SDCC: Tales from the (Comics) Code

Despite the fact that one panelist was absent and another was late, the "CBLDF: Tales from the Code-True Stories of Censorship" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego was a fascinating account of how the Comics Code shaped (and sometimes deformed) comics over the years.

The panel was moderated by Charles Brownstein, the executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and as it opened he was the only one on the dais. He began with a brief history of the anti-comics campaigns that led up to the creation of the Code, which set the template for later crusades against video games and popular music.

In the case of comics, much of the initial concern was about crime comics such as "Crime Does Not Pay," which Brownstein described as "a more artful version of MSNBC on the weekends." Juvenile delinquency was a growing concern in the late 1940s, and Dr. Frederic Wertham and several other writers penned panic-the-parents articles in "Time" and other magazines that showed children attacking each other, presumably behavior they learned from comics. Brownstein summed these articles up succinctly: "Comics are going to turn your kids into sexually maladjusted and violent deviants." This led to what Brownstein termed "moral panic," which in turn led to public comics burnings as well as outright bans on comics in over 50 cities and towns.

Crime comics pretty much disappeared as a result of this first wave of criticism, but within a few years, William Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, was publishing even more lurid horror comics, including the classic "Tales from the Crypt."

"As Gaines was ascending in the popular consciousness with this material, Wertham was hiding out, writing what would become his magnum opus, 'Seduction of the Innocent,'" Brownstein said. The opening salvo was an article in the Ladies Home Journal titled "What Parents Don't Know About Comic Books," which brought Wertham into the public eye. In 1954, he was invited to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency about the ill effects of comics on impressionable children.

Gaines was determined to refute Wertham's testimony, but his appearance went badly. This was the famous moment, recounted in David Hajdu's "The Ten Cent Plague," when Senator Estes Kefauver displayed a comics cover depicting a man holding a woman's severed head and asked Gaines if he thought it was in good taste. Gaines said "Yes sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic," and then went on to explain how it could have been even worse. The newspapers had a field day, the moral panic spread, and in order to hold off more serious action, the comics publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association.

At this point, Paul Levitz joined the panel. A writer, editor, and the former president of DC Comics, Levitz had direct experience in working with the Code, and he picked up the story.

"The Comics Code was the publishing community getting together and saying, 'What do we do to keep the government off our backs? How far do we have to go?'" he said. The Code banned certain content, and Levitz said the publishers deliberately drew it up to make life more difficult for Gaines and Charles Biro, the publisher of "Crime Does Not Pay."

"You'll have people like John Goldwater the elder, one of the founding partners of Archie Comics, who was very self righteously proud about the Code over the years," Levitz said. "Part of his soul genuinely believed that America would be a better place if we all hummed the Star Spangled Banner in the morning, the gals stayed in the kitchen, and the guys were all this nice pink color. That will be a good America, and we will keep it safe that way. When you feel that way, it is very easy to also say that that guy over there, he's telling stories he shouldn't be, he's upsetting the children, and it's very hard to measure the degree to which it's a business decision to say 'My business would be better if he's dead' and a sincere feeling that America will be better if he shuts up."

To show the effect the Code had on actual comics, Brownstein showed some comparisons of comics pages that were drawn before the code and then changed to comply with it. In a retelling of "The War of the Worlds," a man gazed wide-eyed in horror at the TV, but the Code required that his expression be made calmer, because overly exciting images were banned. Later in the story, the man murders his wife and kills himself as the announcer says "We hope you have enjoyed this broadcast." In the post-Code version, they pack their suitcases and flee. Other side-by-side comparisons showed that artists had raised women's necklines to conceal their cleavage, removed the fangs from the character named Fang, and changed a three-eyed space alien to "a dude with an unfortunately large head," as Brownstein put it. In one panel in which a gangster is being stabbed to death with an ice pick, the art was retouched to remove the ice pick and the sound effect of the scream, and the text was changed to remove the fact that the gangster was dying. "The frantic scream is being heard because this poor schlub is being punched in the chest," Brownstein said.

"The tenor of comics changed for a generation," he concluded.

Levitz explained why: "In the 1950s and 1960s, you could have very easily gotten a majority vote in this country that what was good for children is safe. Our children don't need to know about sex, violence, drugs. ... The Code at that time was very reflective of this: If we don't ever talk about crime there will be no crime." Exclusion of people of color and non-Christians was part of the same dynamic.

By the 1970s, the world outside of comics was dropping that attitude, and as other forms of entertainment became more inclusive, comics publishers began to put pressure on the Code to change. The whole genre of romance comics was dying, Levitz said, because sexual relationships were allowed in romance novels and soap operas but not in the comics. "They were too boring for anyone to care," he said. Pulp movies were making a comeback as well, and they were scarier than comics. Fissures began to appear among comics publishers, as Marvel and DC wanted to do edgier comics and Archie and Harvey, which published children's comics, wanted to keep to the Code. Finally, in 1971, the Code was revised to allow socially relevant stories.

While everyone in the industry knew what the boundaries were, the Code was couched in generalities, Levitz said, and reviews were done after the comics were drawn: "When an issue was finished, black and white Xeroxes of it were sent to the Code office and read by somebody and sent back with a sheet of notes: 'OK as is,' or 'this costume line needs to move,' or 'there's blood in this,' or 'this story has to change dramatically.'"

To get a sense of how that worked, Brownstein read a statement from one of the actual Code reviewers, Laurie Sutton. Sutton worked at the Code for a year and then went on to editorial positions at DC and Marvel, and, Levitz noted, she was the person who introduced Frank Miller to manga.

"For the record, when I was a reviewer at the Comics Code from 1978 to 1979, I never considered my job to be one of censorship," Sutton wrote. "As a matter of fact, being a comic book fan, I was very open-minded and lenient with artists, writers and editors who brushed up against the letter of the regulations. It wasn't very often that I sent a page back for corrections. However, here's an anecdote for you: There was a case where there was a lot of blood depicted on several pages drawn by Michael Golden for a Marvel comic. Since the pages had been submitted for review as black and white Xeroxes, there was no telling what color the blood was going to be. It didn't seem like it was alien blood or monster blood, therefore green or purple or any other color but red. Excessive red blood was not allowed by the Code. That being said, Golden had spotted a lot of black in those big drops of blood. I wasn't sure how to rule on that, so I took the pages to my boss, Leonard Darvin. He studied the pages and said, 'I don't understand black blood,' and he approved the pages. From that day forward, superhero artists from both Marvel and DC started depicting black blood. See! I was a force for progress! I enjoyed my time working at the Comics Code. I was thrilled to be able to read comics from all the major publishers months ahead of publication and for free."

Levitz said that by this time, the Code was fairly weak. It was revised again in 1989 to be much less restrictive, more a set of guidelines, Brownstein said.

The basic idea behind the code was to facilitate newsstand distribution, which was still a key part of comics, Levitz said. "The newsstand owner, as opposed to the comic shop owner, didn't know the difference between a piece of pornography, on one extreme, and Richie Rich, on the other."

"Neither do I," commented someone in the audience.

Levitz gave a real-life example of why what he called "moron-proof marketing" was so important. Walmart picked up the Image comic "Spawn" for distribution, and a child bought it. "A grandmother writes in about having picked this up and seeing what her grandchild was reading, and Walmart throws every comic book out of the entire chain," he said. "The woman was writing sincerely. I'm not disputing her responsibility for deciding to be involved in what her family would read, or her taste judgment -- whether Spawn's a good comic, a bad comic, age appropriate, I don't know how old the child was -- but there's no reason to believe she wasn't sincere in her desire to protect her child. But the overall system was so over-reactive that the publishers' standpoint was OK, we know that if we do this Code thing, we will be able to get distribution."

The Code was formally shut down in 2011. "I remember getting a phone call from somebody in DC's legal department," Brownstein said, "saying 'We are closing this thing up in a couple of months, and we want this seal, which has been a symbol of censorship for many years, to now be used to fight censorship,' so the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund got the rights to the seal." He turned to Levitz and asked, "What did we learn today from the fact that this happened?"

"I think the core message, not just for comics but for creativity, is that the process of legislating not just about content but about morality is a very perilous process," said Levitz. "I think you have to really build morality on a family level, on a community level, and not on a governmental level."

"It's easy to laugh at the idea of government as a moral institution," he continued, "but for hundreds if not thousands of years, people have tried to use it that way. It's an awkward tool for that. The wonderful thing about the time we are living in now, the era of the internet, is you have these wonderful tools for free communication. They are also incredibly vulnerable. I spent time in China last year, and it ain't so free there. They have something called the Great Firewall, there's literally thousands of people in rooms like this with laptops, scanning what people are posting on their equivalent of Facebook and Twitter. If you use the wrong word, it gets taken down in three seconds. If you use the wrong word too often, you get taken down, not in three seconds, but you get walled off. The First Amendment is an extraordinarily important and powerful tool. It means protecting a bunch of things that are disgusting, that are offensive, but that's how we protect having a free society. I am proud to have been on the CBLDF board for a long time. An awful lot of what crosses our desk to defend is not stuff I would like to read or stuff that I would love my children to read when they were young, but it needs to be able to be public. You need to be able to make decisions: I want this in my home, I don't want this in my home. No humans have been hurt in the course of the creation of this material. If no humans have been hurt creating it, you should be able to make the independent decision about whether or not you want to be hurt reading it."

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