Saturday, January 29, 2011

Farewell to the Comics Code

(Edited from a diary on Street Prophets)

Last week DC comics announced its decision to drop out of the Comics Code Authority. The following day, Archie Comics, the organization's sole remaining member, announced that it too would no longer be submitting its comics to the board for review.

The CCA was established back in the 1950s as a way to head off government censorship during the anti-comics hysteria generated by Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. The idea was that the Big Comic Book Publishers promised to police themselves to ban unwholsome material from their books. That way newstands and drugstores and mom & pop grocery stores could carry them without fear that the local Guardians of Morality would come after them with torches and pitchforks. (The only major publisher who didn't sign on to the Code was Dell, who figured their reputation was already so squeaky-clean that they didn't need it).

The rules laid down by Comics Code were pretty much tailored to ban everything published by EC Comics, whose incredibly gorey crime, war and horror comics were Wertham's chief target. (According to legend, the Code shut down everything EC published except for MAD, which it re-vamped into a magazine format to bypass the Code. The truth is a little more complicated; publisher Bill Gaines had already decided on the format change for other reasons; but the Code-compliant comics he tried to publish after its institution suffered from the stigma of his earlie crime and horror books and couldn't find distributors.)

The first blow against the Comics Code came in the early '70s. Stan Lee wanted to write a Spider-Man story about drug abuse; but under the Code, no depiction of drugs were permitted -- not even to preach against them. Stan felt the issue was important enough to go with the story anyway. That issue of Amazing Spider-Man ran without the CCA seal, and the Heavens did not fall. The CCA acknowledged that Stan was right and modified the code.

With the rise of the Direct Market, comics publishers were no longer limited to newstand sales but could sell their books in specialty stores. The CCA label became less important. Both Marvel and DC began publishing seperate imprints of comics for "Mature Readers" which ran without the CCA's approval.

In 2001, Marvel went cold turkey and pulled the CCA seal off all it's books. In recent years, DC has been keeping the seal on SUPERMAN and it's line of books specifically for kids, but now they're just letting their dues in the organization expire and dropping the whole CCA approval thing, relying on an internal ratings system instead. And Archie Comics admits that they haven't even bothered submitting their books for approval for a while now, because the Board always rubber-stamped them anyway.

So it not only looks like the dreaded Comics Code, Defender of Decency and Nemesis of Artistic Freedom is at last truly dead, but that it has been dead for a while now and we're only now noticing that it has stopped twitching.

Zombie censors. I wonder what kind of a comic Bill Gaines could have made of that...

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