Feb 3, 2011

The Comics That Killed the Comics Code

Last week, we talked about the death of the Comics Code Authority, with all the publishers that go to it for regulation pulling out by February. But the truth is, the Comics Code has been a toothless dinosaur for a long time. When I started collecting comics in 1990, I definitely noticed the CCA seal, but only because I had a habit of redrawing comic book covers, not unlike Robert Goodin's Covered blog.

Let's review, yes? After the Comics Code established its guidelines, EC Comics went from CRIME SUSPENSTORIES, which were stories designed to shock and thrill you:


The Code also had some really ridiculous cases of censorship. Look, for example, at this sequence drawn by Jim Steranko for NICK FURY, AGENT OF SHIELD. Fury's intimate moment in the last panel with the Countess Vanessa Allegra de Fontaine was deemed too sexual by the CCA.

And so, they had him replace the last panel with a close-up of the gun from the first panel.

I dunno about you, but I think that's ridiculously more subjective than the original panel.

My favorite example of Code censorship is that they wouldn't let DC Comics credit Marv Wolfman, simply because his name was Wolfman and they weren't allowed to mention wolfmen.

Most comics distributors wouldn't sell comics without the Code seal when it was introduced, but in the late 60s, Robert Crumb led the underground comix movement. They never sold in the numbers that the superheroes did, but they made so much noise that it was obvious that comics didn't need the Code.

At around the same time, Stan Lee was approached by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to do a story about drugs. So Stan did it, with artist Gil Kane, in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #96-98.

Here's a panel from the story.

Now, the Comics Code didn't like this, because according to Code rules, you're not allowed to mention drugs. Never mind the fact that it's meant to show that drugs are bad, you're just not allowed to mention drugs, period. So Marvel ran it anyway. Response was so overwhelmingly positive that DC decided to come up with their own drug-related story a year later in GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW #85-86 by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. This time, it was Code-approved.

It was also more graphic.

Mainstream comics continually pushed more and more towards the edges, and eventually, in SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #29 by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben, published in 1984, a mainstream comic permanently dropped the Comics Code after the Code would not approve of its contents, which implied incest.

SWAMP THING continued to win awards and get attention, and off in the indies, other cartoonists gained more and more attention for their comics work that never went through the Code, culminating in Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize–winning MAUS.

After that, the fate of the Code was pretty much sealed.

Much can also be said about the distribution of these comics. The Code was instituted to prevent kids from getting their hands on graphic 10-cent comics on the newsstands and spinner racks, but in the 80s, when comics stores started being built and comics became a medium for hobbyists and the audience became older and older, it's easy to argue that the censorship stopped being relevant then.

For my money, this is a good thing. Censorship should begin and end at home, and writers and artists have a responsibility to know their audience and to see what would be appropriate or inappropriate for said audience. It doesn't do to have a governing body in the middle. The communication should simply be between the artist and the audience. So RIP, Comics Code Authority. I'm happy I met you on your last legs. And it's important to know this part of history.

May it never, ever happen again.


Noah Van Sciver said...

It's funny, when I would draw my own comics at home as a child, I would draw a little comics code stamp on the covers! I didn't really understand what it was all about though.

Matthew said...

I just don't even remember seeing it on the covers, thats how irrelevant it was to me in my youth. The Code was kind of like the MPAA (which unfortunately can't seem to be stopped). It seems rather quaint and out of place when we have the Internet. Sadly, it might come back if people who don't even read comics make enough noise.

Peter said...

I can see how the CCA is viewed negatively and quaint today but . . . Aren't many lamenting the lack of children and the "next generation" in comics? It seems to me once writers saw they could "get away" with more explicit story lines and art they jumped on it like a kid who learns a new curse word. If everyone is writing "cutting edge" and "mature" stories, where is the jump on point for those pre-teens who form the next generation of readers?

I appreciate adult and mature themed stories as much as the next guy, but I also really enjoy being pulled back to the simplicity of good guys vs. bad guys and the comfort of the characters from my childhood. Roy Harper and Hawkgirl, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne in Vegas, did we really need that gratitousness (is that even a word) with those characters to tell the story? I think it shows the limitations of the author if they can't tell a good story, complete with complexity and characterization without needing to delve too deep into overly sexual or graphic violent areas.

I know where good intentions lead and all, but I do think the intentions were good. There's enough going on out there pulling children into growing up faster and faster, isn't it nice to have something to create that sense of wonder and a place to return to that's comforting and consistent when everything else around you is in flux? Maybe that explains why my comics dollars are now spent on collections from the past ..... I really don't know these characters anymore.

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