Manphibian

 

Submitted by Manphibian

The ever-present stamp of the Comics Code Authority.

William Gaines must be rolling in his grave — with laughter.

To be fair, the late publisher of EC Comics has probably been tumbling in his tomb for some time. It’s been decades since the once reviled output of EC has become revered as some of the best comic books ever produced. Now the thing that killed the entire EC line — with the exception of MAD — has joined Gaines in the great beyond.

The Comics Code Authority is no more.

With the decision of Archie Comics, the last line to carry to the familiar stamp, to drop the Code as of February, the Comics Magazine Association of America has nothing to do. Marvel dropped the Code in 2001. Bongo dropped out last year, and in January, DC dropped the seal from the few books that still carried it.

When I first started reading comics in the 1970s, I took the seal of the Code, the big “A” designed to look like a stamp, as part of the cover design of all comics. It was just there; by then, it meant little or nothing to the reader, although, as I later discovered, publishers still subscribed to its tenets and continued to be hamstrung by its strictures. It wasn’t until I delved into the history of comics that I learned of the fear that had created the Code and the havoc it had wrought.

I’m not going to tell the whole story here; to learn the nitty gritty details, check out “Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code” by Amy Kriste Nyberg. After Dr. Fredric Wertham published “Seduction of the Innocents” in 1954, blaming comics for juvenile delinquency, and hearings were held by the U.S. Senate and other government agencies, comic publishers decided to forestall any sort of government censorship by forming the Comics Magazine Association of America in September 1954 and adopting a code — largely based on an earlier unenforced code — to reassure parents that comics were safe reading for kids. It was the Patriot Act of the comic book industry.

The initial Code criteria outlawed torture, gore and glorifying criminals; it banned the words “weird,” “horror” and “terror” from titles, killing two of EC’s best-selling books; and it prohibited zombies, vampires and werewolves, thus wiping out the best that EC and other publishers had to offer in what we now lovingly know as the “pre-Code” era of horror comics.

The Code was modified in 1971, which allowed the classic horror comics of my era, such as Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night and Swamp Thing. Other changes at that time allowed the portrayal of drugs — only in a negative light, of course — after Marvel published a three-issue Spider-Man arc showing Harry Osborn on dope. It went on the stands without the seal and still sold well.

Changes to the comic book industry in the 1980s, including the explosion of the direct market and the gradual decline in importance of newsstands, made the Code largely irrelevant. Publishers like Dark Horse eschewed the Code. The major publishers launched imprints designed for adults, and then began using their own rating system for their regular lines. In the end, not even Archie was submitting its comics to the CMAA for review; they simply slapped the seal on the books. After all, Dell had never subscribed to the Code, and heck, what parent today would suspect anything inappropriate from an Archie comic? (Although I’m not so sure about those Archie gets married story arcs, and Betty and Veronica always seemed pretty “grown up” for teens, nudge nudge wink wink.)

Did the Comics Code Authority save America’s children from degenerate publishers like William Gaines? Probably. According to Nyberg, the other publishers insisted the horror comics had to be sacrificed “as proof the industry meant business.” Gaines didn’t see it that way and refused to join the association. He eventually caved, since distributors refused to carry non-Code approved comics. He tried a number of “New Direction” titles that failed to take hold before devoting all his resources to MAD, which converted to magazine format to avoid the Code.

Had the horror and crime trend that had taken over the industry after superheroes fell from grace after World War II continued, who knows where the industry might have ended up. More likely than not, another trend would have come along. One thing is certain: to work within the Code, comic book creators had two choices. They could pump out bland, inoffensive stories such like the late 1950s DC superheroes (ever try to really read an issue of Batman or Superman from 1956? Painful) or the Dell, Harvey and Archie kiddie stuff, or write the sort of silly monster comics that Stan Lee and his gang pumped out at Marvel, until they hit upon the formula that led to the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and ushered in the Silver Age of comics (yes, I know the Silver Age actually began with Showcase #4, but the storytelling and art didn’t truly define a new “age” until the Marvel superheroes hit their stride; my opinion).

The Code will forever belong to a long era of comic book history, its stamp indelibly marking hundreds of thousands of covers, from the excruciatingly awful to the sublimely wonderful. It was a product of its time, like the movie rating system implemented a decade and a half later, but lacked the wherewithal and popular support — or recognition — to overcome industry changes. Maybe the changes the movie industry is going through now, with on-line distribution and instant streaming cutting out distributors and exhibitors, will eventually make the MPAA system moot as well.

The Code certainly won’t be missed; it hasn’t been for years. I doubt many parents after that first generation knew or cared about the code. Mine certainly didn’t. By the mid-1970s, it was largely irrelevant. But it will remain forever fixed in my mind as a part of the comic books I loved the most.

Not something William Gaines would ever say. But he’s too busy laughing anyway.

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