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Comics Code

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At the height of comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), industrywide comic-book sales stood steadily at between 100 million and 150 million copies per month, with annual revenues of up to $90 million. Publishers like DC Comics, Marvel, and EC Comics—publisher of Tales from the Crypt, Crime SuspenStories, and MAD—were enjoying unprecedented success. Into this booming business climate came psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a doctor who had worked at Bellevue Hospital with juvenile delinquents, and who made a case in his 1954 book, The Seduction of the Innocent, that comic-book content was responsible for the decay of America's youth. Though his book targeted the popular crime and horror comics of the day, superheroes didn't escape Wertham's assault, with the good doctor maintaining, This Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman group is a special form of crime comics. One of his most well-known claims, still discussed among comic-book aficionados and historians today, is that Batman and Robin were gay.


In response, the Senate Judiciary Committee created a Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency in the United States, which held widely publicized hearings between April and June 1954 to investigate the validity of Wertham's claims. Rather than fall under the wrath of the federal government, in September of that year the comic-book industry created the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), an organization made up of all comic-book publishers that wanted to get their comic books distributed. The CMAA immediately went to work adopting the self-censoring Comics Code Authority (CCA), whose forty-one standards described strict editorial guidelines for depicting sex, crime, horror, and violence within the pages of comics. Its Comics Code seal (boldly proclaiming Approved by the Comics Code Authority) was placed on those comics that met the requirements of the CCA, namely those that did not explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime, and did not show nudity, excessive bloodshed, or disrespect for established authority, but rather fostered respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior. To earn CCA approval, a comic had to depict good triumphing over evil and the criminal being punished for his misdeeds in every instance. By bearing the Comics Code seal, comics promised parents, educators, and the federal government that their content was now safe for young, developing minds.


Despite the industry's good intentions in pursing a path of self-censorship, the majority of comics publishers went out of business or canceled entire lines of books during the 1950s (EC's Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt included), with those remaining—most notably, DC—dumbing down their stories in an effort to meet the requirements of the code and appeal to a nation in the thrall of repressive moral standards. In 1955, Marvel canceled its superhero division with its final issue of Sub-Mariner, and characters like Human Torch and Captain America were shelved in favor of tales of sci-fi monsters (which, unlike EC's popular vampires, werewolves, zombies and witches, were not banned). Other 1950s superheroes to leave the marketplace included minors like Avenger, Captain Flash, Black Cobra, and Strong Man. DC launched a new comic, The Brave and the Bold, which featured medieval superheroes, including Robin Hood, the Viking Prince, and the Silent Knight, and as a whole the industry published more romance, Western, and humor comics to replace their now-defunct horror and crime titles. Silver Age (1956–1969) superheroes continued this trend: Heroes of the 1960s lived and fought crime in a world that was noticeably tamer than that of their Golden Age counterparts, thanks in large part to code restrictions that greatly curtailed such comic-book mainstays as gunplay, sadomasochistic subtexts, and displays of cleavage.


In 1971, Marvel's Stan Lee broke new ground when he challenged the code by writing anti-drug stories that appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #96 through #98, all three of which were published without the code's seal of approval. Shortly after their release, the Comics Code language was revised to allow for the depiction of drugs (though not their endorsement), and other restrictions were sufficiently softened to allow the reemergence of the horror comic into the marketplace (though these titles were known as mystery comics, because the term horror itself remained verboten). In the 1980s the alternative comics market began to flourish in an increasingly unfettered creative environment, with maverick creators such as Frank Miller (Daredevil) and Alan Moore (Watchmen) responding by pushing the envelope of the mainstream superhero genre and crossing characters over into more mature territory, with more realistic examinations of crime, violence, and the extreme psychology that motivates costumed superheroes. Again the Comics Code language was modified (in 1989) in order to meet the more liberalized mindset of the late twentieth century.


For many years, it was virtually impossible for comics to succeed in the marketplace without the Comics Code seal, since magazine wholesalers would refuse to distribute comics that did not bear the seal on their covers. However, beginning in the mid-1980s many publishers stopped participating in the CCA, primarily due to the emergence of the direct market, where comics are sold through comic-book stores, reaching older and more sophisticated demographics than ever before. As of 2004, only two major publishers (DC and Archie) continue to participate in the CCA and to print the seal on CCA-approved covers—though some, like Marvel, have adopted a pro forma rating system on their covers and several companies note which comics are for mature readers. But even for the holdouts, since the CCA review of content is less stringent than it was during earlier decades, its seal of approval is no longer necessarily an endorsement of the good taste and decency it was originally created to uphold. —GM

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