Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Six: Sometimes, a Gun is Just a Gun

In our last episode: Comics publishers forged on into the 1960s under the Code, and DC tried desperately to prove that Batman wasn’t gay. Meanwhile, Stan Lee found a way to attract a new audience with super heroes who had Code-approved real human problems…

There’s a World Going On Underground

While mainstream comics struggled with the Code, a whole new breed of funnybook was being born that didn’t worry about it at all. These were the Undergrounds, humor comics whose publishers (often the artists themselves) weren’t members of the CMAA, and thus didn’t submit things to the Code for approval. Additionally, these books were distributed and sold primarily through record stores and head shops rather than the newsstands and grocery stores of America. This “underground” distribution system took them outside the reach of most children, and their low print runs kept them below the radar of whatever few anti-comics watchdogs remained in the mid-60s.

Packed with sex, violence, and drug use, the Undergrounds challenged authority and were designed to shock. They were, in many ways, the spiritual children of Bill Gaines. The EC Comics Fan-Addict generation had made it to college, and they weren‘t about to take any shit anymore. The lessons they learned at the feet of the Crypt Keeper were put to use in their own even more transgressive works, as evidenced here by Robert Crumb‘s front and back covers to Zap Comix #0:

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Crumb was a self-professed EC Comics fan as a kid, and Zap was his attempt to recreate that fun and forbidden EC feel. One of the early major Undergrounds, Zap was sort of like Mad, if it had been done by a bunch of revolutionary hippies and social outcasts. It, and the countless other Undergrounds that joined it, were on the cutting edge of the counter-culture, questioning everything the Code forbade comics to question: government, religion, race, war, sex… Really, anything held as established wisdom. And while they occasionally ran afoul of local obscenity laws, at least nobody suggested that they were a bad influence on children.

And how could they be?

That’s an important distinction to make: the Undergrounds were perhaps the first comics that were clearly aimed at an adult audience, and even their critics understood that. Though they’re peripheral to the history of the Comics Code in specific, the Undergrounds at least represent a giant leap forward in the perception of the comic book medium as something to be enjoyed by people of all ages. And, as we’ll see later, their subversive message would one day come to have as much influence on mainstream funnybooks as the counter-culture the Undergrounds represented had on society as a whole.

Funnybook Power-Plays

Meanwhile, back in the Code-dominated trenches…

The Comic Magazine Association of America, in its early days, doubled as a comics industry trade organization as well as a funding agency for the Comics Code Authority. Each member publisher had a representative on the CMAA Board, usually either the publisher or editor-in-chief. Marvel EIC Stan Lee served as their representative, for instance, while publisher John Goldwater represented Archie, and served as CMAA President. As trade organizations go, the CMAA was a pretty ineffectual one. The various publishers were like rival medieval warlords, and treated each other as such. They could seldom come to an agreement about anything, including, it seems, the Comics Code.

For most of the Code‘s first fifteen years in existence, the board debated changing the Code’s guidelines or getting rid of it entirely. Its very strict tenants chafed, often working counter to the sort of adventure fiction most of the CMAA member publishers specialized in. Most of them had assumed that the Code was going to be a cheap publicity stunt anyway, and once the real fervor of the anti-comics movement had abated, it‘s understandable that they’d want to back it off a bit. The debates over this would become quite heated, and were inevitably shelved until the next board meeting, when nothing would wind up being done about it.

One early argument that the Code’s CMAA board opponents did win, however, was in cutting its budget. With sales on the decline in the Code’s early days, arguments were successfully raised that they simply couldn’t afford the full funding anymore. Code administrator Charles Murphy objected to the budget cuts strenuously, and in the end resigned over them. The search for a replacement lead the CMAA to Arthur DeBra, who was then working for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). DeBra, however, engaged in a series of delaying tactics and power plays that would have seen him made president of the CMAA, a move that current president John Goldwater rather strenuously opposed.

L-R: Silberkleit, Coyne, and Goldwater
(An aside: Goldwater is an interesting figure. Raised an orphan, he hitchhiked across America as a young man, supporting himself in a variety of jobs in shipping and newspaper writing, during which time he apparently developed into something of a ladies’ man. Returning to New York, he got into comics publishing with partners Louis Silberkleit and Morris Coyne, and was actually the co-creator of Archie Andrews and his friends, as well as Archie super hero characters The Shield, the Black Hood, and Steel Sterling. Later on, he served on the Anti-Defamation League for B’nai B’rith. When asked about his most famous character, Goldwater replied, “[Archie is] basically a square, but in my opinion the squares are the backbone of America.”)

It’s no wonder Goldwater didn’t want to be pushed aside. The CMAA presidency, with its influence over Comics Code policy, had to have been a great tool for Archie Comics’ success. Goldwater muscled his way past CMAA founder Bill Gaines to attain the job, then proved instrumental in the development of Code bylaws that seemed designed to specifically put Gaines, one of his top competitors, out of business. If Archie was comics for squares, after all, then EC was comics for junior hipsters. It was a battle for the soul of America’s youth, with both men’s livelihoods on the line. And it was a battle that continued after the Code went into effect: the longer Goldwater could keep comics square, the longer Archie could attract an audience.

(This is all rampant speculation on my part, of course. But Goldwater developed a habit of facing off against funnybook hipsters, as we’ll see later…)

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DeBra wound up never taking the job (mostly because he saw greener pastures in Hollywood than with the swiftly-shrinking comics industry), but a replacement for Murphy was found in Mrs. Guy Percy Trulock, and the Code continued with reduced funding and, perhaps significantly… a reduced staff. Trulock took on more of the day-to-day censorship work, and (one would guess) the review process itself became less stringent as time pressure increased. Which had to have made certain members of the CMAA board happy.

The Wandering Wolfman

Still, the Code rolled on. The number of revisions being called for lessened as creative teams learned what they could and could not get away with, and began to self-censor accordingly. Few reports survive today of any specific changes the Code would call for, but most were apparently minor changes to wording, or art alterations that could be handled quickly by in-house production people. One notable confrontation occurred, naturally enough, on one of DC’s new line of horror comics.

The DC horror line was revived in the mid-60s, and though it was far tamer than the EC books of a decade earlier, its mere existence suggests that the Code had lightened up a bit from Murphy’s day. Of course, some rules were iron-clad, like the rule forbidding references to “werewolfism.” So when House of Secrets #83 featured the series’ host, Abel, mentioning that he’d learned his next story from “a wandering wolfman”… The Code said no.

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Series editor Gerry Conway then got in touch with Code administrator Leonard Darvin (who’d taken the job after Trulock retired for health reasons in 1965). It turns out the line had been a little inside joke: the story was actually written by Marv Wolfman (who would later go on to write some of the most fondly-remembered comics of the 70s and 80s). So was the “wolfman” reference against Code rules if it was actually a person’s name? Darvin said that the line could stay in, but that they had to credit Marv Wolfman as the writer of the story to take the curse off (so to speak). Including credits on the DC horror books wasn’t normal at the time, but Conway did as Darvin asked:

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But once Wolfman had gotten credit, everybody else wanted it, too, and it became standard editorial policy. So the Comics Code had, inadvertently, struck an important blow for creators’ rights in an industry that rather studiously ignored them whenever possible. Which just goes to show you that even the worst ideas can be turned around to good ends if you put your mind to it.

EC for the ‘60s?

Across the street at Marvel, Stan Lee spent most of the 60s turning the company, which all but shut down when the Code was instituted, into an industry powerhouse. Stan had been with Marvel (then known as Timely) since the 40s, when at 16 he wrote his first Captain America story. He was swiftly made an editor, and survived the Code purges just like his industry peers, but (at least according to Stan) he never gave the Code guidelines much thought.

His work in the era seems to bear him out on that: from the get-go, the Marvel super heroes have a pugnacious, anti-authoritarian attitude that seems to go counter to the Code’s admonitions to show officials in only a good light. The Fantastic Four, after all, get their powers only because they steal and wreck a government-owned rocket like some kind of overgrown juvenile delinquents.

Was the rash of teenage rocket thefts caused by this panel?

Elsewhere, Spider-Man is a smart-alecky teenager whose primary enemy is newspaper editor (and pillar of the community) J. Jonah Jameson. And the Hulk, meanwhile, is pitted against US Army General Thunderbolt Ross. While none of these situations directly violates the Code’s provisions, I have to wonder how they’d have fared in Charles Murphy’s time as Code administrator.

After all, at least some of Marvel’s success was due to how well the company tapped into the same anarchic spirit of Bill Gaines’ EC Comics. In Marvel’s editorial pages, Stan made the “Marvel Bullpen” sound like a virtual circus, and used his letters pages to create a very inviting environment for his readers to comment on the stories and feel like they were part of the gang. His colorful nicknames for his co-workers made the Marvel credit boxes almost as much fun to read as the stories themselves, as did Stan’s various catch-phrases, like “’Nuff Said!” or “Face Front, True Believers!” He used this kind of stuff everywhere in the Marvel books, from the letters pages and advertising on into the narration of the stories themselves, giving Marvel’s titles a uniform feeling of smart-alecky, not-quite-serious fun that was very much like EC’s, minus the black humor. Stan denies having been inspired by the EC books, though; his inspiration was a book series he read as a kid: Leo Edwards’ Poppy Ott. Each book had a section at the back with letters from readers, and the author responding in a very informal, humorous style.

Whatever his influences, the Merry Marvel Marching Society wasn’t all that far removed from the EC Comics Fan-Addict Club, and inspired a similar devotion in its members.

Though I must say, EC handed out a better button...

The Trouble With Jim

Marvel’s popularity grew alongside the cultural revolution that transformed society in the 1960s. As social mores changed, the content of Marvel comics changed as well, becoming more complex and, dare I say it, sophisticated. Mostly, these changes apparently didn’t butt heads with the Code over-much. One notable exception was Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Steranko had taken this mid-selling spy strip over from Marvel architects Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, melding Kirby’s storytelling dynamics with Warholian pop-art and collage techniques to create a comic that, to this day, looks cutting-edge. There was only one problem: Steranko got a little racier than the Code was comfortable with. He had a penchant for drawing women in low-cut tops, for instance, and the Code would always request that the line he’d drawn to represent their cleavage be removed.

This sort of thing went on and on, and it got to the point that they started making changes before Code review by order of the book’s editor (credited as Stan Lee, but lord knows who was really handling the day-to-day hands-on work). One notable instance of this was a full-page shot of Fury’s love interest the Contessa, which… Well, here…

The shot as Steranko drew it…

…and as it saw print.

That’s right. They blacked out her ass.

But the biggie came in 1968. Steranko had done a full-page wordless love scene with Fury and the Contessa that featured a record three panels that caused concern. Here’s the page as printed:

Really nice sequence, isn’t it? But let’s look at it a little more closely. First, they removed the cleavage line on the Contessa in the first panel, leaving her with a rather strange-looking single-boobed chest. Annoying, but it had happened many times before. Further down the page, though, as the love action heated up a bit, Steranko had drawn a phone with the receiver off the hook:

Deciding that “taking the phone off the hook” suggested far too explicitly that Fury and the Contessa were about to engage in pre-marital sex, the book’s editor had the phone re-drawn to put it back on the hook. Which was suggestive that… I dunno… they were really conscientious and didn’t want to miss an important call even while they were knockin’ boots? Actually, when I first read that story, I thought the lines above the phone meant that it was ringing, and that they ignored it because they were too busy… gettin‘ busy. So ah well.

The third change is the most hysterical, though. Steranko drew this for the page’s final panel:

Feeling that this embrace was too ardent, and sealed the deal on the off-panel sex that was about to take place, the editor had one of Marvel’s production artists instead blow up a detail from the page’s first panel, and ended with this:

Heh. Ah-heh-heh. Oh, man. Why didn’t they just draw a train entering a tunnel and have done with it?

All joking aside, if anything this actually improves the page, repeating its motif of close-ups on inanimate objects in the room that get the romantic point across. Honestly, I’m not even sure how the final version of this page passed the Code. Even if their reviewers were completely blind to symbolism, the scene still violates the Code’s mandate that all romantic encounters support the institution of marriage. I suppose it’s actually the perfect example to illustrate how the 60s cultural revolution was changing Americans’ ideas of what was and was not appropriate, and of how the Comics Code came to be ruled as much by those standards as by its own written by-laws.

Of course, they could still be kind of a stickler for those by-laws when they wanted to be, as Stan Lee found out in 1970. Before the 60s were over, Marvel had a significantly older readership than the 8-to-12-year-olds they started the decade with, and the stories reflected that, becoming more complex and dealing with weightier issues. Recognizing this, the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Stan about doing a story on the horrors of drug abuse in the pages of Spider-Man. Stan agreed, deciding that Peter Parker's college roommate Harry Osborn would get hooked on drugs. The Code rejected the stories on the basis of--

But, oh! We’ve run out of time again!

Whoa! Harry! Calm down, dude! We’ll get to you in the next chapter! This time, I promise!

And in that next chapter, get ready for another epic battle of funnybook hipsters vs. funnybook squares, as Stan the Man faces off against Archie’s John Goldwater!

A post-script: I was just looking at my trade reprint of those Steranko SHIELD stories, and saw something that blew my mind. They kept the blanked-out cleavage lines, the blacked-out buttocks, and the phone with the chastely-cradled receiver, but on the big love scene page, they restored Steranko's original final panel! Unfortunately, they didn't bother to color it, so you're left with a weird black-and-white wall of zip-a-tone. Even stranger, though, they DID re-color the gun and holster in the first panel of that page, making them a glowing blue and red. I suspect this was done because the book's muddy reproduction had rendered the gun very hard to see. But you'd figure, as long as they were in there changing things, they'd go ahead and slap some color on that final panel...


The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

Seal of Approval by Amy Kiste Nyberg

Lambiek on the Undergrounds

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

Comic Book Legends Revealed #219

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