Until very recently, nearly every issue of every comic published by Marvel or DC bore the prominent insignia of the Comics Code Authority, a tiny stamp-like logo that assured retailers the material within the covers was suitable for sale while promising parents that the stories contained within would not turn their children into perverted delinquents.
That was the theory, anyway. In reality, at the height of the Comics Code's power in the 1950s and early '60s, it was wielded as a tool of censorship, administered by an industry group that wanted to keep low the head of the emerging medium so as to placate a public outraged by scenes of horror, sex and violence sometimes seen in comics pages -- and this group was not above driving certain publishers out of business to accomplish its aims. At New York Comic Con, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund hosted a panel offering a primer course on the Code's history, its wide-ranging effects on the industry, and its ultimate downfall. CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein led a discussion with writer and former DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz and writer and comics historian Fred Van Lente on the broad arc of censorship in comics.
Brownstein described the panel as part of the CBLDF's education mission, exploring the history of censorship in comics and the resulting effects on culture. Though censorship remains a concern today, with ongoing reports of comics, books, and other media being removed from libraries or otherwise challenged because of content some find objectionable, it may be difficult for modern fans to comprehend the "moral panic" surrounding comics in the 1950s. Public sentiment had turned decidedly against comics -- Brownstein said that at the height of the scare, "if you went to a party and said you worked in comics, it was like telling them you were a child molester" -- and in the face of Senate hearings about the corrupting influence of comics on America's youth, Brownstein said "the publishers were faced with the choice of be run out of business, let the government step in and regulate their content, or come up with a self-censorship code to help ameliorate the situation and put the moral panic at bay."
"In the '50s, very briefly, there were a lot of comic book burnings," Van Lente said. "Libraries and girl scout troupes would sponsor comic book bonfires," or allow the comics to be traded for "a real book, which of course never had sex or violence in them."
"The time was very fragile. Comics were not published in America by giant companies with lots of resources -- they were largely family businesses, that often became more successful than they expected, in some cases," Levitz said. "And suddenly, the Senate is calling us?"
There was a fear that "distributors could cut them off, or retailers could throw them out," ruining the business they'd built.
Van Lente described Wertham as "the public face of the anti-comics crusade, though it had started before him." Though the Senate found no evidence to support the claim that comics caused delinquency, local jurisdictions still created regulations. "Chicago banned crime comics; when Al Capone's home town bans crime comics, something is up."
Brownstein presented a slide showing the Code, which, among other things, established that "no comic shall have the words Horror or Terror in its title," a rule designed specifically to target Bill Gaines' EC Comics line.
"Part of it was, you had a group of publishers doing something they thought was ok, and they didn't want the troublemakers" to ruin it for everybody, Levitz said. Gaines' books "really were something different," he added, describing many other publishers as "pandering." They wanted to bring comics to "the safest possible level," since they were intended at the time solely for children -- "and if five other guys get pushed out of business in the process, that's more for us."
Brownstein showed examples of a Code-sanitized book, one changing an alien invader to a man with "an unfortunately large forehead," and the family escaping rather than meeting its grizzly end with the father murdering his wife and child to spare them a worse fate.
"Ironically, Dr. Wertham despised the Comics Code," Van Lente said, because it removed the consequences of violence. "In the post-Code comics, violence was a joke, and post-Code comics were even worse in his mind than pre-Code comics."
Levitz said his work in "House of Mystery" and "House of Secrets" was "looked at much more carefully by the Code." By the 1970s, he said, the Code's board "came with a particular point of view." They knew Archie would be safe, they had guidelines for superhero comics, but mystery and suspense comics were still looked at with suspicion.
The '70s also saw revisions to the Code itself, removing the "Horror" and "Terror" restrictions, romance that might "stimulate the baser emotions" was now allowed, and zombies and ghouls were at least somewhat acceptable.
By the late '70s, "the Code functioned more as a trade organization," Levitz said, which was concerned with racking programs for newstands and establishing how much coordination between publishers was possible without breaking anti-trust laws. There was also discussion of "how much of a bathing suit is appropriate for Betty and Veronica, or for Saturn Girl," rather than hard and fast prohibitions.
As a result of the moral panic of the '50s, "you had artists denying their life's work, publishers treating them worse than they did in the 1940s," but by end of the '60s, "that was all gone," Levitz said. As a result of the lowered restrictions, new and more interesting types of stories became possible.
In 1971, "Amazing Spider-Man" #96 was published without the Comics Code seal, when Marvel was asked by a government organization to publish a story about drug addiction -- a direct contravention of the Code. The issue depicts Harry Osborn addicted to medication. "When the Code got this, they said no," Van Lente said, "the Code very explicitly forbids any depiction of drug use altogether." From there, Stan Lee decided to discard the Code for a time. Marvel suffered no ill effects, "and it became worse because the Code didn't really punish them."
"The theory was, if you're a distributor, getting a comic without the Code seal was like getting an expired meat package," Van Lente said, though this eventually proved not be the case.
Marvel's action led to a further revision, stating that drug use could only be shown as "a vicious habit." This led to the famous "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" #85, which depicted Speedy as an addict. "The fact that the word 'junkie' appears on the cover of a kids' comic would have blown a lot of peoples' minds at the time," Van Lente said.
When R. Crumb's "Zap Comix" were actually convicted of obscenity, Gil Kane, Sid Jacobson, and other mainstream creators testified that they were influenced by the underground comics world, seeing these as "examples of where comics can go," Brownstein said.
Van Lente also spoke about EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines, in the wake of having "his entire line of comics being shut down by the Comics Code," changing the format of "MAD," one of his most popular publications. "[He] turned it into a magazine so he didn't need the Comics Code." Similarly, Warren Publications and Heavy Metal added a bit of sexiness to the newsstand through horror magazines like "Vampirella" and strips imported from Europe.
The emerging fan culture of the 1970s, which included the first conventions and comic book shops, further weakened the Code's strength. The cons, including one of the earliest, held at New York's Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station, and the business model of comic book shops reduced the reliance on newsstand distributors to get comics into fans' hands. "These cons set the stage for a new economy to flourish, in the comic book store" Brownstein said. With dedicated shops, comic stores could order from the distributor months in advance, on a non-returnable basis. "Why am I talking about business in a panel about censorship? Because, again, the Comics Code was all about the distribution. It was about what can go out on the newsstands. If you remove the newsstand from the equation, you no longer need the Code. It enabled new publishers to develop, to create other kinds of content that was speaking to audience that already had passion for this material."
Van Lente reiterated how important the distribution systems were, noting that underground comics had the alternate system of getting their books to readers through 'head shops,' "which had their own trucks."
"It all came down to trucks," Van Lente said.
Even within the mainstream, Brownstein said, publishers were able to tackle topical subject matter with "Direct Market exclusive" graphic novels like "X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills," and creator-owned comics flourished. DC shipped "Swamp Thing" without the Code, and Will Eisner released titles like "A Contract with God" to the new direct market.
Brownstein shared an email from Laurie Sutton, a writer and editor who had served on the Comics Code board from 1970-79, but who said she "never viewed [her] job as one of censorship." She said that she rarely sent pages back with corrections, but a page from Michael Golden featured several pages with a lot of blood -- but, since she was viewing a black and white Xerox, what color? Red in this quantity would have been forbidden, but if it was alien or monster blood and thus another cover, it would be fine. The resolution was that the blood would be black, in one of many examples of artists finding ways to work around the Code -- from then on, black blood would proliferate.
The upheavals of the 1980s, which saw the publication of "Dark Knight Returns," "Watchmen," "Maus," creator-owned books like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and more, led to the 1989 revisions which transitioned the Code from force-of-law edicts to what Brownstein called "more conversational guidelines." Though costumes would be considered appropriate if they were in line with current fashions, Brownstein noted, "this is a period when Madonna's 'Sex' was a bestseller," so the idea of current fashion was malleable. "That's where you get 1990s Image costumes," he joked.
Marvel dropped the Code entirely in 2001, leaving DC and Archie as the last holdouts until 2011, a time when "Archie was running comics with the Code even though nobody was reviewing them." The CBLDF received the intellectual property rights to the Comics Code Seal of Approval that same year, giving them control, ironically, of a badge of censorship.
But, Brownstein said, "moral panic is still persistent" in an era when librarians might lose their jobs for making books like Jeff Smith's "Bone" available to readers.