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Seal Of Approval:

The History Of The Comics Code

Near the top of the cover on nearly any American comic book from around spring 1955, you will find a strange little postage stamp containing the words “Approved by the Comics Code Authority.” For over first years, the “CCA” controlled what you were permitted to read in almost all comics distributed to America’s newsstands. So what is the origin of the CCA and how did it acquire this superpower?

Back in the late 1940s, before television, ten-cent comic books were the biggest-selling entertainment around, consumed by nearly all American children and many adults. In this expanding market, publishers jumped onto whatever was the next bandwagon: ‘true’ crime launched by Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay; romantic confessions introduced by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Young Love; and the twist-ending horror story perfected in Tales from the Crypt and William Gaines’s other EC titles.

But the more popular these racey genres grew, the more concerned certain Americans became about their possible harmful effects on younger readers’ morals. Since they first emerged in the mid-1930s, comic books had been criticised for promoting illiteracy and even eyestrain. But after World War II, America’s moral guardians were alarmed by the rise in juvenile delinquency. Rather than confront issues within society or the family, they picked on comic books, misunderstood as solely for children, as the easy scapegoat.

The case studies of leading psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham (above) provided their campaign with the vital voice of scientific authority. Treating troubled youngsters in his clinic in New York’s Harlem ghetto, Dr. Wertham became convinced that reading comic books had a negative influence on every patient. As the media seized on his findings, moral panic swept the nation.

Religious and civic groups blacklisted offending titles and told their members to boycott retailers who stocked them. School teachers organised mass comic book burnings. Nearly fifty cities adopted local laws banning the sale of certain titles. The anti-comic campaign climaxed in 1954, when Wertham published his unrelenting exposé of the industry, Seduction of the Innocent, which included an indicting parade of panels taken out of context intended to outrage (see examples below).

Wertham’s calls for government intervention prompted three days of televised Senate Committee hearings into the links between comic books and juvenile delinquency. It was the comics’s darkest hour. Ranged against the damning testimony of Wertham (below) and other experts, the defences of EC Comics’ William Gaines and only three other publishers failed to persuade. Although federal legislation was ruled out as contrary to freedom of the press, the pressure was on the comics industry to clean up its act.

Gaines attempted to rally his fellow publishers into opposing regulation and funding independent research and a public relations counteroffensive. But nearly all of them either closed down or caved in and conformed to the CCA, the industry’s new self-regulating authority with the strictest code of content applied to any medium. Publishers could not get their product onto the newsstands unless they paid to submit their material for approval and removed any objectionable content. Only Dell’s range and Classics Illustrated were deemed wholesome enough not to need the CCA’s stamp. Of EC’s once-proud line, only the satirical MAD survived by converting into a magazine.

Thanks to the Code, American comics survived this attack but at a price. The market was decimated, artists exiled, content infantilised. The medium had to wait until the unregulated underground comix outrages of the mid-1960s into the early 1970s to address such adult subjects again. In 1971 and 1989, the Code was gingerly revised and relaxed. It continued to police the minority of comics still being sold from the newsstands, though most publishers supplied their comics mainly or solely to the specialist comics shops.

In 2001, Marvel Comics withdrew its entire line from Code approval, replacing it with an in-house, movie-style ratings system; DC and Archie followed suit in 2011, rendering the CCA defunct. The two Superman covers below show the dramatic shrinkage of the Code’s stamp, from its first prominent appearance on the cover of issue 96 in March 1955, to its final diminutive size on issue 706 in February 2011.

In the meantime, the critics had not completely disappeared, so in 1986 the industry set up the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to protect the First Amendment rights of comics creators, publishers, and retailers by covering their legal expenses. In a fitting ironic twist, the CBLDF announced on September 29th, 2011 that it had acquired the intellectual property rights to the CCA’s Comics Code seal itself.

Amy Kiste Nyberg’s Seal of Approval demonstrate how we need to understand comics history to learn from it. It is too easy to blame the neutering Comics Code, adopted on October 26th 1954, as the single cause of the subsequent decline of American comic books. Comics historians have also tended to demonise German-born psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham as the Code’s sole architect and lament William Gaines’ EC line as its only important victim. In her thorough study, Professor Nyberg cuts through such neat monocausal explanations to untangle the roots and offshoots of this pivotal turning point.

Nyberg begins by showing that comic books, and the newspaper strips they evolved from, had their outspoken critics from their earliest years, creating a groundswell that Wertham joined only later. After World War II, Wertham and others began to associate the new, more violent crime comics genre with rising juvenile delinquency. National media outrage, on radio and in the press, forced the new Association of Comics Magazine Publishers into action and they drew up the first Comics Code in 1948 (below). This, however, was patently just a cosmetic ploy. Many of the big players already applied their own in-house rules and refused to join. If the star-shaped medal of the ACMP’s Code medal could grace the covers of the first dozen issues of EC’s Tales From The Crypt and their first ten Crime SuspenStories, the industry plainly could not police itself.

Wertham never wanted self-regulation. Instead, he and many others, locally and nationally, called for legislation to prohibit the sale of "crime comics" to children. When the tamest kiddie favourite could be racked on the newsstand right next to the toughest adult horror, this does not sound unreasonable. Nyberg explains, however, that their proposals faced legal obstacles, from being dismissed as unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of the press, to the thorny issue of how to define a comic book precisely enough without lumping in other illustrated publications. In most cases, these laws failed to be enacted or enforced for long.

Nevertheless, these pressures escalated. Nyberg goes on to navigate through the assorted agendas of the rival comics publishers, the ambitious investigating senators, the parent and teacher boycotts and burnings, and the complex concerns of Wertham himself, which culminated in all but three of the publishers self-imposing the strictest controls on any medium. She also examines the effects of fierce competition from no-cost television and the collapse of major distributors on the comics market, two factors often overlooked. She also had access to the inner workings of the Code Authority (shown above is Mrs Guy Percy Trulock (aptly named), the Code’s first director), and of its re-draftings in 1971 and 1989. In her closely argued and referenced analysis, Nyberg’s book sheds new light on this paranoid past, and its lessons are vitally relevant for anyone concerned with the ongoing threats of comics censorship. Never again.

Posted: September 30, 2012

This opening text appeared in Comicbook Action Heroes (2002) and the book review originally appeared in Comics Forum Magazine (1998).


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