With the advent of so many comic books, investment speculation, and now record-breaking movies, it is a wonder that the government hasn’t tried to get its hands on the comic industry through regulation. This is not to say that they haven’t made mild attempts in the past, however, the comic industry still seems to be very much an open market. In this first part, we will take a look at the regulation within the comic book industry.
The Big Burn
During the 1930s comics saw an uprising of critics. Just as with any new trend, there was a coalition that formed against comic companies. Educators, civic groups, and even the Catholic Church protested comics. However, it wasn’t until 1948 that comics actually met their match.
His name was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist, and author. Dr. Wertham drew the conclusion that comics created juvenile delinquency. This was based on the fact that most of the delinquent children he evaluated read comics. He began to speak out about the dangers of comics in interviews, symposiums, and in an article in Saturday Review of Literature, which excerpts would later be published in Reader’s Digest.
Because Dr. Wertham was considered to be credible, many communities became fearful and put pressure on bookshops to not sell comics. Some even passed laws, and towards the end of 1948 things escalated.
The United States saw a series of book burnings. These book burnings bore an eerie resemblance to the Nazi book burnings of the same time, but they were justified in that comics were not considered real books and therefore the burnings were not considered censorship. The Spencer and Binghamton, New York burnings in 1948, Cape Girardeau burning in 1949, and the 1955 bonfire in Indiana, Pennsylvania all led to the attention of the government. In order to sidestep the government control of comic books, the Comics Magazine Association of America created the Comics Code Authority (CCA).
The Era of the Comic Code Authority
The CCA was a screening process that monitored comics for immorality. Essentially it was government monitoring without the government. Basically, a private organization carried out the government’s bidding in order to avoid the government itself stepping in to fill the role. However, many people were happy with this as they felt that the regulation would keep their children safe.
Still, the government did have its hand in the CCA, as it was headed by a New York magistrate judge, Charles F. Murphy.
The goal of the CCA was to limit the content included in comics. However, this actually was far more notorious. There are seven highly restrictive sections of the CCA. Some of the restraints that the CCA placed on comic publishers were policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority, no comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title, and although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and, wherever possible, good grammar shall be employed. The CCA also limited what could be portrayed about religion, marriage, sex, costumes, and dialog. They even went so far as to place restrictions on advertisements, which surely affected revenue for publishers.
These tactics by the CCA worked. Distributors were in fear of their sales, due to the previous outrages, and refused to carry comics without the CCA seal. Many might think that this is the free market at work, but keep in mind that while the CCA was not actually law, it came with pressure and support from the government.
The power had gone to the head of the CCA. One case specifically led to the censoring of one Marv Wolfman’s name. Since Wolfman couldn’t be in comics it was flagged and asked to be removed. Fortunately, they settled the matter and Wolfman was allowed to keep his name in the comics as a creator credit.
The Fight for Freedom
While the CCA had ahold of the comic industry by the Pokeballs for a number of years, some people bucked the CCA. Publisher William Gaines, the creator of popular titles like Tales from the Crypt and Mad, was one of the original nay-sayers. Gains made an effort to fight Judge Murphy after a reprinting of a pre-code story was objected because the central character was not black. At this time stories dealing with racial prejudice would only be accepted in comics if the central character was black. Gaines wound up losing the fight and left comics shortly thereafter to work on his comic turned magazine title, Mad.
In the early 70s Stan Lee, who was then the editor-in-chief at Marvel, was solicited by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to concoct a story about the dangers of substance abuse. Now my personal issue here is that the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting propaganda through private companies. Still, the CCA gave push back, but backed by the government, Stan Lee pushed through without the CCA stamp of approval and published the three issue Spider-Man run.
However, these were not the first to push back against the CCA. Just as with any form of regulation, there was an explosion of underground comics throughout the 60s and 70s that depicted material not approved by the CCA. These comics were never in comic shops nor widely distributed, but instead were sold in adult shops. One very popular adult comic called Cherry Poptart was released in 1982 and followed a young girl through a number of her sexual escapades. Ironically it was drawn in Archie comic style, which was also a comic known for being very wholesome.
Despite the fact that the code was written in 1954, it was less than two decades before the revisions to the code would start. In 1971, revisions began “to allow for (among other things) the sometimes ‘sympathetic depiction of criminal behavior . . . [and] corruption among public officials’ (as long as it is portrayed as exceptional and the culprit is punished) as well as permitting some criminal activities to kill law-enforcement officers and the ‘suggestion but not portrayal of seduction.’ Also newly allowed were ‘vampires, ghouls and werewolves . . . when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.’” It was only a short time after that, 1975 when Zombies first started appearing in comics. It still wouldn’t be until 1986 when the CCA would completely allow the violence of zombies that we have come to know today.
The Fall of the Empire
While a few comic companies come under the seal in the late 80s and early 90s, Now Comics and Bongo Comics, joined the CCA, most companies that began coming out in the 2000s didn’t join. This led to the eventual disbanding of the seal on comics. Marvel and DC began releasing adult and mature content under sub-companies in order to maintain their status with the CCA, but still be competitive with the new emerging market. Eventually, companies began to leave the CCA. Marvel in 2001, Bongo in 2010, and DC along with Archie in 2011 all left CCA, which rendered CCA obsolete. Marvel and DC went on to incorporate their own rating systems, which fans have come to trust. Archie comics were not as concerned about a rating system as they “aren’t about to start stuffing bodies into refrigerators.”
The people in the 50s spoke out and were able to get what they wanted. Unfortunately, this came through government pressure. However, the good side was that we were able to leave the regulations in the hands of the private sector. Despite the barriers to entry that were placed to keep those that went against the CCA out, being part of the CCA was voluntary. Throughout the next five decades we saw the layers of regulation fall away, and eventually, we were left with a comic book world that was trusted and can appeal to all kinds of people. This is what private regulation, voluntarism, and the free market can do. We now have a superior product, and no one was technically forced. Companies CAN regulate themselves based on the feedback they receive. The comic world is one of the last frontiers of pulp prints. We have worked hard to have the world in which we enjoy comics, let’s keep it this way.
You can read more from Rocky Ferrenburg on Think Liberty here.