By Alex Boney
DC Comics and Archie Comics announced a couple weeks ago (Jan. 20 and Jan. 21 respectively) that they would be dropping the Comics Code Authority (CCA) seal of approval from their titles this year. When I read the news, I blinked a couple times, sat back, and tried to let some sort of gravity sink in. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this should be a bigger deal than it actually was. The CCA had been a presence in the industry for almost 50 years. Surely this meant something. But the fact is that I grew up during a time when the CCA had ceased to be relevant, and the Code never meant much of anything to me. I’ve tried over the years to understand the history of this relic—why it’s so mocked and vilified by so many industry insiders and creators. I’ve come to the realization that my ambivalence toward the whole thing is guided by the fact that the Code means very different things to different generations.
The CCA was created in 1954, but its formation was the result of a wider context and more complicated sequence of events. In 1948, child psychologist Frederic Wertham began writing a blistering series of articles for Collier’s Weekly and the American Journal of Psychotherapy alleging that comic books were dangerous influences on the development of American youth. In response to the negative public critique, publishers formed an industry trade group called the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers to self-police their content. The ACMP developed a Publishers Code—a list of guidelines to which publishers were expected to adhere in order to deflect future criticism. Ultimately, the ACMP didn’t have much of an effect. Most publishers ignored the Publishers Code, and content continued to be essentially unregulated.
In 1953, the U.S. Senate formed the Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to investigate the causes of what the Senate believed to be a growing problem in antisocial childhood behavior. The subcommittee was initially chaired by Robert Hendrickson (R-NJ), but Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN) soon took over as chair. The Subcommittee found its primary target when Dr. Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing indictment of comic books as a root cause of juvenile delinquency.
When the Subcommittee held its hearings in April-June 1954, Kefauver called a number of industry witnesses to testify. The most notorious of these witnesses were Wertham (who argued that the content of crime comics was destroying children’s ability to function in society) and EC Comics publisher William Gaines (whose crime and horror comics were the primary target of the Subcommittee’s investigation). One of the major points of evidence was the cover of Crime Suspenstories #22, which had been published just as the hearings were getting started (Apr./May 1954):
Because the hearings attracted such wide attention (and bad press) to what many saw as the seedier side of the comics industry, the ACMP (which had essentially disbanded in 1950) reformed as a new organization called the Comics Magazine Association of America in September 1954. The CMAA’s first order of business was to establish a new industry code—one to which all publishers would actually adhere and one that would help stave off government regulation of content. The result is the first Comics Code Authority.
Problems with the CCA began almost immediately, though. In April 1953, a year before the Subcommittee’s hearings began, EC Comics had published a comic book story that actually should have met the CCA’s standards. Joe Orlando wrote and illustrated a story for Weird Fantasy #18 called “Judgment Day!” that tackled the issue of discrimination in a way that was provocative by 1950s standards.
“Judgment Day” begins with an Earth man named Tarlton visiting a planet named Cybrinia, “a planet of mechanical life.” Tarlton, a representative of the Galactic Republic, has been sent to Cybrinina to determine whether or not the planet is ready to join the Republic. As Tarlton takes a tour of the planet, it becomes clear that the social structure is based on segregation. Orange robots control the planet’s government and lived lives of leisure, while blue robots perform all menial labor and are subjected to cruel treatment and squalid living conditions.
The story ends with Tarlton determining that Cybrinia is not yet ready to enter the Galactic Republic because the planet’s inhabitants don’t treat each other equally. In the last panel of the story, as he is travelling back to Earth in his ship, Tarlton removes his helmet and reveals a black man’s face underneath.
In 1955, EC’s William Gaines wanted to reprint “Judgment Day” as a replacement for a story in Incredible Science Fiction #33. But when Gaines submitted the story to the CCA for approval, the CCA rejected the request because of the last panel. Gaines insisted that EC couldn’t change the last panel because that was the whole point of the story. Furthermore, the CCA didn’t explicitly specify anywhere in the Code that black people were not to be depicted in heroic or dignified ways. The story was eventually reprinted, but only after a heated and protracted argument between Gaines and Code administrator Charles Murphy.
The next major CCA stumble came in the early 70s. In early 1971, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Marvel publisher Stan Lee and asked him to publish a story dealing with drug addiction. Lee chose to write a three-part story for Marvel’s most popular book, The Amazing Spider-Man, and published it in ASM #96-98 (May-July 1971).
In the story, Harry Osborne becomes addicted to some unspecified pills and begins sinking into blinding, hazy spiral. Spider-Man is only able to stop another Green Goblin rampage by showing the Goblin (Norman Osborne) what has happened to his son.
Despite the fact that the a U.S. agency had asked for the story to be written, the CCA decided to withhold its seal of approval from the issues. Lee decided to go ahead and publish the issues without the seal, and the CCA scrambled to amend the Code because of the embarrassment.
Just a month after the Spider-Man story ended, DC published a two-part story in Green Lantern (#85-86, Aug.-Nov. 1971) in which Roy Harper (Green Arrow’s ward Speedy) becomes addicted to heroin. Despite the fact that the Green Lantern issues were far more explicit (and violent) than the ASM story, GL #85-86 was granted the CCA’s approval.
The great irony of the CCA is that it became almost entirely irrelevant in the decade that has been dubbed the “age of relevance” in comics. Though the CCA amended the Code in 1971 (and would again in 1989), the self-governance of comic book content became less and less important. Image Comics, perhaps the most popular publisher of the 90s, never bothered to submit their books to the CCA for approval. Marvel Comics abandoned the CCA in 2001 and began using its own in-house ratings system to guide parents and readers. And with DC and Archie both withdrawing from the organization this year, the CCA is effectively defunct.
When I first started seriously paying attention to comics in the late 80s, I was completely unaware of the CCA seal of approval. When I look at those books now, I see that the seal is on the cover of the G.I. Joe and The Amazing Spider-Man issues I read when I was a kid. But I didn’t notice the seal at all. By the time I was buying my own books, comic books were either “Suggested for Mature Readers” or not. The only censorship/regulation I was aware of in the late 80s and early 90s was the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label that the RIAA was placing on the music I wanted to listen to. For me, there was no such thing as the Code.
I remember the first time I became cognizant of labels on comics, though. I was riding home with my mom one day after visiting The Comic Box in Savannah, GA. I had picked up a number of books, including an issue of Mike Grell’s Green Arrow—a superhero/non-superhero book that DC had decided to classify as “Suggested for Mature Readers.”
I had been reading Green Arrow for well over a year, but that day my mom noticed the “Mature Readers” label on the cover. She asked me about it, flipped through the book, shrugged, handed it back to me, and said “okay.” I’m sure it would have been a bigger deal if I’d been eight years old instead of 14, but I realized then that labels and codes of approval are pretty much random configurations of other people’s morality. They matter only inasmuch as people are paying attention and agree.
It’s easy to mock the CCA. The Code was born of an age in which McCarthyism was sweeping America and censorship was acceptable public policy. There will always be people (I’ve been among them) who scream and rail against censorship. But sneering at the Code is sort of like sneering at an uncle or grandfather who says inappropriate things, seems out of touch with younger generations, and is unable to adapt to shifts in social standards. The CCA had outlived its usefulness by the 70s, and I’m certainly not arguing that it’s still relevant in the 21st century. The CMAA may have been founded with good intentions and may well have kept publishers from being completely irresponsible during a time when content standards were subject to greater public scrutiny, but parents and mentors have a greater responsibility for monitoring their children’s reading habits than a government (or an industry) agency. All that is true. But it’s also true that it never mattered to me. I’m a part of a generation that never really paid attention to the label governing which comics I could read. “Suggested for Mature Readers” meant that it was probably something I wanted to read, and it never once occurred to me that these books didn’t have the CCA seal of approval on their covers. I’m pretty sure my parents never noticed, either.
I’m not sure whether the Code’s demise is something to celebrate or lament. It doesn’t matter much anymore, honestly. The CCA was created in the midst of a very public, very loud crackdown on comics book companies that did serious damage to people’s careers and reputations. It also stifled artistic creativity and social progression. For any good that was accomplished, that damage is a real part of the story. In that respect, maybe we should cheer its dissolution. But the CCA’s relevance came and went before I was even born, and it seems more appropriate to me that I don’t make a big deal of its demise.
It’s important to look back, I suppose. The story of the CCA is a useful morality play for a medium that’s still trying to garner artistic respect. In one way, it’s a tale told by an idiot (I guess that would be me), full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But in another way, it’s a sign of how far the industry has come. The CCA was an organization that tried to bind together and regulate an industry, but it proved to be creatively stifling. In the 80s, comics became far more disparate and creatively diverse in largely positive ways. Mainstream companies were willing to take greater artistic risks without fear of being ostracized or financially impacted. That’s a legacy that perhaps became most noticeable in the early 2000s and persists today. Part of me is grateful to be living in this time. But part of me wishes I had been around when the Code mattered so I could better understand its gradual lack of meaning.