For a good half-century most of the comic books sold in the United States bore a special seal, an imprimatur like a tiny postage stamp certifying that they had been blessed by that mysterious custodian of comic book morality, the Comics Code Authority.
The Comics Code was established in 1954 by a group of comic book publishers for three purposes: to reassure worried parents that their books were wholesome and safe to buy for their wee tots, to forstall any federal legislation trying to regulate their industry, and to put Bill Gaines out of business.
William M. Gaines was the son of Max Gaines, the comics pioneer who was one of the founders of what became DC Comics, and who went on to start a company called Educational Comics, a company producing high-minded, edifying comic literature intended to improve the moral fiber of children. When Bill took over his father's company, he changed the name to Entertaining Comics, and changed its focus to crime fiction, suspense, science fiction and, most importantly, horror.
In the years following World War II, super-hero comics had declined in popularity, and publishers experimented with other genres, often going back to genres favored by the pulp magazines of a decade earlier. Bill Gaines was not the only publisher to do this, but by far his EC had the grittiest war comics, the most lurid crime comics and the goriest horror comics. They also sold well, and drew the most attention.
In the 1950s, one of the big social issues of the day, besides that of Communists under the bed and mushroom clouds in the sky, was Juvenile Delinquency. Television was still in its infancy and computer games hadn't been invented yet, so people had to blame something else for the decline in youth's morals. An enterprising psychologist named Frederick Wertham wrote a book titled SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT which placed the blame on violent comic books.
Wertham's big thing was literacy. He felt that comic books, being mostly pictures, hindered and degraded children's reading skills. The generation of kids a decade later who rushed to their dictionaries to decode Stan Lee's bombastic verbiage disproved this theory, but that came later; we'll be getting to Stan. Wertham actually approved of comic book fanzines, because the act of creating a 'zine and of writing about, reading about and arguing about even as trashy a subject as funnybooks exercised the reading skills he felt were important. He later even entered into amicable correspondence with fanzine editors.
In his book, though, Wertham's emphasis was on the more lurid aspects of comics and how they were creating a generation of depraved maniacs. A lot of the research he used to bolster his claims was highly slanted, when not outright fabricated. But he was a doctor, so people took his research seriously; especially when it told them what they wanted to hear.
In 1954, the US Senate convened a series of hearings to investigate Juvenile Delinquency, specifically the effect of extremely graphic horror and crime comics, and Bill Gaines was called upon to testify. Sadly, he put in a poor showing. Although eloquent in his defense of the First Amendment in his comic book editorials, before the Senate Subcommittee Gaines found himself cornered into trying to define the point at which a dismembered head becomes poor taste.
The rest of the comics publishers took alarm. After all, some of them weren't all that pure themselves regarding gory and sensationalistic comics. They faced the real possibility that the Government would impose regulations on the comic book industry. So they decided to regulate themselves.
The Comics Code was a set of self-imposed restrictions which would eliminate objectionable content from comic books. A panel chosen by the member companies would evaluate every book published by them. Those which did not violate the Code were granted the Seal of Approval: APPROVED BY THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY.
Comics which did not bear the APPROVED stamp would not be carried by the newsstands, nor by the big distributors who supplied them. Nor, presumably, would they be purchased by responsible, God-fearing parents.
Some of the Code's prohibitions seemed specifically aimed at EC's comics, such as:
- No comic magazine shall use the words "horror" or "terror" in its title.
- All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
- Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
Some of the rules seem reasonable enough as stated, but were highly restrictive as interpreted by the CCA. Gaines once wanted to reprint a pre-Code story by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando titled "Judgement Day" in his comic INCREDIBLE SCIENCE FICTION. The Code administrator objected because in the last panel the main character turns out to be black -- the story was an allegory about racial prejudice -- and Gaines had to fight to get it published.
Gaines tried to adapt to the new Comics Code era, but the restrictions sucked all the blood out of his comics like one of the vampires he could no longer depict, leaving them pallid and anemic. The only book he published which survived was a parodic humor comic titled TALES CALCULATED TO DRIVE YOU MAD. Gaines switched the comic to a magazine format to retain its editor, Harvey Kurtzman, but a beneficial side effect of the format change was that it was no longer subject to the Comics Code. MAD MAGAZINE wound up saving the company.
The Code's restrictions pretty much killed the crime and horror comic genres, at least for a decade or two following it; but the Comics Code Era saw a revival of super-hero comics. I suspect that this was because the four-color fantasy of the super books were invulnerable to the strictures of the Code.
But there were other changes in the funnybook world. For one thing, the audience was growing older. The stereotype of the 8-year-old boy sitting on the back porch with a Grape Nehi and a copy of MORE FUN was no longer the typical reader. Perhaps it never was all that typical. The comic book audience was becoming increasingly dominated by high school and college age readers.
In the early '60s, Marvel put out an anthology comic book titled AMAZING ADULT FANTASY -- not "Adult" in the risque sense but rather, as the comic's tagline put it, "The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence." With characters such as Spider-Man (debuting in AMAZING FANTASY #15) and the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and his collaborating artists, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, tried to give their fantastic heroes realistic and believable character flaws and relatable emotional situations.
In 1971, Juvenile Delinquency was no longer as big a public concern, but Drug Addiction was. Stan Lee received a letter from the US Department of Health Education and Welfare, asking him to use the bully pulpit of his comic books to address this subject. This is how Stan tells it:
‘I got a letter from the Department of Health Education and Welfare.’ recalls Lee, ‘which said, in essence, that they recognized the great influence that Marvel Comics and Spider-Man have on young people. And they thought it would really be beneficial if we created a story warning kids about the dangerous effects of drug addiction. We were happy to help out. I wove the theme into the plot without preaching, because if kids think that you’re lecturing them, they won’t listen. You have to entertain them while you’re teaching.’ -- ("Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics" by Les Daniels)
He did a story with Gil Kane and John Romita Sr. that ran in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #96-98 featuring an important sub-plot in which Peter Parker discovers that his best friend, Harry Osborn has started popping pills. He tried to get his message across without being too preachy and while delivering a solid, exciting story, and was pleased with the result. But when the story was submitted to the CCA, as all his comics were, the board rejected it, saying that comics were not permitted to mention drugs, even to promote an anti-drug message.
Curiously, the Comics Code as originally formulated never specifically mentions drugs. The decision was based on a section of the code prohibiting "All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herin, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency."
A few years earlier, an issue of STRANGE ADVENTURES, introducing the DC character Deadman, had the hero fighting opium dealers and was passed apparently without much comment. (Deadman does not count as "walking dead", I suppose, because he more sorta floats). So why did that story pass and Spidey's didn't?
Leonard Darvin, the administrator of the CCA at the time, reportedly was sick at the time the Spidey story was submitted, and Archie Comics publisher John L. Goldwater was filling in for him. It was Goldwater who made the decision to withhold the board's approval. It's been speculated that had Darvin made the call, there wouldn't have been any problem.
Stan went to his boss, publisher Martin Goodman, and argued that they should publish the story anyway. He felt the message was important; and, Stan pointed out, they had been asked to do it by the U.S. Government. "We would do more harm to the country by not running the story than by running it," Stan later recalled. Goodman agreed, and the story ran without the Comics Code Seal on the cover.
For years, the big stick of the CCA had been that no one would buy a comic without their Seal of Approval. But the lack of a seal did not hurt Spider-Man in the least. Far from it; Marvel received a lot of positive mail from parents, teachers and religious organizations for shining a light on this problem. Contrary to expectations, the Heavens did not fall.
But perhaps the altars reeled a bit. After the anti-drug storyline in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ended, Marvel resumed putting the Comics Code Seal on its cover; and the Comics Code Authority amended the Code to allow the presence of drugs in comics so long as they were not represented as anything but a vicious habit.
And I think this really was the beginning of the end for the CCA. Oh yes, the organization remained in existence for another forty years, but during that time it became less and less relevant. By it's final years, only a handful of companies were participating in the CCA. The decline of newsstand sales and the rise of the Direct Market made newsstand distributors less important. Comics publishers became more willing to test the boundries. Shortly after the Spider-Man storyline, DC published it's own anti-drug story in GREEN LANTERN / GREEN ARROW, in which Green Arrow discovers that his former sidekick, Speedy, has become a heroin addict. (Which was a big surprise, because everybody figured that Speedy would become hooked on amphetimines.) The '70s saw a brief revival of horror comics. They were less gruesome than the EC books of the '50s, to be sure, but they still would have been unthinkable during the height of the Code's power. New publishers entered the market, some of whom did not ask for the CCA's blessing, and both Marvel and DC established separate comics lines marketed towards a more adult audience without the seal.
The death blow came in 2011, when Archie Comics, which had long been a champion of the Code, announced that they were dropping it. By that time, Archie wasn't even bothering to submit their comics to the board, because the CCA administrators were just rubber-stamping everything they received without reading it. The remaining members, DC Comics and Bongo (publisher of the SIMPSONS comics), simply let their dues lapse. With no participating members, the Comics Code Authority dissolved.
Their logo, the APPROVED BY THE COMICS CODE AUTHORITY stamp, was acquired by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization that supports the First Amendment rights of the comics medium and opposes censorship of comics. Bill Gaines did not live to see this happen, but I'm sure he would have appreciated the irony.
Some might say that comics were better when they were constrained by a moral code, but I don't think the Code was ever about morality; it was about externals, wholly divorced from the needs of the story, even from the needs of a moral. Stan was the first to point this out in a big way, and he caused the first cracks in the imposing edifice of the Comics Code.