The Ode: Comics Code (1954 – 2011)

Conceived as a device for appeasing government censors and uneasy retailers, shifting public morals and a changing market finally made it obsolete.

The Comics Code Authority was born in 1954, conceived in a moment of public hysteria and spawned by the comic book industry’s fear of government censorship. The code came while comics themselves were still in their golden age; Superman debuted in 1938, and Batman followed a year later. But the growing popularity of comics also meant increased scrutiny from defenders of decency who, in the heyday of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, were terrified about the corrupting influence of funny books. The debut in 1950 of EC Comics’ horror line, with its graphic depictions of gore, confirmed critics’ suspicions of the medium’s moral depravity. “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry,” psychiatrist Fredic Wertham warned in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent.

Wertham’s book accused Superman of fascism and alleged the lifestyle of Batman and Robin promoted homosexuality (“They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler,” he wrote). Wertham testified before the U.S. government’s Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, which soon called for the cleansing of comics’ content.

Confronted with the committee’s findings, and facing more than 100 pieces of legislation by state and local governments, the comics industry opted to self-regulate. The resulting code, managed by the independent authority, is part of a lineage of protocols introduced by cultural industries that feared both government intervention and lost sales because of allegations of impurity. The Motion Picture Production Code, introduced by the major studios in 1930, was a direct progenitor of the Comics Code, while the modern film-rating system and the Parental Advisory labels created by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1985 are all part of the same bloodline.

The original Comics Code not only barred “excessive bloodshed,” nudity and rape, but also mandated that “good shall triumph over evil.” Depictions of “ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” were prohibited. Over time, the rules changed. In 1971, the U.S. government suggested Marvel comics produce a Spider-Man story with an anti-drug message. But the Comics Code barred any narcotics use and the story was not approved. The ensuing controversy led the Authority to permit stories that showed drug use — but only as a “vicious habit.”

For nearly four decades, major newsstand, supermarket and drugstore chains all refused to stock comics that weren’t branded with the Comics Code seal. Unapproved books faced limited commercial distribution, much in the same way retailers such as Walmart will not stock music bearing a Parental Advisory warning. But as comic sales moved increasingly to specialty shops, and advertisers stopped worrying about being associated with unsavoury material, the code’s importance faded.

Marvel comics withdrew from the authority in 2001, replacing it with an in-house ratings system. Other major publishers continued to use the authority’s seal, but the regulator no longer vetted each individual book, instead relying on publishers to abide by the guidelines. Finally, DC Comics this January announced it would abandon the Comics Code for its own system; Archie comics dropped the code on the following day. With no major publishers requiring its services, the authority expired, dying a quiet, uneventful death that it would have most likely approved.