Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Three: "This is Not What I Had In Mind"

In our last episode: Driven by public outcry spearheaded by Dr. Frederic Wertham, the United States Senate called subcommittee hearings to look into a possible connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Though the subcommittee decided that no legislative action needed to be taken, they also suggested that the comics industry police its own content…

So I seem to remember stating last time out that the Senate subcommittee hearings weren’t witch hunts. But that doesn’t mean that a witch hunt did not occur. Outside the even-headed bounds of Federal politics (where any kind of censorship law would, let’s face it, be a tough win for anyone), things were downright ugly for the comics industry. Comics creators found their social circles shrinking, as people no longer wanted to be associated with someone who worked in such a foul industry, peddling poison and smut to kids.

Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit and, later, some of the greatest graphic novels of the 20th Century) tells a story about being at a dinner party and striking up a pleasant conversation with a stranger. They were hitting it off well, it seemed, but then Eisner told the man that he made comics for a living. “How unfortunate for you,” his new friend said, and stalked off without another word.

Stan Lee (who was working as a young writer/editor for Timely/Marvel at the time) has an even better story: he was once told off by the neighbor of one of his co-workers when the man found out that Lee was a comics editor (the co-worker being in the closet about what branch of commercial art he worked in). Later, the neighbor was arrested for smuggling guns to South American rebel armies. So even scumbag gun-runners thought that making comics was a reprehensible way to make a living!

But it didn’t stop with simple suburban ostracism. The mothers driven to action by Wertham and his fellow anti-comics spokesmen were particularly vociferous in public, too. Why just react when you can OVER-react, after all? More comic book burnings occurred, and a hue and cry went up that just kept building. This public outcry inspired political action, as well. In the two years following the Senate’s 1954 decision, something on the order of 14 states wound up passing some kind of legislation governing (or outright banning) the sale of crime and horror comics. Of course, they needn’t have bothered. By the end of 1954, the crime and horror books were already gone.

After the Senate decision, the comics industry lost no time in reacting. Forming a new trade association to replace the divided and already-discredited ACMP (Association of Comic Magazine Publishers), they called themselves the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). And, in another of the seemingly endless bits of irony that haunted the man throughout the 1950s, the CMAA’s founder was none other than EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines.

That‘s right. Gaines is indeed the man responsible for the formation of the CMAA. The organization was his idea. He made the phone calls and hosted the meetings. And though attendance was sparse at the first meeting, by the fourth, just about every major publisher in the industry was showing up. Gaines’ plan was to pool the industry’s resources to fund a counter-publicity and public relations campaign, consulting with pro-comics psychologists to clear the industry’s good name and try to come up with some sort of plan that would keep all of them in business. Of course, things didn’t quite go the way he planned. And by “quite,” I of course mean “not at all.”

Actually, that’s Gaines in later years, after the cultural revolution of the 60s allowed him to look the part of the rebel he’d been at heart ever since his ass hit the Senate’s interrogation chair. Here he is in the 50s, looking a bit more harried...

...if less hairy.

I can't see why he was so upset...
At any rate. Once the CMAA got rolling, it swiftly fell out of Gaines’ control. At the fourth meeting, they incorporated as an industry trade group, with Archie Comics publisher John Goldwater at its head. Goldwater and Gaines were already enemies; a Mad parody of Archie (called, with that familiar Mad wit, “Starchie“) depicted the ginger-headed teen as a juvenile delinquent, apparently setting off the feud. By the time of the CMAA meetings, the two men despised each other (and continued to do so, evidently, for the rest of their lives).

Gaines sometimes held that this animosity was at the root of the decisions the CMAA board made, but I have to wonder. Gaines had gone on national television and proudly declared himself the inventor of the horror comic. To most Americans who cared about such things, he was the Funnybook Boogeyman, the public face of everything wrong with the comics industry. The other publishers had to distance themselves from him, or risk being tarred with the same brush. Plus, many of them really did find EC’s gruesome brand of horror and crime stories objectionable. Easy as it is to view them as good old-fashioned macabre fun today, many of the stories were pointlessly gruesome, and genuinely shocking to the social mores of the period. None of which excuses the CMAA’s actions in making of Gaines a sacrificial lamb, but it at least makes what they did understandable.

So when they voted to create the Comics Code Authority as a funnybook censorship board, and the first rule they came up with was to ban the words “Horror” and “Terror” from any Code-approved comic book title… Well, I don’t suppose anyone was terribly surprised. Except, of course, for Bill Gaines. “This is not what I had in mind,” he said, and walked out of the meeting.

(When these are your two biggest sellers, after all, it’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall.)

Back at the CMAA, though, they went forward full steam ahead. The Comics Code Authority was formed, and tasked with policing comics content via the awarding of the Comics Code Seal of Approval.

(An aside: I’ve always liked the way the seal looks. It’s really well-designed, with a nice “comic booky” font choice, tight lines, and that cool stylized A. It was designed by DC letterer and logo designer Ira Schnapp. So kudos to Ira for a job well-done. Even if what the job represented was, you know… fundamentally evil.)

The initial 1954 Code bylaws are a stunning example of an industry cutting off its own leg to survive. The restrictions put in place on comics content were Byzantine in structure, and assured that only the most sanitized and dramatically neutered fiction would make it to the stands. The full text of the original Code can be found here:, and makes for interesting reading. But I’ll boil it down for you anyway:

Alright, you two! Party's over!

1. No Horror Comics No Way!

As already mentioned, the Code specifically banned the use of the words horror and terror, and furthered its efforts to wipe horror comics off the face of the Earth by disallowing any horrific or gruesome images at all. Even the depiction of evil itself was abolished, along with all reference to “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and” (my favorite) “werewolfism.”

If only they hadn't written
"CRIME" so big...
 2. Crime Comics Are Right Out, Too!

While the word “crime” wasn’t outright banned, it couldn’t appear more prominently on the cover than any other word (or by itself, if you wanna get tricky about it). Further, there was a raft of rules governing exactly how crime could be depicted. It couldn’t be shown in an attractive light, all criminals had to be punished, no crime could be shown in such a way that readers could imitate it, and no government officials of any kind could be shown as criminals or the victims of criminals. This is by far the longest and most detailed section of the Code, probably in part because “crime” was Wertham’s favorite drum to beat. Probably also in part, though, because crime was sort of a staple of the super hero comic, and the typical depiction of crime in those books had to be protected.

I know what you're thinking.
But since they're men, it's A-Okay!
3. Sex is a Four-Letter Word!

Lust, revealing costumes, large breasts, suggestive postures, seduction, perversion, and “illicit sex relations” were all banned, along with rape, S&M, indecent exposure and outright nudity. Divorce was never to be “treated humorously nor represented as desirable,” romance plots were to “emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage,” and finally, “Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.”

These rules did away with the so-called “headlight” books, of course, and took the sex appeal quotient away from the crime and horror books. But they also put the kibosh on romance comics that dealt at all realistically with the complexities of romantic life, effectively killing the genre.

4. Miscellaneous Naughty Things!

On the plus side, slurs and prejudice against religious and/or racial groups were forbidden, as was violence against women (two more points that Wertham had crusaded against). Not that there were a lot of Wife-Beating KKK funnybooks out there…

Except this one.

But, hey. At least they said those things were wrong.

Unfortunately, they also said no cussing, and no excessive use of slang. References to physical deformities were out, too, no doubt because of that Kirby freak show story they opened the Senate hearings with. You also couldn’t accept advertising for booze, smokes, guns, knives, fireworks, gambling equipment, nude artwork, or sex manuals. Which I’m sure broke a lot of hearts.

Only three major publishers declined to join the CMAA and present their comics for Code approval: EC, Dell, and Classics Illustrated. EC didn’t join for obvious reasons, but Dell just didn’t see a need. Their comics had retained their good reputation as wholesome entertainment for young children, and they‘d suffered few ill effects from the scandal. Classics Illustrated, meanwhile, felt that their connection to classic literature would save them (which it did). They may also have looked at those Code bylaws and realized that the works of, say, William Shakespeare couldn’t possibly pass, and so bowed out rather than embarrass both themselves and the Code.

But the rest of the industry signed up. Once they had their rules in place, the CMAA proposed offering control of the Authority‘s review board to none other than Dr. Frederic Wertham himself (!). Which is mind-boggling, but would have been a fantastic PR move. I couldn’t find any report on how that meeting went down, but I’d really love to know. Whatever happened, the CMAA and Wertham could not come to an agreement, and Wertham went on record as saying that the Code didn’t go far enough. Whether he meant that the guidelines weren’t stringent enough (which is a little crazy), or if he just wouldn’t be satisfied with anything other than actual legislation, is unknown. He may have simply been thinking about how poorly the original ACMP code was enforced, and assumed that they’d do the same thing all over again.

No such luck. With Wertham out of the picture, the CMAA turned instead to Charles F. Murphy, a New York City municipal court judge with a strong record of working with young people. They planned a press conference for September 16th, five months after the April Senate hearings. Getting wind of their plan, Bill Gaines planned his own, pre-emptive, press conference for two days earlier. In the months since the hearings, EC had been getting back bundle after unopened bundle of comics on return. Their books weren’t even making it to the shelf in most towns, and that was a situation that couldn’t continue. So on September 14th, Gaines announced that he was suspending publication on his entire crime and horror line, and starting over.

Then he said something even more interesting. He took the CMAA member companies to task for their (still-unannounced) plans, saying that they’d just be putting out the same old crime and horror books, but with “innocuous titles and pictures of clowns on the covers.”

Personally, I think John Wayne Gacy Funnies would have been a big hit!

Now, I have no idea if Gaines actually believed that, or if it was just a “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee” sort of cheap shot against his professional enemies. But it’s a really interesting statement in light of something DC Comics artist (and later editor) Carmine Infantino said years later about Comics Code head Charles Murphy: “He was hired to be a figurehead, like a rubber stamp … Even after the code was written up, it was supposed to be more of a symbol. Nobody thought he was going to come in and really enforce it.”

But enforce it he did. With extreme prejudice.

Which is what we’ll look at in Part Four...


The 1954 Comics Code Guidelines

The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu

This book is the reason it took me so long to write this chapter: I've been reading it for the last three days. It's not available for free as far as I know, but you can buy it pretty cheap right here. It's fascinating reading if you're any kind of funnybook historian. Most of the quotes in tonight's chapter are pulled directly from it.


  1. Hi! Just trying to post a comment here...

  2. Hi again! I have a lot to say about the "Starchie" comic, so I'll just post it in increments. First of all, I'm a HUGE Archie fan, and a HUGE MAD fan-especially Spy vs Spy, they're my favorite MAD feature! And I've always LOVED MAD's Starchie because it was like looking at "America's Typical Teenager" in a totally different light! Starchie and Bottleneck were, in my opinion, "typical" teenagers too.......typical teenage delinquents, that is!

  3. Seeing Archie and Jughead (or characters that looked like them) smoking, drinking, chewing tobacco, doing drugs and breaking the law was so different than the usual clean-cut Archie characters that I had to laugh when I first saw it! It was so different and rather refreshing! I don't do any of that stuff, nor do I condone it, but it's funny to see characters like Starchie doing it! I also always loved Bill Elder's great sight gags and hilarious signs all over the place!-"Now don't forget-there's NO SCHOOL Saturday!" in panel 15 and the "Burma Shave" reference on the butts of the crap shooters in front of the candy store panel 29 are two of my favorites!

  4. And you notice in panel 11 that when "Biddy" throws herself at Starchie, her purse pops open, spilling the contents, among which we see a hypodermic needle and a bottle of pills? Drug references, no doubt! And the line in panel 16 when Starchie invites "Salonica" to cut class for a whiskey soda-you would never see that in a regular Archie comic! I always loved Kurtzman's story, but I must admit that it took me years before I finally figured out why Starchie was arrested (By Dick Tracy, nonetheless!) and imprisoned! I had no idea what "protection" was. Now I know it's extortion, and it's a felony, because it's wrong. You force your victims under threat to pay you for you to "protect" them from thugs-mainly you and your minions! In other words-"Pay me my daily/weekly fee, and I won't hurt you, and I'll make sure that others don't hurt you! Fail to pay me, or if you're late with a're in BIG TROUBLE!"

  5. So that's what Starchie and Bottleneck were doing! And that's why they had it in for "Wedgie", because he was muscling in on their territory! Now, something I'm interested to know is-is the "Starchie" comic the reason that MAD didn't run any more direct satires of Archie for almost 50 years? I know John Goldwater, Archie's creator, was "not amused" with "Starchie" "not amused" was he that he went on to help create the Comics Code Authority to prevent MAD-and anybody else-from trying to defile his beloved Archie characters again. At least, that's what I understand. And it seemed to have worked-sort of. For almost 50 years MAD never ran another Archie satire, although Archie did occasionally make "guest appearances" in MAD as comic strip character when MAD ran articles satirizing comic strips in general.

  6. But I noticed that just about a year ago MAD did run an Archie satire, this time satirizing the "Archie marries Betty/Archie marries Veronica" saga! At the end of the satire MAD says that Archie is actually attracted to Jughead and Moose! After all, they say, Archie could never choose between brunettes and blonds! Ha! Ha! A gay Archie! I love it! I figured that maybe since the death of John Goldwater (Senior, that is-not Archie Comics current CEO Jon Goldwater) maybe Archie comics has loosened up a little and maybe MAD and Archie Comics had finally reconciled, so Archie Comics let MAD run the satire. And why not! Several years ago Archie Comics let Cracked Magazine run a funny satire of Archie that made Archie look like The Godfather! So why not MAD?

  7. Something else I also noticed that I always considered rather hypocritical on John Goldwater's part was the fact that he didn't want anyone satirizing his beloved Archie characters, yet he used his Archie characters to indirectly satirize pop culture and pop music stars! In one comic from the 60's Betty and Veronica loose their heads over "Bobby Barrin" and "Pelvis Resley" (Bobby Darrin and Elvis Presley, in case you couldn't figure it out!) And that's just one of thousands of times the Archie characters have satirized pop icons! There's even an Archie comic that ran sometime in the early to mid-1970's that literally rips off MAD's stylized square connecting speech balloons.........and they do it in an Archie parody of TV's M*A*S*H! Hypocritical, I say! Goldwater didn't want anybody-especially MAD-satirizing Archie, yet here was Archie, ripping off MAD's stylized speech balloons in a satire of a popular TV show! Well, anyway, it seems that Archie Comics has finally "lightened up" and is now trying new things that Goldwater Sr. probably never would have approved of-the recent "Death of Archie" and "Archie Meets The Punisher" are two prime examples that I'm sure would never be approved by Goldwater Sr.-yet still are able to keep the original Archie the same clean-cut teenager he always was, only now, maybe just a little more interesting. Thanks for posting this great blog! I hope to hear from you sometime!