorship Just Made Everything Way Worse." (#1. The Comics Code Authority's Ban On Violence Led To The Most Gruesome Stories Ever.) Cracked.com, 7 July 2016 (recovered 7 July 2016).