The Comics Code Authority Myth?

Here is the generally accepted take on the CCA: Golden Age comics were dark and gritty, like the pulps of the time. Then a well known psychologist made some baseless claims about juvenile delinquency, Congress started to investigate and the industry created the CCA to self regulate. Super hero comics were forced toward camp which nearly led to the destruction of super hero comics.

I’m going to open this up to debate. My contention is that super hero comics were far down the path to camp already and that the CCA was an attempt to legitimize them and also force out the upstart publishers who specialized in horror and crime comics.

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My contention is based on the fact that Golden Age super hero comics were already very campy by the mid-1940’s. When you read the requirements to receive the CCA stamp of approval, super hero comics were already meeting them.

The CCA was created by the comic industry, not a third party. It makes perfectly logical sense that the established publishers, who specialized in super hero comics, would take the opportunity to legitimize their products, while taking out the edgier competition.

So, maybe super hero comics surge of popularity in 1955, had less to do with the new heroes being created, but that super hero comics were now"okay".

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Superhero comics began to lose some of their edge as soon as late 1940, when there was a deliberate move by National Comics and its sister companies to be more responsible in its child-targeted content (though the war soon led to some propagandistic content that would now be considered utterly inappropriate for children). William Moulton Marston wasn’t hired by Max Gaines to create Wonder Woman, after all. He was hired as an educational consultant based on his background in psychology. (Ironically, Gaines’s son would be the main target of the CCA years later thanks to the direction he took EC in the 1950s.)

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Of course, you have to account for the collapse of superhero comics around 1950. It’s possible the superheroes were too squeaky clean and campy and were abandoned (aside from the Big Three) in order to focus on a slightly older audience, only for public outcry and competition from smaller horror and crime publishers to cause the major publishers to pull an about-face and focus on a younger audience.

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There’s no myth about it. Those comics exist and you can read them. While nobody would mistake them for the ‘dark and gritty’ (boy I hate that phrase and aesthetic) Miller-y books of today, they are very much of the pulps of the time. And what’s more, is that they don’t follow some overall tone that categorizes them together, like with Marvel’s line. Batman is a vigilante, like The Shadow, and he simply shrugs his shoulders when a goon happens to be disbatched in the course of his crime fighting. Early Superman suggests that the criminal justice system may make mistakes, and he frees a man from death row, and is an overall social crusader. Wonder Woman depicts a lot of bondage. I wouldn’t call any of these books ‘dark and gritty’, but they do share that pulp sensibility of the time. You have to put your mind back to when The Phantom and Doc Savage were popular. Tarzan, John Carter and Conan were being written. Now what you see from the DC creations of the late 30’s and early 40’s is a shift to WWII and a more patriotic tone during the war years, which may come off as a little corny now. But those books are still far from sanitary. There are outright racist slurs on some covers (Action #58 - it’s on the service, go look). The Wertham book Seduction of the Innocent did galvanize the public in the 50’s. By this time, Gaines had started EC and published some of the finest examples of the medium we’ve ever seen, but they were horror books, they were sci-fi books that condemned racism, so they had to go. You can still watch Gaines testify before Congress in the Secret Origins documentary, which I highly recommend. They go through all of this in more detail, and it’s on the service. Anyhoo, in the wake of a witch hunt, the self-imposed Comics Code was born, limiting depictions of crime, violence, etc. And this is what distinguishes the Silver Age to most people, that you had crime-fighting characters in books that weren’t allowed to show crime. So what did they do? Well they had family issues, and body swapping adventures, and faced interdimensional imps like in the Flintstones. And this is the key distinction. Golden Age books certainly don’t look modern, but they are depicting goons with guns, running drugs, booze, women, gambling, and uh…guns. And it was eventually the depictions of drug use (in Spider-Man #96 and GL/GA #85) that really broke the code in the end. Make no mistake, censorship is crippling to the industry, led to the financial ruin of many pioneering artists that died penniless, and set comics back stylistically at least 20 years (being very generous). You look at some of the pre-code work of the 50’s and it is stunning. Then the code years, then the 70’s Heavy Metal and other horror books and comic mags starting bringing it back. There is a very obvious 20 year stunted development in comics history from the mid-50’s to the mid-70’s.

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Not that some artists couldn’t do wonderful work in that era. I mean, Jack Kirby created the whole Marvel Universe within those restrictions, so if you’re really the man you still get it done.

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@Deadman Brand

I have been reading the Golden Age comics, which sparked this topic. The Batman you describe, that shrugged his shoulders at the death of criminals was gone by the early 1940’s. The Joker was no longer killing people by the same time. Superman’s most recurring villain was the Prankster, a non lethal antagonist. None of the comics I have read from the era had drugs mentioned. Criminals were always caught. My point is I think the common belief that the CCA pushed superhero comics to camp is overblown. They were already there long before 1955.

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@DeadmanBrand and @rikosuave
I really don’t think either of you are wrong. On the one hand, no, most Golden Age superhero comics are not “dark and gritty” (I feel sick even writing those words), but there were definitely smaller publishers that had less well-known comics that were D&G (because I don’t want to type those words again). There were books depicting drugs, alcohol, horrific violence, and all kinds of sex that were more what Wertham was trying to condemn (and no, I’m not arguing in favor of Seduction of the Innocent) than superhero comics (which were largely harmless even then), the thing was that back then, people couldn’t see the distinction and so decided that they were ALL to blame. So yes, Golden Age superhero comics were already campy, but Golden Age comics in general weren’t. Also, just a side note, as @DeadmanBrand pointed out, some of those old EC Comics are fantastic and well worth your time.

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And maybe that should be the qualifier, obviously certain comic genres were hit really hard and practically ceased to exist. I’m most familiar with super heroes, so that was my measuring stick.

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First, I think you don’t quite understand camp as a medium and artistic style. Most silver age books aren’t camp. Diluted of topics from the Golden Age. Absolutely.

To be dismissive of the Kefauver hearings effects on comics simply doesn’t hold water. They were a direct product of the McCarthy hearings. A sociopolitical crusade to reduce (and arguably eliminate) liberal ideologies, including the concept of social justice, ala Superman. It was political action to influence behavior.

Yes, certain genres of comics were hit harder. EC being the classic example, but that was because their content was more “subversive” to McCarthy’s sociopolitical vision.

However, EC was hardly the only publication hit and it impacted other media as well. If you want a brave & tragic story, look at Irving Klaw, who torched his own warehouse, rather than give in to McCarthy’s hearings. So much of his work was list and took his sister Paula nearly 30 years to restore about 75-80% of what was lost.

Kefauver, lime McCarthy were looking for scapegoats and exerted enough political pressure to find them. More is the pity.

It was a conspiracy, all right. But one of politics rather than a cabal of select comics publishers trying to remove the competition.

I will disagree with @DeadmanBrand on one point.

The CCA forced different types of storytelling and in that sense it proved the versatility of comic creators and their creations. Characters that have a wide range of storytelling possibilities. From the gritty to the sublime to the absurd. It is a credit to those creators and allowed new versions of old,already out of publication, heroes to be completely reimagined. Especially in light of the cultures growing fascination with Science Fiction.

I believe it is a valid argument what can you create when there are limitations can often be more inventive than what you can create when there are no limitations.

I think the Silver Age deserves more credit than it is sometimes given. Was much of it silly and absurd and makes you wonder if Ianesco or the Marx Brothers were writing comics. Yes, but that’s a good thing and arguably even more socially subversive in the long run.

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Excellent convo y’all!

@ricosuave I’m not going to pretend to have read every Golden Age book. Just the first dozen or so issues of Bats, Supes, and WW. And I do feel as though they are stylistically different than the Silver Age ones, with both narrative and thematic content. Sorry if I came off like too much, but censorship, whether it be the CCA or the Hayes Code is a point of contention for me. A point of comic and film history that I am passionate about. The horror genre has also historically been hit hard, from the CCA to the ‘Video Nasties’ in the UK. Superheroes have typically been more optimistic, campy affair. At least since Captain Marvel was outselling Superman with straight cheeseball stuff.

@deSade you’re totally right. That’s why I added that Kirby addendum. There’s a tremendous about of creativity in the Silver Age years. At a glance, the GL and Flash reinventions and the entire Marvel Universe, to say the least. However, I hope you appreciate the overall point that while having a box to draw in can inspire creativity, a censorship committee is largely destructive to the industry.

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I always shake my head at how silly it was for Congress to investigate comic books during the Golden Age.

There just wasn’t anything else those public officials could have been doing on behalf of the country and the people at that point in time.

Nope, comics books were the priority and hearings about them were how Joe and Jane Public wanted their tax dollars spent.

Silly “public officials”.

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@DeadmanBrand

100% with you on censorship. Even if you as a society can come to an agreement that something crosses some sort of line, someone always comes along and abuses those laws for their own gain. I wasn’t trying to say censorship isn’t bad or wrong, but just that maybe our super hero comics weren’t what we thought they were in the Golden Age and that maybe the CCA didn’t fundamentally alter them as much as everyone says. However, good point that it did prevent them from adapting to more important storytelling until the '70s.

@Vroom

In order for a politician to be recognized they have to do something that they can show the public their value. This often means they find some cause, whip up public sentiment so they can say they were the one who solved it, even when it was never a real problem. I’m pretty cynical when it comes to government.

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I think the correlations between comic book censorship and internet censorship is fairly apparent. Both are undoubtedly driven by political agendas. And both are hiding behind a small group of like minded individuals who have decided “what’s best for the people.”

Since the internet exploded after college, I’ve been fascinated to watch so many sci-fi/dystopian plot devices come true. Thought police (Facebook’s social credit score), “pre-crime” (red flag laws), lists of people with certain attributes (lists of people with mental problems; lists of members of certain organizations); government-approved public shaming (doxxing and nationwide news organizations who no longer report the need, they invent it). This list goes on.

Whether or not you personally approve of or even believe in some of these concepts, it’s impossible to deny, history is repeating itself. Comics are no longer in the spotlight; but the spotlight still exists.

It took comics and the public’s opinions of comics decades to recover. In our now ever-present culture, the damage will be far worse. If the spotlight falls on you, your place of work, a friend, a family member, your place of worship, your culture, etc… the damage won’t fall off. The internet is forever. The damage will follow you for the rest of your life.

People still equate comics with perverts and lonely men with stunted social skills… Be careful out there.

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Amy Nyberg wrote a book on the Comics Code History. (“The Seal of Approval” University Press of Mississippi, 1998.). There’s also a brief history on CBLDF: http://cbldf.org/comics-code-history-the-seal-of-approval/

@DeadmanBrand
I am not in favor of censorship of any kind. I am a vocal supporter of the 1st amendment.

Yes, censorship is evil. With that said…

History has shown that when these forms of censorship occur it is undermined in great, creative ways. The fact that you are operating under a censors thumb, the work against it is more subtle and well thought out because it has to be.

Shakespeare operated under censorship. As did Oscar Wilde and G. B. Shaw.

Look at the Hayes code. It created an entire sets of genres to stick it to the censors. Censorship also brought Porn into the mainstream. Yep, the influence of Porn and it’s rise since the 1970s is because of censorship. A Clockwork Orange, Texas Chainsaw Massacure, Midnight Cowboy were all X rated movies. There was a Tony award winning play that was converted to a film that was rated X as well. Throw into this mix another X rated movie. Deep Throat. A movie that pushed the boundaries of censorship and was, by court order, removed from movie theaters in NYC. What did that do. It threw fire in the flames of censorship. The fact that it was censored and struck down from playing in NYC made national news. Free publicity an X rated movie couldn’t buy. As It traveled around the country, it got huge crowds to see what the buzz was about. Much more so than if it had been left alone.The very act of seeing it became subversive. It was a massive hit.

Some office of the most profitable films of all time are Star Wars and Gone With the Wind. GWTW leads the pack at about 70x ROI.

Even by the most conservative accounting Deep Throat is a 630x ROI. Making it the most profitable film of all time. That is a record which will likely never be broken.

Think about that, in an age of censorship, gave us the most highly profitable film of all time. And not by a little, by a light years. The undermining of censorship often creates the greatest works it is meant to keep in check.

Look at the Victorians, a time when they suppressed archeological finds from Hirclanium and Pompeii. There were artifacts found that were sexual in nature, from sculpture to sex toys. They are in a collection at the British Museum and were never advertised, however they can only be seen by appt, which means you have to know they are there in the first place to make an apt to see them. That is suppression. That is censorship.

Some of the wildest, “nastiest”, melt your eyeballs porn came from the age of Victorian censorship. Few things today can even come close to it. It was “illegal” but still got printed and sold, because there was a huge market for it, because it had been censored.

We will always face the threat of censorship. There will always be those who think “the know better”. And there will always be those who will figure out even more creative ways of fighting it. Of subverting it. Of again, hoisting it on its own petard.

So while I concur that censorship is a societal evil and should never be allowed. Getting around the censors, beating them at their own game, creates stories, art, etc that likely never would have happened and certainly not in the creative ways it did had it not been for censorship. It clearly makes the point that censorship is absurd. And the best means of censorship is no censorship. Censorship collapses under its own weight.

There is less drive to truly create something “out there” when there is no “out there”.

It is a proven human axiom, that when you tell people you can’t write about that or see that, some will go to extraordinary lengths to tell that story and read that story by trying up the censorship rul s in knots. Sure, some sheeple will just fall in line. But others will do just the opposite, driven to not just tell their story, but to stick it to the censors at the same time.

Breaking new ground when there is no impediment to breaking it, is simpler. But for those that come to break it up more, it is less interesting. Someone braking new ground through a system that, in theory is not supposed to be able to be broken, causes other creators to go, I’m gonna break this unbroken ground near yours.

So which is fundamentally more creative and risky choice, to further break up already broken ground, which we see a lot of today. Or break truly unbroken ground, even if primarily driven by spite against the censorship?

Yes we can get more stories without censorship, but I’m not convinced we get better stories.

I abhor censorship, but, when we do, it makes sticking it to the censors all the sweeter.

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