A Blow to Censorship: The Comics Code Authority Fades Away

22 Jan

This week Archie Comics and DC Comics announced that they are no longer submitting their publications to the Comics Code Authority (CCA), bringing an end to 56 years of self-imposed censorship in the industry. The code was created in 1954 as a mechanism for regulating the content of comic books. Although the code was voluntary and self-imposed, for decades most retailers refused to carry any comics that did not bear its seal.

During the height of 1950s repression (Can you say “McCarthy” boys and girls?), Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, a book attacking the comic publishers for creating stories that eroded the moral fiber of American children. His work particularly condemned the horror and crime titles of the day, but he also attacked super-hero titles. He was particularly concerned with homosexuality, maintaining that Wonder Woman must be a lesbian because she was strong and single and that Batman and Robin were lovers. Hey, Fredric, obsess much?

Werther was scandalized!

Cold War America was outraged and the timid publishers responded by creating the CCA. This body reviewed all comics before publication and either granted or denied the seal of approval. Here is the text of the 1954 Code.

  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
  • Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
  • No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
  • Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
  • Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
  • Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
  • Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
  • Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
  • Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.

It reinforced the sanitized, repressive, lily-white, scared-of-your-neighbor worldview of the 1950s. This was lethal to creativity and innovation in the industry, leading to a decade of plummeting sales and mediocre stories.

Banned as unsuitable for children: African-American Astronaut

A particular victim of Wertham and the CCA was EC Comics. The restriction on words used in titles instantly denied most of their publications approval. Publisher William Gaines tried briefly to create CCA-friendly content but quickly tired of the game and in disgust dismantled all of his operation except Mad magazine. An example of the bizarre pressure of the CCA was its rejection of the story “Judgment Day” an anti-racism story which includes an African-American astronaut. Although race was not mentioned in the code, the CCA’s Judge Murphy insisted that the astronaut’s race be changed, eliminating the entire point of the story. EC reprinted “Judgment Day” in the last comic they published before folding.

The code changed over time, allowing “literary” uses of vampires and werewolves and altering some of the language around crime and title restrictions. This didn’t help writer Marv Wolfman, who ran into some trouble early in his career when the CCA initially refused to run his story credited to “A Wandering Wolfman.” The code became infamous for such bizarre and often self-contradicting actions.

Stan Lee famously published an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1971 without the CCA seal. The story involved Spider-Man battling drug dealers. Even though the dealers were defeated, the CCA balked at mentioning drugs at all. Ironically, Lee published the story at the request of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as part of an anti-drug campaign His defiance of the CCA led to more changes in the code.

During the comic publishing boom of the 1980s, many publishers opted to run without code approval. The rise of the independent comic store provided an easy outlet for these books.  Over the past two decades, the CCA has become increasingly toothless. Marvel withdrew in 2001, opting for its own ratings system. This week, the CCA still exists in name but has no adherents.

How sad that it took over 50 years for this horrific piece of censorship to die. Often wielded arbitrarily, maintaining “family values” at the expense of meaningful storytelling, and mostly famous for its missteps, the CCA will not be missed.

(h/t to Major Spoilers)

3 Responses to “A Blow to Censorship: The Comics Code Authority Fades Away”

  1. webwordwarrior January 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    I had no idea the CCA still existed. Granted, I haven’t read any comics for years, but it seemed like an outdated concept years ago. It has a much nastier history than I knew, too. Thanks for the interesting lesson in publishing history.

  2. rhulshofschmidt January 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Yes, it was a pretty disgusting set of rules. Not unlike the MPAA in its excessive power and capricious censorship. The CCA should have been killed by the 80s independent publishing boom, but somehow it hung on through inertia.


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