Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Comics Code Authority R.I.P.

Last week on 20 January 2011 DC Comics made the momentous announcement that they were leaving the Comics Code Authority. The next day Archie Comics announced that they were also leaving the Comics Code Authority. Archie Comics also stated that their decision was not influenced by DC Comics, as they had made their decision to leave a year ago. DC and Archie were the last two members of the Comics Code Authority. With their departure, then, the Comics Code Authority is effectively defunct.

For those who are wondering, the Comics Code Authority was a body for self censorship founded by members of the Comic Magazine Association of America. It was established in 1954, a year when public outcry against violence contained in comic books reached its peak. It was the year that the book Seduction of the Innocent, the famous attack on comic books by Dr. Fredric Wertham, was published. It was also the year that a hearing was held on comic books by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, headed by Senator Estes Kefauver. As shocking as it might seem now, comic books were even burned in some areas.

Despite the moral panic over comic magazines in 1954, it was important to remember that at no point was there any threat of government censorship of the medium. Kefauver's hearing on comic books was itself inconclusive. That having been said, the industry was under fire from the public at large to the point that creating a self censorship body must have seemed like a wise move at the time. The Comic Magazine Association of America itself described the Comics Code as "...the strictest in existence for any communications media (sic)." The Comics Code in its original form was indeed strict. It forbade the use of the words "horror," "terror," or "crime" in titles, and even forbade the portrayal of vampires and werewolves.

Over the years the Comics Code would be revised. In 1971 the Code was revised to allow "...vampires, ghouls and werewolves... when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world" and "... corruption among public long as it is portrayed as exceptional and the culprit is punished." The Comics Code would be revised again several times over the years, each time growing less strict than it had originally been.

Indeed, various comic book companies began publishing magazines for more adult audiences, an example being DC Comics and its Vertigo imprint. These more adult titles were not submitted to the Comics Code Authority for approval. In 2001, Marvel Comics abandoned the Comics Code in favour of their own ratings system. It was then perhaps only a matter of time before DC and Archie would abandon the Code.

While many may claim that the Code had little authority in the past several years, its passing is still significant. The Comics Code in its original form was indeed strict, more so even than the Motion Picture Association's Production Code in the Thirties and Forties. It is not without good reason that many blame the Comics Code Authority for reducing comic books to little more than children's literature for many, many years following its implementation. Indeed, the changes wrought by the Code in the industry were enormous. The vast majority of horror titles disappeared almost overnight. Batman went from battling such deadly foes as Two Face and Catwoman to fighting aliens and travelling through time.In the wake of the Comics Code sales dropped to the point that many comic book companies went out of business (in fact, what is now known as Marvel very nearly did). Even as the Comics Code weakened over the years, it remained as a reminder of a dark period in comic book history, when the industry was under attack from all sides. That the Comics Code Authority no longer exists in then significant. It shows that the comic book industry at last feels safe enough to be free from what perhaps the strictest self censorship body in the world.

1 comment:

Raquel Stecher said...

Wow! I have never even heard of this. Thanks for enlightening us and good riddance to the Code!