In 1954, the comicbook landscape was far different from what it is today. These days, superheroes rule the roost, but back in the early ‘50s, it was all monsters, horror and crime fiction that took up the lion’s share of comicbook rack space. Many of the covers to these illustrated periodicals were salacious and borderline gory. Due to the graphic nature of the comics themselves and spurred on by Fredric Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent, which rallied opposition to the comics. Eventually, enough voices were raised that in 1954 the US Senate formed the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings which eventually caused the publishers to form their own self-regulating agency instead of allowing a government-controlled body to standardize them. This regulatory body was called the Comics Code Authority (CCA).
The Code imposed such strict regulations on the industry that at least one publisher (EC) literally went out of business as it simply could not adjust to the draconian regulations. For nearly a decade, comics became all but a wasteland until the advent of the Silver Age of comics, when superheroes returned to the forefront of the publishing industry. During this time, the CCA remained a major force in comics with virtually all comics (save for the undergrounds of the ‘60s & ‘70s) submitting to its authority. Then in 1971 the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Stan Lee, then Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics to write a story involving the negative effects of drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part story for The Amazing Spider-Man (which appeared in issues #s 96–98 — May through July of 1971) portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous.
Lee, convinced that between the government request, and the approval of Marvel’s publisher, Martin Goodman, he would acquire the approval of the CCA, except, he didn’t and the Authority rejected the story. This surprised Lee and still convinced that he was doing the right thing, went ahead and published the three stories without Code Approval, the first time since ’54 that a major publisher dared defy the Code’s authority. According to Lee:
“I could understand them; they were like lawyers, people who take things literally and technically. The Code mentioned that you mustn’t mention drugs and, according to their rules, they were right. So I didn’t even get mad at them then. I said, ‘Screw it’ and just took the Code seal off for those three issues. Then we went back to the Code again. I never thought about the Code when I was writing a story, because basically I never wanted to do anything that was to my mind too violent or too sexy. I was aware that young people were reading these books, and had there not been a Code, I don’t think that I would have done the stories any differently.”
A few short months later (after the Code was altered to allow for the depiction of drug addiction in a negative light), DC also published a drug-themed story in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 (Sept. 1971) that received praise from then NYC Mayor John Lindsey. This comic was approved by the Code. Over the next couple of decades there were additional periodic revisions made to the Code reflecting changing attitudes and mores about various subject matter (such as the ban on referring to homosexuality in 1989. As time passed, publishers gradually reduced the prominence of the seal on their covers. Then with the development of new distribution channels, especially the direct market, and the rise of comic specialty shops — combined with the shrinking of newsstand distribution —publishers of non-Code books achieved a larger reach. All of these things combined causing the Code’s influence over the industry to wane.
With the writing long-since on the wall, in 2001 Marvel finally broke with the code, adopting an internal rating system to identify the content of their books, leaving DC and Archie as the only two mainsteream publishers still utilizing the Code. Well this January, DC finally followed Marvel’s lead and also abandoned the CCA. On January 20th DC co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio issued the following statement.
“As of January 2011, DC Comics titles will no longer carry the Comics Code Authority Seal of Approval. In 2011, DC Comics will employ a rating system consistent with that of the rest of the industry, as well as with our digital releases, which already utilize a rating system. As for our Vertigo comic books, they will not utilize the rating system, because they will continue to be labeled as For Mature Readers.”
Shortly after this story was filed, Archie Comics announced that they too will be dropping the Codeeffectively ending the Code’s influence on American comics forever.
Comics Code Authority