Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Comics Code

Next week I'll be doing a podcast with the folks from Vigilance Press, and our head honcho Charles Rice has asked that we take the opportunity to commemorate one more nail in the coffin of the Comics Code Authority -- an instrument of industry regulation which ensured that, for thirty years, superhero comics would remain children's literature.

That description of the Code might strike many comics fans as odd. For most, the Code is an excuse for a lot of righteous anger, usually aimed at Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent. The Code did a lot of damage to the superhero genre, and I am not here to say otherwise. But it's also important that we see the Code in context, and come to appreciate its long-term influence and ramifications, some of which are unexpected and which have resulted in some pretty great comics.

(I'll also note that I am teaching a class this semester on the Superhero narrative, and my students might find this brief summary helpful, especially as a launching point for further individual research.)

Anyone interested in learning the facts about the Code, and clearing their head of many misconceptions, are urged to read two books. The first, and in my opinion the more essential, is Amy Nyberg's Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. (1) Amy tells the entire story of the Code, up to the mid '80s or so, when her book was published. This includes an examination of Wertham's methodology, the Kefauver Senate hearings in which William Gaines and others were brought forth to testify on the impact of comics on children, the eventual creation of the Code itself, its implementation through newstands and newspaper distribution channels, and the changes to the Code which took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Amy is a Professor of Communications at Seaton Hall University, a journalist to her very bones, and her unbiased approach allows her to write about people like Wertham without demonizing him, as so many comics readers are prone to do. One of the most valuable elements of her book is that it includes the actual language of the actual Code itself, in its various forms, allowing you and I and everyone else to read the damned thing and judge it for ourselves.

And what we see, when we read the Code and Amy's elegant unpacking of it, is that the Comics Code has to be read in the context of the effort to control the literature of children. That is, Wertham and Kefauver and the other people who had problems with comics of the 1950s approached the problem with this point of view: "Comics are read by children. And so we have a moral responsibility to police comic books, to protect our children from ideas too dangerous for them." There's a flaw in this argument, but it's not the issue of censorship. I think most people would agree that there are some books children should not be reading. The flaw is the assumption that comics are children's literature. But this flaw was accepted, wholesale, by the comic book publishers themselves, who then tried to defend comics as children's literature! What I am trying to get at here is pretty simple: While it is easy for us to get outraged and blame Fredric Wertham and others for "ruining comics", we should dole out equal blame to the publishers of the comics themselves, who agreed that comics were for kids, and would always be for kids.

Much like the motion picture industry, which created a system of self-policing so that they could avoid government interference, the comics industry agreed to self-censorship. But whereas the motion picture industry understood that not all movies were for children, the comics industry did not. Leaders in the comics industry effectively decided that all comics would be rated G. This is not the fault of Fredric Wertham, nor of Senator Kefauver. The Comics Code was a straightjacket sewed and fitted by the patient, for himself.

And it really is awful. The Code insists that all authority figures be portrayed in a sympathetic light, that no police officer, priest, or government figure ever be portrayed badly, or even be disobeyed. The Code insists that all criminals be portrayed as unhappy losers who get what's coming to them. Many people rail about the loss of EC Comics, a publisher of crime and horror comics whose entire line was more or less prohibited by the Code. But the real tragedy of the Comics Code was not just that it forced comics to be children's literature, but that it forced comics to be boring.

The first real blow to the Code came in the 1970s, when the Nixon administration approached Marvel Comics and asked Stan Lee to do a comic highlighting the dangers of drug use and abuse. The depiction of drug paraphernalia of any kind was explicitly forbidden by the Code. So, if Lee was to make the comic, that comic would be in violation of the Code. Marvel printed the comic, which became Amazing Spider-Man #86. (Look at the cover to the left, and you will notice that there is no seal in the top corner.) The publication of this comic led to a rewrite of the Code, lessening its restrictions, and opening the way for "Relevancy" comics like the famous "Hard Traveling Heroes" sequence in which Green Arrow learns that Speedy is "a junkie." But the Code was still in, and had, effect during this time period. If you look inside those Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics you can still see, for example, a panel in which a ring of children are holding knives on our heroes. But the knives, while clearly visible on the cover, are concealed with pools of black ink on the interiors. Because depicting a ring of murderous children with knives was still too much for DC, and for other publishers, at the time.

The second serious blow to the Code came with the creation of the comics specialty store. The Code was enforced through the system of newspaper distribution, the system which put comics on the shelves of 7-11 or your local drug store. (I read all my earliest comics sitting in the aisle at Sav-On Drugs in Anaheim, California.) But the comics shops which grew up around the country in the 1980s did not get their comics through this network. Which meant that a comic which violated the Code, and thus did not have the Code seal on the cover, could still be acquired by the comic shop, would still sell off the shelves, and would still make money for Marvel and DC. Because more and more comics were sold through these shops, and not on newstands or from drug stores, publishers began to print comics which circumvented the Code. And, thus, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, among other books.

By the 90s, Marvel and DC were both publishing large sections of their monthly run without Code approval. Those books which still had the Code seal were still intended to be readable by children, even though the demographics for comics were aging rapidly. Artists and writers continued to chafe. The Code was again revised and loosened, turned into a set of "internal documents", but there were still things you could not do. One of these things was the infamous "needle to the eye" motif, and when Todd McFarland drew such a panel, and refused to change it for his editors and publishers, this proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back, and we got Image Comics. Marvel left the Code a few years later, but DC continued to use it for some of its books because DC has always had a keener appreciation of the value of children readers. It's not a coincidence that the company which was creating Batman: The Animated Series was also still participating in the Code. DC also published Vertigo, and plenty of other books which did not use the Code, but they also wanted to have a large selection of books which, for example, Grandma could safely buy as a birthday present for her little boy. I honestly think Marvel left the code just because Joe Quesada was tired of dealing with the hassle of getting approval for every book. The content of the books didn't much change.

All of which leads us to the present, and DC's final decision to move away from the Code altogether and instead embrace a rating system similar to the one they already use on video games. I cannot help but think, with the benefit of hindsight, that this is what DC and other comics publishers should have pushed for from the beginning. But they could not, because they had already bought into the essential premise of their critics: that comics were for kids. That was an unfair assumption. But it was foolish to accept it. And the comics form paid the price. It has not yet recovered.

(1) -- The second book worth reading on this topic is Hajdu's The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. Hajdu writes not as a journalist but as a storyteller and historian, which means his book has more of a narrative and is, in many ways, simply more fun to read. But it focused almost exclusively on the formation of the Code, and does not treat the Code's transformation in later decades. This makes it less useful to the comics scholar, but still a great book.