Comics Code Authority
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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.
In 1954, 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. At the same time, retailers were essentially held to ransom by publishers and distributors, regardless of whether they actually wanted to carry such filth. While Wertham had his good qualities (interest in racial inequalities in healthcare provision, involvement in a Harlem youth clinic with Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, testifying for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education), scientific mettle and level-headedness were not among them. Although he seemed to offer a causal explanation of how comics would inevitably lead to juvenile delinquency, nearly all of his evidence was anecdotal and suffered from the problem of correlation implying causation. His analysis of the rising numbers of youth delinquents completely ignored how those numbers tracked perfectly with America's rising population in the Baby Boom era. Wertham's book still caused a massive stir, which put the issue of the alleged effects on children of reading comic books in front of a US Senate committee.
The major comics publishers of the time created the CCA to both suppress parental outrage at the content of comic books and forestall any attempts at government censorship. Although CCA approval was not required for comic books at the time, some stores would refuse to stock comics without the CCA Seal of Approval to avoid facing angry mothers. That decision put magazines such as Tales from the Crypt out of business in short order.
Effects on art
The CCA's rules were downright ridiculous even for the time of its creation. The rules forced the comics that remained to conform to socially conservative, politically correct norms of the mid-1950s, which stripped comics 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".[note 1] Comic depictions of good and evil became clear-cut, with no moral "grey zones", and police and other authority figures could only be portrayed as morally upright. Dialogue became squeaky clean. Depictions of drugs, seduction, rape, "excessive violence", and "sex perversions" (which was '50s code for homosexuality and BDSM, whether explicit or implied[note 2]) were expressly forbidden. Criticism of any religion or any racial group was banned; this rule was used to censor stories that took on a pro-civil rights stance.[note 3] The "sanctity of marriage" was to be upheld; this meant that romantic stories had to end with the two characters getting married, child characters were to respect their parents, and divorce had to always be presented as A Bad Thing. A dress code was also enforced, as well as an anatomical one: Women had to be drawn "realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities". To be fair on this last one... well, have you seen how Rob Liefield draws women?
In hindsight, one thing that the CCA got right 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 that sold 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 and/or addictive products directly to impressionable youth was A Bad Thing.
The CCA's rules ultimately went beyond even what Wertham had proposed. His stated goal in Seduction of the Innocent was to criminalize the sale of comics to anyone 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 effect on the industry was dire: EC Comics, known for its crime and horror titles, rapidly closed all its publications except Mad magazine. But the rise of the CCA also had at least one unexpected consequence. While horror and crime were scapegoated, the Comics Code often receives credit for saving the superhero genre 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, became embarrassments for their publishers. 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. That controversy ultimately became their downfall, which left publishers of superhero comics — with their straightforward stories of good vs. evil and righteousness triumphing over crime and villainy — as the only comics left to pick up the pieces of a shattered industry.
The Code weakens
In 1970, Marvel Comics published a Spider-Man story with an anti-drug message at the request of the Nixon administration. The three-issue story contained a subplot where Spider-Man's friend Harry Osborn became addicted to otherwise unidentified "pills".[note 4] The Code's rules at this 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, so Marvel published it anyway with no repercussions; when the story received praise from parents, teachers, and even religious organizations, the CCA revised the Code to allow anti-drug messages. Some months later, DC Comics published a much stronger anti-drug story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow, which portrayed Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy as an actual heroin addict, including depictions of hypodermic needles,[note 5] which was published with CCA approval. The CCA gradually relaxed the Code's strict rules 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 released without CCA review. The lack of approval went almost completely unnoticed because Swamp Thing was largely targeted at a mature audience anyway. Further decisions by major publishers to eschew CCA approval, coupled with the rise of the independent "underground comix" in the '70s and the shift from newsstand distribution to comic book shops, continued to make the CCA irrelevant.
Backlash against the Code reached its height from the late '80s through the mid-to-late '90s, during what is 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 as a backlash 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 came across as more juvenile than the comics whose "immaturity" they were reacting to. This period of comics history eventually produced a backlash of its own, albeit 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". Along 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,[note 6] this backlash helped send the entire industry into freefall around 1996–97. The comics industry has since been trying to find a happy medium between the puritanical restrictions of the CCA and the excesses of the Dark Age; how successful it has been at doing so depends on who you ask.
By 2011, no big name publishers 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 the Marvel approach to the entire DC line, finalizing it in full in January 2011. These defections left squeaky-clean Archie Comics, which rarely submitted comics for approval by then (and occasionally used the seal without submitting for approval), as the sole remaining participant and administrator of the CCA. The day after DC abandoned the CCA in full, Archie did the same, which ended the CCA.
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 that year's Banned Books Week campaign, put the CCA down for good.
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 people to view graphic violence and sex for their own sake as daring and rebellious artistic statements. The expression of these trends was amplified by comics having long existed just outside the mainstream, which gave comics a significant countercultural strain that was not 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 only-for-kids fluff for decades and left 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 Dark Age without being seen as the second coming of Fredric Wertham; only when backlash reached a critical mass within the comics fandom and the industry itself did this era 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 that were 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); it too was initally 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). By the end of the '60s, the medium had taken great strides towards maturity that it would continue to take for the next several decades. While comics during the '70s and early '80s "Bronze Age" were moving forward in fits and starts while running into opposition from the CCA at almost every point, TV was already starting to demonstrate its artistic credibility with groundbreaking programs such as 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 come off as downright quaint these days), then with raunchy sitcoms such as The Simpsons and Married... with Children as well as violent dramas such as NYPD Blue and The X-Files.
When the rise of both pay TV and online streaming services in the 2000s and 2010s, which were free from the guidelines of government broadcast regulations, led to the proliferation of very adult-oriented shows, the culture shock was not as severe because television programming in many countries — even the comparatively restrictive US — had already reached a 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 as a demonstration of "maturity", TV writers and producers instead used loosened restrictions and adult content to tell far more sophisticated stories than they ever could. 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. 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), but more diverse content has since entered the fray in a way that never really happened for comic books on a large scale until well after the Dark Age.
On a lighter note...
A popular urban legend says MAD magazine was created out of spite for the CCA. This is false: The conversion of MAD from a comic format to a 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. As 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; 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 was 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 to make sure the people he killed were not 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 — all while they made clear that the victims were completely conscious and suffering as they died. All of this passed muster with the CCA because none of it was technically against the Code, even though it was arguably more gratuitously violent than the normal human deaths of the original stories.
- Castillo v. Texas
- Moral panic
- Nintendo, particularly their previous practice of video game censorship in North America
- 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.
- This led Marvel Comics to use the otherwise-indistinguishable "zuvembies" instead.
- Many anti-comics activists, including Wertham, read gay undertones into the relationship between Batman and Robin as well as bondage themes into Wonder Woman, then used their readings 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 and once claimed 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 threatening to paint the CCA as racist if they did not allow it.
- It also showed that author Stan Lee had zero knowledge of drug culture.
- Unlike the Spider-Man story, it was a realistic-for-comic-books depiction of drug use.
- 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 would eventually 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 else that was wrong with the Dark Age.
- Like Colonel Sanders, Christopher Tayler, London Review of Books, Vol. 43 No. 23 · 2 December 2021
- Heer, Jeet. "The Caped Crusader: Frederic Wertham and the campaign against comic books." Slate, 4 April 2008 (recovered 11 December 2015).
- "Captain America...Commie Smasher!!!"
- Flimgeeks: "A Brief History of Comics – Bronze Age and Dark Age."
- Joel V. Grineau, Origin Of The Comics Code Authority. sideroad.com, 1997-1998.
- 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).
- Dr. Amy Kiste Nyberg, Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval. cbldf.org. Retrieved on 4 February 2018.
- 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).
- Les Daniels, John Peck, and Frank Muhly, Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. ISBN 0517110377.
- 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).