Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Seven: The Man vs The Code

In our last episode: Publishers fought small battles with the Comics Code throughout the Sixties, leading to inadvertent blows for creators’ rights and self-censorship that wound up costing the industry one of its most promising talents…

By 1970, Marvel Comics had gained a large audience of high school and college students. This was due, most likely, to a combination of things. Marvel’s troubled heroes appealed to a slightly older reader, for one thing. But the mid-60s camp craze (as popularized by the Adam West Batman TV show) also seems to have had an impact, with a college-aged crowd that thought the cornier aspect of the Marvel books was knowing satire being created by people who’d been “turned on” to the drug culture. As Roy Thomas recounts:
Back in 1965 I took a phone call at the office sometime after 5:00 p.m. from somebody who asked me what you and Steve Ditko were on—because you had to be taking something in order to do those Dr. Strange stories with the fights. I said, "I don't think Stan or Steve do anything like that." (I wouldn't have admitted it if it had been true, of course.) Then he says, "It has to be, because I had a fight like that when I was high on mushrooms in Mexico City a couple of years ago! It was just like the one Dr. Strange had with Dormammu!
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, especially in the case of the two artists who proved most popular with the college crowd. Jack Kirby was a middle-aged Jewish family man whose attempts to depict the “Love Generation” in a positive light were sincere, but obviously done from the perspective of an outsider.

Hippies like cowboys… right?

And Steve Ditko… Well. Ditko was a devotee of Ayn Rand‘s Objectivist philosophies, and a square to the very core. The belief that the strange landscapes he created in Dr. Strange were drug-inspired visions horrified him.

Because, obviously, this isn’t trippy at all…

The single Marvel founder who really seems to have embraced the cultural revolution was, of course, Stan Lee. Not that Stan was out cavorting with hippies. “I never even smoked a marijuana cigarette,” he claims. Like Kirby, Lee was also a family man, and definitely part of the over-30 crowd who were famously not to be trusted by the counter culture. But he identified with their rebellious spirit (or at least faked it well), and embraced them as an audience, keeping the youthful Spider-Man in tune with current fashions and beliefs.

Hip as Stan was, though, he was still an establishment square to some extent. So when the US government asked him to deal with the dangers of drug abuse in a Marvel comic, he agreed. As Stan remembered it in a piece written eight years later:
Sometime in 1970 we received a letter from the Office of Health, Education and Welfare in Washington, DC. The gist of the message was that the HEW was aware of the great influence Marvel had with the youth of America -- and wanted to request a favor of us. The favor … was that we incorporate the dangers of drug addiction into one of our storylines, preferably the Spider-Man series, since Spidey was (and still is) our most popular super hero.
The story that resulted deserves an in-depth look. It was a three-parter, set to run in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. But Stan decided that the last thing he wanted to do was a straight-up preachy “don’t do drugs!” tale:
I was determined not to allow the “message” part of our story to be so prominent, so blatant, as to make it seem like a sermon. I didn’t want our readers to feel we were preaching to them just because they were a captive audience -- and yet, it was important that the message come across, loud and clear. The answer seemed to be to inject the theme of drug addiction as a peripheral sub-plot which would in no way dilute the action, drama, or suspense of the regular super hero theme.
So he made the drug story a sub-plot running beneath Spidey’s latest confrontation with his arch-enemy the Green Goblin. It was a good choice of enemies. The Goblin was Spider-Man’s answer to the Joker: a visually-interesting villain with a great gimmick, who was guaranteed to boost sales. He also gave Stan a natural story hook: in his secret identity of Norman Osborn, the Goblin was the father of Peter Parker’s best friend Harry. And if you had to pick a Spider-Man supporting cast member from those days to get hooked on the dope, Harry was it.

That’s right, Harry! It’s finally your time to shine!
Or… something.

At any rate, Stan was true to his concept. He layered the story right into the on-going soap opera that was Spider-Man’s life in those days. The first nine pages of the first issue are devoted to the book’s many on-going storylines: romantic tension with Gwen Stacy, secret identity issues, and Peter Parker’s continual poverty. It all feels very contemporary to the period, too. Pete’s wearing this hippie-riffic fringed vest through the whole thing, but my favorite bit is a three-panel sequence with Aunt May going to see Hair, and encouraging Peter to be more “hep.” High-larity!

The drug plotline finally rears its head on page ten, as Spidey rescues a young man who’s out of his mind on drugs:

“I remember it contained one scene where a kid was going to jump off a roof and thought he could fly,” Stan says of the scene. “My problem is that I know less about drugs than any living human being! I didn't know what kind of drug it was that would make you think you could fly! I don't think I named anything; I just said that he had 'done' something.”

Spidey actually says that the kid’s stoned, but that’s beside the point. No actual drug is named, primarily because Stan didn’t have time to do any research. As usual, he just winged it. That’s not to say that the story’s treatment of the drug problem is completely shallow, however. Playing off the race of the kid in that first drug scene, Stan later features an argument between Norman Osborn and Randy Robertson:

It ain’t The Wire, of course, but for a 1970 funnybook, that’s not bad. But, never one to let the drama lag, Stan didn’t dwell on the socio-economic aspect of the drug issue and instead went for the personal. It seems that Harry Osborn’s got a problem: Mary Jane Watson. MJ and Harry had been a couple for a good while at this point, but with Gwen out of town, she starts flirting with Peter. In Harry’s presence!

Uhm... Awkward!

This starts a pretty convincing (if greatly accelerated) downward spiral for Harry. He’s already got on-going issues with grades and living up to his father’s harsh expectations, and that’s lead to a little problem with pill-popping. He’s got “pills to keep him up, to relax him… and to put him to sleep,” Peter realizes after he watches Harry pass out on his bed in one scene. It’s all been legal up to this point, of course, but once Mary Jane starts blatantly hitting on his roommate… Harry becomes easy pickings for a campus drug dealer:

Things go from bad to worse at that point. Harry, feeling great after that guy’s little pick-me-up, catches up to Mary Jane, but…

Damn, bitch! That's cold!

That pleasant scene leads to a pretty bitter argument between Peter and Harry, which culminates with this:

Yeah, that’s gonna go well.

While all this drama’s been happening, Peter’s been preoccupied dealing with Harry’s dad. Norman was a split personality case at this point in his history: respectable businessman by day, criminal mastermind by night. He’d had a breakdown and forgotten all about his life as the Green Goblin, but the personality awakened in him again, and he’d been battling Spider-Man throughout the story. With that in mind, Pete can sort of be forgiven for abandoning his obviously-strung-out best friend; he was leaving to search for Norman.

And while he’s gone, Harry experiences one of the most memorable freak-outs in funnybook history:

Peter finds Harry in bad shape when he gets home, and gets the poor bastard to a hospital. There’s a memorable scene right after that in which Pete takes out the drug dealer and his pals out of costume, but then it’s back to the Goblin. They’re in a pitched battle over New York when Spider-Man is struck with a genius plan to take his enemy down. He gets the Goblin in a headlock, and…

(First panel rearranged for clarity.)

The Goblin reverts back to Norman and passes out, once again forgetting his double life, and the story ends. It’s questionable psychology, certainly, but this was neither the first nor the last time a funnybook engaged in that. And it’s still a little shocking how callous and manipulative Mary Jane appears here. She tells Peter that she has a reason for treating Harry so badly, but we don’t get to hear it, and so she comes off as a real bitch. She’s even the reason, indirectly, that Norman reverts to his Green Goblin persona: she performs at a theater Norman once owned, and in which he had one of his secret Goblin hideouts. Being there again triggers his transformation, so even the super hero strife in the story is her fault! Talk about a woman-done-me-wrong story!

(An aside: I'd also like to take a minute to appreciate the artwork of Gil Kane on this story. He gave both the Goblin and Harry Osborn incredibly expressive faces in this story, and it increases the pathos ten-fold. When I think of the Green Goblin, it's Kane's version I see in my head. Thanks to him and, later, Ross Andru, crazy Harry Osborn is also among my all-time favorite funnybook characters -- if you couldn't tell already...)

The strengths and weaknesses of the book as literature aren't the point, though. Stan had succeeded in putting together an entertaining story that was part of the on-going Spider-Man saga, and also served as a non-preachy anti-drug message for the kids. This is the aspect of the story I’m most impressed with. Harry’s descent into drug abuse is entirely understandable, but never excused. His addiction is presented as a weakness, and the dealer as a despicable predator, but nobody ever gets up on a soapbox and makes a big speech about any of it. Stan was able to let the story speak for itself, in a very natural voice no less, and it’s more powerful for that.

Whether it kept anybody from doing drugs is questionable, of course. I mean, does this sort of thing ever have that kind of impact? I read it in a reprint edition at age 11, and while it didn’t instill a life-long distaste for drug use, I definitely wasn‘t going to go out and start popping pills after reading it, either. So I guess that’s something. But it’s hard to argue that this story does anything but present a negative view of drug abuse, something most educators, parents, and public officials heartily endorse.

Not the Comics Code Authority, however.

Oh, yeah! THAT!

Since he was writing the story at the behest of the American government, Stan didn’t really worry much about problems with Code approval when he was writing it. But when the first issue hit the Comics Code offices… it was rejected outright. Code by-laws prohibited any depiction of drug use, even a depiction as negative as this one.

Interestingly, Code administrator Leonard Darvin was reportedly out sick when the Spider-man issue came through for approval. So who made the call? One of his assistants? Nope! It was a familiar face from earlier in our story:

That’s right. Archie co-founder John Goldwater, still CMAA president fifteen years after he muscled Bill Gaines out of the job, made the call in Darvin’s absence. Which, I suppose, only makes sense. This was a major comic coming from one of the CMAA’s biggest member companies, written by request of the federal government. If I’d been working as an assistant in that office, I’d have passed that one up the chain of command, too. And so the task fell to Goldwater. While I haven’t been able to find anything on his thought process on the matter, Stan Lee himself rather nicely sums up the most likely scenario: “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.”

Which, I would argue, is a rather rigid and unreasonable way of handling things in this instance. But how did Stan react? “I didn't even get mad at them. I said, ‘Screw it’ and just took the Code seal off for those three issues. Then we went back to the Code again.”

This was Stan’s reaction to the Comics Code in general, it seems:
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.

I think the biggest nuisance was that sometimes I had to go down and attend a meeting of the [CMAA] Board of Directors. I felt that I was killing an entire afternoon.
To be fair to Goldwater (something I haven’t done much of in these stories to date), rejecting the issue may have been the only decision he could make. If he’d cleared the story, he’d have been in direct violation of Code by-laws, and would have thus opened the door for further violations down the line. Further, Goldwater really seems to have believed in the Code, not just as a shield for the comics industry, but as a reasonable restriction on comics content. He’d helped vote it into place fifteen years earlier, and would not change it without another full vote of the CMAA board. And he couldn’t have known how Stan would react. Publishing the issues without the Code Seal was a pretty big deal.

At least, it was a big deal in the minds of the people within the comics industry. Nobody else seemed to notice. The Spider-Man issues went on-sale at newsstands around the country with, apparently, zero controversy in the world at large. There was no announcement on the cover that Marvel was working with the HEW office, or that the story dealt with the horrors of drug abuse. The books just went out without the code seal, no explanation given.

Look, Ma! No Code!

And nobody gave a damn. The forces of Dr. Wertham (who was still out there, on the celebrity expert circuit, making appearances on The Mike Douglas Show) did not come breathing down the comics industry’s collective neck. The funnybook world did not come to an end. Which makes me wonder… Why didn’t anybody make note of that? Ten years after the last of the anti-comics hysteria died down, somebody finally went out there and answered the question the entire industry had debated and fearfully wondered about for a decade: If you released a comic without the Code Seal, and nobody noticed… Did it need to exist at all?

What we did get were changes to the Code. Finally, somebody had raised enough of a stink to force the CMAA board into action. But that, as I am given to say now and again, is a story for our next chapter. Plus, more of this guy…

Oh, you poor bastard, you’ve only just begun to suffer…


The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee, John Romita, and Gil Kane
(This was a 1979 trade collection put out by Simon & Shuster. Along with Origins of Marvel Comics, Sons of Origins, and Bring on the Bad Guys, it was part of the first Marvel trade paperback line. It reprints the Spider-Man drug issues, among other choice nuggets of 1960s Spidey, and features an introduction by Stan Lee that I drew upon rather heavily in this chapter. I'm sure it's long out of print, but I was lucky enough to find a copy as a wee lad, and beg for it as an early birthday present.)

“Stan the Man and Roy the Boy.”
(Roy Thomas interviews Stan Lee for the second issue of The Comic Book Artist.)

Seal of Approval by Amy Kiste Nyberg

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