Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) executive director Charles Brownstein moderated an informal wake of the Comic Code Authority at WonderCon 2011 where professionals of all walks of life discussed what the comic code meant to them and how it affected their work.
Brownstein introduced the panelists, including former DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz, cartoonist Sergio Aragones, artist Bill Sienkiewicz and writers Marv Wolfman and Mike Friedrich.
Typical arguments against the Comic Code Authority of limiting creativity were immediately brought up. “I would argue against the idea that the Comic Code itself decimated what was going on creatively,” Paul Levitz said, beginning the discussion. “The whole crusade against comics had so many dimensions. Depending on who you talked to, a band-aid or what the publishers saw as a savior, in order for the comic book industry to survive. It codefied the limitations and became the last straw that drove EC Comics out of the industry.”
Levitz believes the Code’s impact has been greatly exaggerated by some. “When werewolves were deemed on the bad list, and you looked back to the three months before the code, you would have seen a significant change,” Levitz said. “However, those that published stories, such as ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ were being forced to make extreme changes. It destroyed creatively what was deemed ‘creatively tasteless’ material. And creativity often involved touching on creatively tasteless subject matter.”
“People are drawn to what they are interested in,” Marv Wolfman chimed in, agreeing with Levitz. “Children do not go into stores looking for inappropriate material. They would gleam over those and look for Casper or [similar]. We censor ourselves from materials that we are not interested in.”
Sergio Aragones was asked about his relationship with William Gaines, the publisher and co-editor of EC Comics. While Gaines was a close friend, Aragones did not always see eye to eye with him. “In this country, people tend to abuse things that are not regulated. People want to make more money or more of a name,” Aragones said. “I realized that this country needed the code to not only control, but self-control.
“Young writers feel a need to put a curse word in every page possible. I find censorship of any kind to be insulting. You have to teach your kids at home. Home is where you teach your kids how things work in the real world. It is not the job of the editors and the writers. It is the job of the parent,” Aragones continued. “Because one angry parent buys at K-Mart and decides to stop buying, the magazine goes under because the father saw a tit on the page and his son cannot see tits.”
Levitz revealed that this is the primary reason why comics have had such a hard time penetrating different markets. He faced the same resistance numerous times while Publisher of DC, which was disheartening whenever comics were starting to gain traction in the public. He told a story about a grandmother who bought a multi-comic package from Walmart where a “Spawn” comic was hidden behind two more innocent books. She wrote to the CEO of Walmart, who then responded by sending back millions of comics and barred them from the chain for several years.
Sienkiewicz had a similar experience with his own work. “When Frank [Miller] and I had first done ‘Elektra,’ a Fort Worth newspaper article written by Clara Tuma [featured] the cover of the first issue and huge words across it, ‘We Must Protect Our Children From This.’ Clara Tuma would later get famous doing CourtTV for the OJ Simpson trial.”
Mike Friedrich, who handled Marvel Comics’ direct market production found the code to be an asset in getting books into entire states that had strict censorship regulations. “We would put ‘Not Code Approved’ on certain books to get a sales spike on those books. The material was the same but the title was not.”
Ironically, as Friedrich continuted to talk about marketing, he remarked that the back of the name placards cards on the panel featured a note urging the panelists to be mindful of their as some audience members might be under the age of 18. As he noted this, the whole conversation changed as the other panelists felt they could now open up their experiences to a whole new level.
Marv Wolfman recapped a highly personal story about when he worked as an editor for Disney during Mickey Mouse’s 60th anniversery. “I decided to reprint the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, written by Walt Disney and drawn by the original creator, Ub Iwerks. I self-censored the stuff with black natives that [was] completely offensive. I was able to segue from Mickey going into the forest, shooting at a rhinocerous without even missing any of the section. He fired his gun, misses and had cartoon style curse symbols over his head. The cartoon was printed in newspapers when people still read newspapers,” Wolfman said. “We got so much hatemail, so many threats of cancellations because we had Mickey Mouse with a gun and curse symboles. Even thought the original had been printed in newspapers sixty years before.”
Paul Levitz combined the different threads into a passionate defense of creative freedom and praise for the CBLDF. “There is a difference between a First Amendment passion and a creative right passion. They run together in many places but they are not synonymous. You are faced with a number of forces that work against the freedom of expression. It does not matter if you work for Marvel or DC or a small press that would not get any distribution if they put the word ‘fuck’ in it. The Defense Fund has the privledge of fighting for the absolute. The First Amendment is a very absolute thing,” Levitz said. “What creators and editors try to do is very far from absolute… We just had a Robert Crumb exhibit open in New York where every little filthy bit done by Crumb is open for display while someone went to jail for their comic book collection. We have people saying, ‘The Code is gone!’ we never need a firehouse again. Okay, people are stting fewer fires and that is a really good thing. Maybe we are going into a time where there are fewer fires, but it does not mean there will not be a fire in the future. If there is a fire and we need to get together, it will be too damn late.”