Sunday, September 9, 2012

Seal of Disapproval

In the mid-1950s, comic books apparently reached the breaking point with some people. Because that's when this little gem began being stamped on comic book covers:

The uproar against what came to be seen as illicit content in comic books had already been going on for some time--ever since mid-1948, when the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers was formed to regulate comic book content. The organization created a "code" which lowered the boom on content deemed offensive and/or unacceptable by the Association. (In the late 1940s, you can imagine what trivialities might have fit that bill.) Comic books that complied with the code received a Seal of Approval. Unfortunately, the Association had no real teeth--its edicts were largely ignored, and the ACMP died a quiet death two years later.

Cut to four years later, when German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction Of The Innocent--The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth, which zeroed in on comic books like a gunscope. The book, which depicted comic books as peddling acts of crime, sex, drug use, and violence, and thus were seen as encouraging similar behavior in children, had a two-pronged effect: it rallied parents to demand censorship in comics, and it prompted a Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry. Not to mention, it goes without saying, upping Wertham's professional profile just a tad. Appearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency--yes, folks, Congress wasted time and money even back then--Wertham found a perfect forum for promoting his book, and reiterated that comics were a major cause of juvenile crime.

Oddly enough, in a glimpse of sanity, the committee ended up not blaming comic books for crime--but it didn't drop the matter entirely. It recommended that the industry tone down its content voluntarily. As a result, the Comics Code Authority was formed by publishers as a sort of intra-industry method of censorship. The CCA fell under the umbrella and direction of a new organization--the Comics Magazine Association of America, which based the CCA on the defunct set of standards originally developed by the old ACMP. Given its new list of criteria, it's a wonder anything got published in comic books besides Beetle Bailey and Little Orphan Annie.

Wertham, for his part, poo-pooed the Code as inadequate. Yet the Code had some immediate effects. EC Comics, which published such titles as The Vault of Horror and Tales From The Crypt, found its bread-and-butter characters--vampires, zombies, werewolves, et al.--at odds with the Code, and soon owner William Gaines cancelled all such titles.

It wasn't until the 1970s, which followed the social upheaval of the '60s, that publishers began to see the need for updating the Code to allow for more practical--and relevant--stories. Little by little, code-prohibited subject matter began making its way back into comic books. Publishers also found creative ways to distribute books not bearing the Code seal, such as labelling them for "mature readers"--as well as "direct market" books that were distributed to comics specialty stores, as opposed to newsstands. Companies, noticeably Marvel in 2001, also developed their own ratings systems. 2011 was particularly relevant in that regard, with DC Comics following Marvel's lead in adopting its own system. The real nail in the Code coffin came the day after, when Archie Comics--the only remaining company still bearing the Code seal--announced it was abandoning it.

The very visible rebuff of the Code by a mainstay of wholesomeness such as Archie Comics was really more of a theatrical gesture, as the CMAA had ceased being a credible force for the Code for some time. Vaneta Rogers of Newsarama gives an excellent follow-up on the CMAA's final death throes, where DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio notes:
"As we were instituting the rating system at DC Comics and bringing our relationship to close with the CMAA, we realized that was actually the close of a very important piece of history within comics."
Indeed, a history of over 50 years of comic books published under the scrutiny of the Comics Code Authority, which literally left its stamp on the comics industry. Given that its end came with little more than a shrug, I don't know how the publishing industry will come to look back on it. There are times, though, when I wonder if the reason I find older comics so much more enjoyable than the books being published today has anything to do with that Code stamp.


Kid said...

I think working under the code made creators more imaginative. Now it's anything goes. I always found the stories written by Alan Moore under the code to be more enjoyable than when, without the code, he could do anything he liked.

Jon H said...

Micronauts had some pretty grim stuff, even with the code.

Such as women in machines, made to pump out babies. And when freed from the destroyed machines, grabbing babies and leaping to their death.

Pretty heavy stuff for a series based on a toy line.