Comics 101 – What is the Comics Code Authority?

Comics 101 – What is the Comics Code Authority?

The Comics Code Authority is a self-regulatory body that governs content in comics.

In 1954, psychologist Frederick Wertham published Seducing the innocent, a scathing book discussing how media in general and comics in particular are corrupting young minds. The book was such a sensation that it catapulted Wertham into celebrity, and the US Congress convened the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to look into the issues raised in the book. The primary target for both Wertham and Senat was EC Comics’ horror and crime titles. EC carved a strong niche for itself in the industry for publishing what today would be considered “mature” titles. But since comics were considered solely children’s entertainment at the time, Wertham considered EC Comics to be particularly dangerous for children.

In a proactive move, EC Comics publisher William Gaines gathered the other comic book publishers and proposed that they create their own governing body to regulate content so that it would not be officially censored by the government. Ironically, the body that was formed, the Comics Code Authority, created guidelines that were so strictly enforced that EC Comics could not publish the types of comics they specialized in. Gaines and EC Comics were nearly pushed out of the comic book business. Their latest title, CRAZY, switched to a magazine format to circumvent Comics Code Authority restrictions. Published continuously since 1952.

Some of the restrictions in the Code as originally written include:

  • No comic magazine should use the word horror or terror in its title.
  • Crimes should never be portrayed in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • In any case, the criminal should be punished in any case.
  • The letters of the word “crime” on the cover of a comic-magazine should never be significantly larger than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” should never appear alone on a cover.
  • Scenes or props involving the walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghosts, cannibalism and werewolves are prohibited.
  • Divorce should not be treated as a laughing matter, nor should it be presented as desirable.
  • Illicit sexual relations should neither be implied nor described. Violent love scenes as well as sexual anomalies are not allowed.
  • Sexual perversion or any inference thereof is strictly prohibited.

By agreement of the publishers, no comic will be published without the authority of the CCA, which will be symbolized by a stamp on the cover of each approved issue. The first mainstream superhero comic published after 1954 without the approval of the Codex was
Amazing Spider-Man #96 in 1971. Written by Stan Lee at the request of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare to warn of the dangers of drug abuse. It was rejected by the CCA for breaching the clause for depicting drug abuse in any way. Marvel Comics published the story anyway, and it led to the first of many revisions and cancellations of the Codex.

Since the rise of the direct market as the primary distribution model for comics, more and more comics are being published without the Codex. Marvel Comics abandoned the Codex entirely for its own rating system in 2001. DC Comics only submits comics from their Johnny DC and DCU series, and only a few of the latter. The only publisher still submitting all their titles for approval is Archie Comics.

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