Back in 1954, the world had to change to some. In this era, good wholesome content was not exactly needed but wanted by families. However, the success of comic books led to the popularity of some of the biggest known superheroes of the time. Yet those heroes were eventually controlled by a Comics Code.
Some of the comic books were so impactful that they landed on the radio. The Adventures of Superman, as well as Batman & Robin, were just two big radio shows that came as a result of comics.
However, if you read their comic books during the Golden Age of Comics, you’d hesitate to say that all of their content was geared toward children. Most of the major comic books, for the longest time, were made for teens and adults. They were not exactly made for kids.
This is why most of them included gory violence as well as stories or periods of rape, incest, hanging, sex, and much more. Many also focused on horror elements over other types. A lot of this truly did need to change, as there was nothing stopping the publishers from doing anything they wanted.
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The Comics Code BeginsDue to everything they happened, a need had to be met. By 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America was created. A specialist in juvenile delinquency, Charles F. Murphy, was placed in charge of it. He then formed The Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a censorship concept, of sorts, but not as much as people think.
Essentially, they would put stickers on comic books they felt held to their standards of an okay comic for people to read. Of course, if it did not pass by the CMCA, it did not get the sticker.
For the most part, the CMCA did not have control over any comic book company or its content. In fact, they were free to do whatever they wanted with their comics. However, while the CCA did not have an impact on the publishers, of course, they did in other means.
Stores and newsstands that sold the comics would simply not put out comic books that did not have the CMCA logo on them. Thus, the sales for those comics naturally sank as a result. This led to the CMCA actually having a very massive power over the comic book world.
The question is, how did they get so much power with one little logo on the cover?
Comic Book CensorshipThe power of the CMCA was mostly on the influential end. Companies knew that the major audience buying comics were kids and teens. However, they often bought these comics with their parent’s money that they earned or by jobs that they might be doing, often assisted by the parents. Some of these stores made their money on things beyond comics too.
If they upset the parents, they’d run the risk of alienating them as customers. Since comic books were not their only source of income, nor the most profitable, they had to be careful. The question is, why were they even concerned about what parents even thought?
It’s not like comic books were some sort of problem in their communities, right? Well, that all depends on who you ask. The story we’re about to tell you might make your blood boil, but it’s completely true. It will show you how a problematic study led to people getting all up in arms. Sort of like how Fox News does to old people today!
The Study That Changed Everything:
Psychologist Fredric Wertham had an idea for a study that would change comic books forever. Since early comics included a lot of racy content including that of killing, rape, incest, and much more….it was clear to some that they had a role in kids becoming criminals.
At least that was the thought Wertham had.
He did an entire study, published under his 1954 book: Seduction of the Innocent. This even led to Congress having a hearing on the matter in April of the same year. Yet no one considered how Wertham came to his conclusion that comics had a role in kids committing crimes. In fact, how he came to his conclusion was really weird.
The man just went around to juvenile detention centers and simply asked all of the kids there if they read comic books. Most replied that they did. Fredric then used that data to determine that children at these detention centers were there due to the influence of the comic books they read. When there was no proof of this.
Wertham literally just asked if they read them. He did not consider asking the millions of other kids elsewhere in the country if they read comic books too. Those kids were not committing crimes yet read the same stuff, so why gives?
Most kids, especially boys, read comic books of some kind at this point. Obviously, all the boys in Juvenile Detention were big fans of comic books. This entire study was complete BS.
However, scare tactics always inspire issues like this to arise. As a result, the U.S. Congress spoke about the ordeal and even backed the Comics Code Authority. Thus, all the parents and companies knew about it.
Yet most of what the CCA accepted or did not accept was downright insane.
The Rules Of The Comics CodeMost of the rules of the Comics Code were terrible. Some, however, did make sense. They knew they could not ask for zero violence. Yet they did request that “excessive violence” not be allowed. This was made to eliminate the gory nature of the comics heavily present at the time.
We decided to go over all of the rules of the Comics Code for you to see why it was a bit over the top.
Let’s go over the parts of the Comics Code that made sense first:
- Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, the gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
- 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. Rape scenes, as well as sexual abnormalities, are unacceptable.
- Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
- Sex perversion or any inference to the 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.
One can see how these made sense. Women were often drawn to be overly sexualized before this with some being straight-up nude. Others, on the other hand, were drawn realistically. If you’re marketing toward kids and teens, then this type of thing is not good to have. Overly excessive violence is also a problem one can see too.
The Weird Rules:
- 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 a crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
- Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
- 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.
- No comic magazine shall use the words “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.
They banned horror characters like zombies and werewolf outright for no real reason. Just the words “horror” and “terror” were not allowed. Seriously?!?
Every single comic book had to end positively, which made story-telling a much harder thing to do. Also sometimes there is a time when police are actually the problem, and that the villains can also make good points too. Think of Killmonger from the Black Panther movie here.
Why The Comics Code Decided To Put So Many Stupid Rules InThe reason for all of this was clearly not because parents were worried their kids would commit crimes. Oh no, they wanted to push forth religious control mostly.
People feared horror characters massively at this time. Christianity was obviously huge in the 1950s, and the teachings of the Bible were clearly used in the fabric of America’s laws and overall society. The teachings in it are still present in the same areas today.
Of course, religious control was far bigger in this era. Anything that pushed against religion was a problem for parents and other adults. They did not want their children to see or even know about a lot of things in the world (which made them less equipped to handle those things, but that is another story).
The concept they had was that kids were stupid and eventually they’d grow up, have sex after they are married, and no crime would ever happen. It was the classic “White Family” fantasy.
We mention the “White Family” Fantasy because this was the 1950s and 1960s we’re discussing. We’re pretty sure you know what era of history we’re in for America.
Loss Of Control:
Nowhere was controlling something harder than the world of comic books. This is why the bogus study from the psychologist made such an impact. It’s also why Congress had a special hearing over freaking comic books. They could not control comic books and therefore, had to find a way to real them in.
This was not an era of social media and social change as we see today. Rather, it was an era filled with people who wanted to use their faith or what they assumed the good book told them to control everyone. They wanted to bring others that differed from those teachings down, even if the lessons being taught were racial and completely inaccurate.
Since comic books taught different lessons, often praised accepting others that happen to be different as well as different concepts…this could not fit what the power players wanted.
Today, none of this would be accepted because holes could be poked into the BS faster than you can say “Stan Lee.”
This same Comics Code was designed by those very parental figures who thought they could be some big Captain America shield for kids. The sad part is that the Comics Code worked, very well, for a long time. It impacted all of comics and even media outside of it.
The Impact Of The Comic Book AuthorityThe biggest impact felt was by the publishers. They had to think about ways to make comic books that would jive with what the Comics Code wanted. Meanwhile, they also had to make sure the content was good for people to read too.
They could make characters that could be impactful in this area but they had to make sure they did not go too far.
Comics like Batman took away a lot from the character. For a good portion of the Golden Age, Batman alone used guns and did not mind killing anyone. After the CCA, Batman never used guns nor chose to kill. This is a trait that the character still lives by in the comics for the most part.
Comics then began to get very visual with their art, in hopes that would drive people to read or buy them. They also became quite campy with their content.
CCA’s Impact On Comics Also Affected Other Media:
The CCA already made such an impact on comics that the entertainment world took notice. Radio dramas were less racy and television shows were ALWAYS geared toward the family. Even movies were always made with families in mind.
In the 1950s to 1970s, when the Code was at the height of its power, the most popular shows on television were family driven. Among them were shows like Lassie, Mr. Ed, I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Partritch Family, The Brady Bunch, The Addams Family, The Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days, Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, and Leave it to Beaver.
Even in professional wrestling, the WWF at the time patterned their product around bringing comics to life. The big muscular men of the comics were impossible to find, except in pro-wrestling. The characters were over the top too. Not only did this get kids interested but also the families overall.
Thus, comics of the time literally shaped television.
Movies that were big in this same era were musicals like Singin in the Rain, West Side Story, The Sound of Music. Even major Epic Movies like Ben Hur, Cool Hand Luke, The 10 Commandments & Spartacus were involved.
The 1960s and 70s alone saw War/Westerns and Spy Thrillers become popular as well as psychological dramas. This was also when the classic comedy became the most prominent. This gave rise to a ton of movies like Psycho, Planet of the Apes, Pink Panther, Dr. No, Goldfinger, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
However, it was in the 1970s that things would shift.
How Stan Lee Defied & Nearly Destroyed the Comics CodeLeave it to the great Stan Lee to nearly end the bogus Comics Code. Stan managed to do this with a character near and dear to his heart, the infamous Spider-Man. The concept Stan had was to write a story about drug abuse within the pages of a Spider-Man comic. It was set to come out in the May 1971 issue.
Marvel actually asked permission to do this with the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1970, as Stan felt Marvel Comics had the right to discuss it. This request actually resulted in something quite compelling. Marvel’s request was denied by the CMAA. Yet Stan Lee pushed for the comic to be published anyway.
This directly defied the Comics Code and was a shot right in the face of the CMAA. The story became one of Spider-Man’s most notable in history. Stan Lee put the comic book out WITHOUT the CCA’s seal of approval, which was usually a huge no-no.
On top of that, newsstands and local shops STILL sold the Spider-Man comic books because he was too popular to ignore.
This caused a major shift and the result of the comic books selling well forced the CMAA to go back and review the Comic Code.
The Marvelous Change:
Revisions to the Code were added in December of 1970 and went into full effect for ALL comic publishers on February 1, 1971. Interestingly, a special meeting of the CMAA’s officials was called into order on this very same day to chastise Marvel before their issue even published.
A representative for Marvel, Charles Goodman, promised that after the publication of the next series of Spider-Man comics dates May-July of 1971, they would not publish any comics without obtaining the CCA seal of approval.
The new revisions of the code relaxed multiple restrictions on crime-related comics and lifted the entire ban on horror comics. Although, they still prohibit the use of the words “horror” and “terror” in the titles. On top of this, they also relaxed standards on sex to reflect the current social standards.
After dealing with Marvel over their Spider-Man drug abuse comic, the CMAA also added a section regarding how to deal with depictions of drug abuse. That meant that other comic books could discuss it, which resulted in other major issues coming out about it.
That includes DC’s Snowbirds Don’t Fly story-arc, which was part of a Green Arrow & Green Lantern Vol. 2 comic book series, issue #85. It depicted Roy Harper (Red Arrow) shooting up heroin ON THE COVER, and suffering through drug abuse in the story itself. It came from the Aug-Sept. 1971 issue, the very same year the Comics Code was relaxed.
The Code technically still exists, but Marvel Comics stopped using the Comics Code entirely in 2001.
Impact Of The Comics Code Rule RelaxationUltimately, the success of the Spider-Man comic book led to most restrictions being relaxed over time. Some comics even got back to almost to where they previously were, but not quite to such an extent. Although they could now do far more content, they restricted themselves.
This is why for every Killing Joke type of comic series, DC puts out a boy or girl scout type of wholesome comic book. Usually involving someone like Superman or Supergirl. Others focused on art, such as the X-Men, who took FULL advantage of sexual relaxation in the Comic Code.
Deciding to add “bigger” stuff to women. By the 1990s, these insane “enhancements”, as well as stories on rape and even homosexual relationships, were capable of being added. Even though sometimes, the use was a bit overkill. Look up the Birds of Prey for more information on that.
Movies and Television began to also see different types of content. The comic book era of pro-wrestling even changed up and WWE entered an Attitude Era. In this era, blood would be common as well as women wearing next to nothing. Most of them having boob jobs.
Curse words and over the top content became popular here yet also became a big deal in other television shows and movies.
Adult Magazines like Playboy, despite opening in the 1950s, managed to see some of its biggest sales in the 1970s and on. While the magazine used to run on the concept that you could not see what you saw in these magazines anywhere else, this changed up.
Yet the male fantasy ideology, and the taboo addition of what the magazine brought with it, would never have happened if comics were allowed to maintain what they were doing. Something was only taboo because it was not accepted.
While Playboy brought about the fake breast concept of the male fantasy, putting it in popularity, comics were the medium that maintained this. With teen boys seeing what they assumed breasts were “supposed to” look like. Thus, seeing them this way was to be expected. Therefore, to be a model, a woman had to alter her appearance surgically at times.
The male body also was pushed as needing to look a certain way based on the comic book appearance. Coincidentally, the 80s and 90s both had a massive steroid and HGH problem rampant throughout sporting leagues. All in an effort to get bigger to be better at the sport or to look better.
Yet this would change, especially by the 2000s, where the entire entertainment sector would seek realism over fakeness and alterations.
Change In Comics Also Aided Change In SocietyOne of the most common things missed is that comic books often try to go with what society is rather than what they want it to be. However, when it comes to stories and looks, everything was always over the top. Comic books take away realism because that is the point.
However, since the 2000s, we have slowly seen a change in society and even acceptance of things. While one could say comic books are not directly responsible for this, most would say they had a role.
Before the United States pushed for gay marriage to be legal nationally, DC Comics had a prominent gay character named Kate Kane (Batwoman)….who they reintroduced in 2006. They had her in a gay relationship at the time, on full display, told beautifully by the writers at DC.
They also added a transexual character called Dreamer. While Dreamer debuted decades ago under the Dream Girl codename, she was gone for quite a while. DC then decided to reboot her in 2005 with the transexual background. She now appears on The CW series, Supergirl.
DC also decided to push toward a more political concept with its publication, not surprisingly, resulting in a change.
Both Marvel and DC decided to begin drawing characters to look more realistic. They felt the concept of making them over the top was fine, but they needed to come off as real-looking. This was done to remove this idea that women had to seek unrealistic expectations for their looks.
Real female bodies are beautiful and deserve to be given a chance too, which is what comic books did.
Everyone BenefittedWomen could now be drawn to look sexy even without massive breasts. While the figures are still in shape, they are no longer completely insane.
Unsurprisingly, the WWE followed suit and now boob jobs are no longer a requirement for women entering the company. They even celebrate women of multiple sizes and ethnicities, as well as champion gay rights.
WWE has even seen a drop in the overall size of its performers to fit a more athletic look. The average size of a male performer in 1995 was 250-280lbs. Today, the average size is 200-220lbs.
Overall sports are no longer in need of steroids and HGH as well. Today, it is more about science and less about how jacked you can get.
Video Games, who also used to follow the lead of comics, cut down the over the top look of their characters. Probably the best example of this change can be seen in Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series.
It’s clear as a bell that comics were at the forefront of change. They also helped to or started several movements. They aided acceptance and control while also pushed against authority when they went too far.
Heck, even the first female-led concepts were a comic book thing first. Wonder Woman was the first major female superhero who has had successful comics for decades. She even had a successful TV show. Supergirl had her own film well before any other.
When you talk about trendsetters, it’s clear comic books are where a lot of them started. It is also where many were killed off.
[Portions Of Article Originally Written By Joe Burgett for Men’s Variety in June 2019]