The Comics Code Authority, a Horror from the real world (final)

“Gutter of Horror” is a Brazilian column from Dinamo Studio website about horror comics.
This is a translated version of the articles.

Back in 1948, the Comic Industry had already trying to give some kind of practical answer due to people’s concerns about the impact of comic books, creating the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. The ACMP was formed by Hillman Periodicals' Phil Keenan, , Lev Gleason Publications' Leverett Gleason, E.C. Comics’ William Gaines, Famous Funnies’ Harold Moore and Orbit Publications’ Rae Herman among others. This first attempt to self-regulate the industry lasted until 1954, when it was replaced by the Comics Magazine Association of America, lead by the Juvenile delinquency expert Charles F. Murphy.

The CMAA became the organization behind a new “code of ethics and standards” for the American Comic Industry, which was called Comics Code Authority. This code was based on a draft that the ACMP had made earlier and it was based on the Motion Picture Production Code from 1930. The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as The Hays Code, was a series of moral guidelines applied to American films released by the big studios between 1930 and 1968 - with a similar goal to the Comics Code. With time, the code became dated, and after 1968 was replaced by the evaluation system known as MPAA from the Motion Picture Association of America, that rates hollywood movies to this day.

The Comic Code Authority banished explicit representation of violence and gore in criminal and horror comics, established that the good guys would always have to win in the end and prohibited the glamorization and humanization of bad guys and sexual innuendo. Also, there was a bunch of weird prohibitions, such as banishing the words “horror”, “terror” and weird” from comics titles and the appearance of living dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, cannibalism, werewolves and supernatural entities in general. This weird prohibitions seemed to be targeting exclusively E.C. Comics, which didn’t have much option but to cancelled their titles and try to shift the focus of its publications which ended up being unsuccessful and the company ceased publication).

Unlike E.C, DC Comics, which published mostly superheroes, would adapt better to the code. So the company made Wonder Woman more “well behaved” (which meant to change her clothes) and took Dick Grayson, the Robin, to college to get away from Batman. With stories that looked more silly, DC managed to move forward without losing its most popular characters.

There’s a 1955 episode of the show “Confidential File” that features comics. The video is a great example of the mentality regarding the topic at the time.

Spider-man and the revision of the code in the 1970s

In early 1970s, Marvel Comics tried to ask permission for the CMAA to publish a Spider-Man story which features the use of drugs. The request was denied, but it did made the members of the organization to think about revise the Code. Some drafts were made and, in 1971, the editors agreed with a new version that not just allowed to show use of drugs and narcotics, but also monsters like vampires, creatures and werewolves, as long as they were represented in the “classic tradition of [characters like] Frankenstein, Dracula and other works of literary high caliber written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respectable authors whose works are read in schools all over the world.” It was a welcome change, but the Code still had a lot of limitations and weird rules. Zombies, for example, were the kind of creature that were not allowed by the code, since it was not featured in Victorian literature.

One of the most ridiculous that turned out to be good stories from that time involved writer Marv Wolfman. In a story that he wrote for House of Secrets #83 (1970, so before the revision of the code), the narrator talks about a story told by him and “a wandering wolfman”. Since “WOLFMAN” was in caps, it appears that the word referred to a werewolf, so the CCA rejected the story. But Gerry Conway came to the rescue, explaining that Wolfman was the writer’s last name and asked if this still would be consider a violation if his name was credit in the story. The CCA agreed and the story had the credits in the first page. This took DC to finally start to credit its creators in supernatural/mystery anthologies, which was not a common practice.

Escaping the Comics Code through Comic Shops

At this time, only 4 publishers were still in the CMAA between the 1970s and 1980s – Archie, Marvel, Harvey and DC. But a big change in distribution made possible for companies to sell comics without the Comics Code seal of approval: the direct negotiation with Comic Shops.

Back in the day, comics were distributed in newsstands, so the distributors delivered comics with other magazines and they served as an arm for the Comics Code, since they agreed in deliver only comics with the seal. But in the direct distribution market that created specialized distributors, this relationship changed and, to make this market stronger, sellers and direct distributors started to accept comics without the seal. This opened the door to new editors and companies that started to experiment with new material – including stories for mature readers – to expand their audience, and independent publishers started to appear.

In 1989, a new revision

Since the Industry was exploding with independent publications that didn’t care about the Comics Code at all, the CMAA decided for a new revision. Although the big publishers didn’t had a consensus about this (Some, like Marvel and Archie wanted to keep the old code), there was a big pressure from DC Comics to a revision. DC argued that the code was an embarrassment to authors and artists and this lead the CMAA to draft a new document called Principles of the Comics Code Authority, that had general guidelines about violence, language and other areas of concern. Another document, exclusive to editors, listed specific rules for each area of content.

1989 also marks an important year for diversity in comic:s references to homosexuality banishment was eliminated to allowed non stereotypical representation of LGBTQ+ characters.

The Comics Code languishes

With the revision in the 1970s and the new configuration in distribution, the Comics Code was losing more and more of its once big relevance. Titles like Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Spider-man, Batman, Swamp Thing, among others, started to work with more complex themes and explore more and more ethical questions and grey areas, making companies bolder each time to take new heights. Some issues from titles like Swamp Thing were released without the seal of the Comics Code. This allowed to the creation of classics like The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman, Deadman and other works that targeted a more mature and sophisticated audience.

In 2001, Marvel stopped submitting its comics to the code, creating its own system. 10 years after, DC did the same. Today there’s just a few titles that are submitted to Comics Code, mostly comics for little kids. Archie Comics was another that recently decided to abandon the code, ending an almost 60 year supremacy of the Comics Code to American Comic Industry.

Today, each publisher has its own regulation set of codes and the Industry manages to avoid critics invoking the First Amendment, which is assisted by the Comic Book Legal Defense fund, that helps protect these rights through legal representation, consulting, assistance and education.

Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition” is available at Amazon –digital and paperback.

                            The Fall ofE.C. Comics