What Was the Comic Code?

In the 1940’s and 50’s there was a sudden spike in juvenile delinquency, and when researchers began to question it, they didn’t look at upbringing or social behavior. They looked at entertainment, more specifically they looked at comic books. Given that comic books were marketed towards children a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book entitled The Seduction of the Innocent, in which Fredric directly blamed comic books for the insurgence in violent youth. Well the Comics Magazine Association of America(CMAA) was formed in 1954 in an attempt to appease parental concerns over gory and horror style comics. Headed by Charles F. Murphy the CMAA then founded the self-policing Comics Code Authority or CCA(sometimes just Comic Code). The original code was centered mostly against gore, horror, and anything that depicted criminals in a positive manner or police in a negative in any manner. There was also a ban on all “good girl art” which typically had women in revealing or skin tight clothing. Comics were also prohibited from publishing any issues that had the words: horror, terror, or crime in the title. When the code was first enacted publisher William Gaines felt it was an attack directly on him because all his comics possessed one of these words in it’s title with the exception of Tales From the Crypt. Of course this title suffered because it depicted death and gore which was also not allowed right alongside undead creatures and werewolves.

Well why not just ignore the code and publish a book without approval? While some companies used this tactic, it didn’t work for everyone and most companies that took this approach ultimately closed their doors. There was also the issue that a large number of vendors wouldn’t carry a comic if it didn’t have the CCA seal of approval, which made it even harder for companies to avoid getting approval and still sell issues.

Image courtesy of Marvel Comics

The first changes came to the code happened in 1971 and came in the form of allowing the sympathetic depictions of villains as well as corruption among police, as long as the consequences of their actions were shown. They also allowed for the suggestion of seduction but couldn’t depict the act. The code was later re-written further to allow vampires, werewolves, and ghouls to be in issues as long as they were depicted in the manner that they are in classical novels. Seeing as how zombies were not in classical literature they were still banned at this time. But the first major break in the code came from Stan “the man” Lee himself. The United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare approached Stan asking him to write a comic that depicted the negative effects of drug use. So Stan wrote a three part story that would appear in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98. When Stan submitted the issue to the CCA the comic was rejected because of its depiction of drug use. The code at the time said that drug depiction of any kind were prohibited. So Stan went to his publisher Martin Goodman and suggested they put it out without the code seal of approval. Martin approved this move and the comic hit the shelves seal free.

This was a huge move for a major publisher, because it was believed that a comic would be a failure if it wasn’t approved. But people responded to the story with so much positive feedback that the Comic Code made further revisions and allowed for the addition of drug use under the condition that it be showed as a “vicious habit.” By the 1980’s the code had become relaxed and allowed for more graphic depictions of violence and action. This began an era of periodic changes to conform with the changing times and opinions of people. Another thing the stopped the code from being so prominent was the introduction of the direct market specialty shops, or as we know them, comic book stores.

By the dawn of the new millennium there were a large number of newly founded publisher that didn’t sign onto the code. Not to mention that both DC and Marvel had begun to publish comics for mature readers under alternate companies like Vertigo or Marvel Max which didn’t consult the code given their nature. In 2001 Marvel officially withdrew from the CMAA and no longer submitted issues for approval. DC wouldn’t follow suit for another ten years. In January of 2011 both DC and Archie comics withdrew from the CMAA, being the last two companies involved, their withdraw left the Comic Code null and void.