Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Goodbye Comics Code

"The world of the comic book is the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shred deceiver, the torturer and the thief."

-Fredrick Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent

This past week both DC Comics and Archie Comics, the last two holdouts of a bygone era, have decided to rid themselves of the creativity cancer that was the comics code and it's authoritative stamp of approval.  Unless you're an avid comics reader like myself, you might not have even known there was a code, but odds are you've seen it's stamp.

For years, the stamp has meant nothing to the average reader.  It was found on some corner of the book, and unless you knew what it meant, you most likely ignored it.  But ten years ago, Marvel comics, home of such family favorites as Spider-man, Captain America, and the Hulk, decided the code was completely unnecessary since they were about to implement their own ratings system.  Certainly ratings such as All Ages, Teen +, and Max:Explicit Content (plus a few others) was more explanatory than a shadowy authority who would reject any reference to zombies, vampires and the always frightening "sexual perversion" out of hand.

But back in the day, this regime, along with Wertham, was responsible for ending comics such as The Vault of Horror, Tales From the Crypt, and Crime SuspenStories, and it basically put publisher EC Comics out of business.  Underneath the new regime, superhero comics were mostly all that were left, and those were severely neutered.  Don't believe me, read some of that Silver Age silliness.  Even writer Marv Wolfman had a story initially rejected because of his name.  Here are the initial 1954 rules that companies were forced to follow.

  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
  • Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
  • No comic magazine shall use the word horror or terror in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
  • Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
  • Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
  • Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
  • Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
  • Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
  • Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.

As you can see, with rules like these in place, crime and horror comics were not going to continue.

The code has been updated many times, each time becoming a bit more lenient.  By the 80's, violence was becoming more graphic and acceptable, so the code started to wither and die.  This year was the final nail in the coffin, and oddly enough it was hammered down by Bongo (Simpsons comics) and Archie, the two super-family friendly comic companies.

The damage the code did cannot be undone, but each year a few more crime comics slip into the system.  I hope Fredrick Wertham is rolling over somewhere.


  1. Absolutely fascinting post, Dan. I always knew of the code but was clueless to details.

  2. Thanks David. It's amazing how one zealot (Wertham) with sketchy "facts" to back him up can hamstring an entire industry and change it for 50 years.

  3. During my brief tenure as an editor for the mid-90's comics publisher, Tekno*Comix, I had dealings with the Code on several occasions, as the company's books initially carried the seal.

    The only time I actually had to argue with them was over an issue of MICKEY SPILLANE'S MIKE DANGER, wherein the main character visited a virtual-reality brothel. Artist Eduardo Barreto drew a number of beautiful "holographic" (or robotic, I forget, now) women lounging around in lingerie, and the Code objected.

    Talking with the person who had refused to approve the issue, I discovered exactly how arbitrary and subjective the administrators of the Code could be.

    When I pointed out that the female characters were, in fact, wearing far more than any number of over-sexualized, scantily-clad Marvel and DC superheroines, and brought his attention to the "Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities," section of the Code, the guy hemmed and hawed for a moment or two, and then basically admitted that Eduardo had drawn the women *too* realistically... and were therefore too sexy for the Code.


  4. Thanks for sharing that Chris. It seems almost every story I hear about the code borders on the ridiculous. Too realistic sexy robots? At least they were not glorifying crime at the same time.

  5. Wonderful news! It's about time!