Master Of The Obvious: Issue #16

Wed, November 17th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I remember a panel at one of the first conventions I attended as a fan, sometime around 1974. Roy Thomas was discussing Marvel's tussles with the Comics Code over a recently published new comic, MARVEL SPOTLIGHT introducing Werewolf By Night. The cover, by Mike Ploog, was split into several panels, wherein a young man in a park sees the full moon in the sky, sweats and writhes and starts tearing madly at his clothes, then starts to transform into something hideous. In the final, large panel, the man - now a savage wolf-man - gazes hungrily out through foliage at a supermodel wannabe strolling through the park unawares.

The Comics Code had objected to the cover on the grounds that it was too suggestive, inferring that the man's lust for the woman turned him to a savage beast, not exposure to moonlight.

Green Lantern #86
Green Lantern #86

Later that panel, Neal Adams talked about the famous issue of GREEN LANTERN-GREEN ARROW where the latter's kid sidekick, Speedy, turned out to be a major junkie. (Not surprising with the kind of hat he was forced to wear.) On the cover, Speedy sits in the foreground, holding the crook of his arm (if I remember right… it's been awhile…) with a syringe in all its glory on a table in front of him. Drugs, of course, became fixtures (no pun intended) on the American landscape in the 60s, and by the mid-70s, mention of them was even starting to creep into mainstream comic. (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN had a short arc where Peter Parker pal and eventual supervillain Harry Osborn started taking some sort of unnamed illegal drug that looked remarkably like aspirin; prior to that, the first appearance of Deadman in STRANGE ADVENTURES centered around heroin smuggling, the first reference to opiates in any mainstream comic I'm aware of.) But the Comics Code had a longstanding injunction against any portrayal of drug use or paraphernalia, and that was the problem.

Neal (it might have been Denny O'Neil, who wrote the book in question, but I think it was Neal) revealed how they got the cover out: they'd originally had two syringes on the cover, and agreed to take out one of them. The Comics Code was mollified.

Roy piped in, saying, "Maybe if we had drawn two werewolves on our cover…" which got the biggest laugh of a very entertaining panel.

Every time I mention the Comics Code Authority, I feel like I'm beating a dead horse, but damn if it doesn't keep oozing back from the dead like some vampiric slug. We don't need it, we never needed it, and it's time to put a final stake through its miserable, useless heart.

"We don't need [the Code], we never needed it, and it's time to put a final stake through its miserable, useless heart."

Tales from the Crypt

The CCA was the brain burp of EC Comics publisher Bill Gaines. For those who came in late, until 1955 or so, the Gaineses were something of a comics dynasty. Max Gaines, Bill's dad, arguably created the modern comic book, and later co-founded what today we call DC. Gaines' AA Comics originally published The Flash, Green Lantern and Justice Society Of America among others, and shared office space and rubrics with DC. The two "branches" merged when Gaines left to start Educational Comics (EC) to deliver product like PICTURE STORIES FROM THE BIBLE. Things changed abruptly when young Bill took over and switched to groundbreaking horror comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT, along with other genre books like CRIME SUSPENSTORIES and FRONTLINE COMBAT. With his editors/writers, Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein, Gaines forced art and writing to a level other companies couldn't match, and the horror in his comics didn't compare to the horror they felt watching his sales rise and theirs plunge as the 50s got cooking.

Of course, this was the 50s, when we were dousing whole communities with radioactive fallout on one hand and obsessing about moral fiber on the other. In 1954, a psychologist named Dr. Frederic Wertham, perhaps with the prodding of his ghost writer Gershon Legman (who had been obsessing on the issue since his own short book on the subject, LOVE AND DEATH, was published in 1949), wrote a screed against the corrupting influence of comic books on children, the notorious SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. In the Wertham/Legman version of comics, the image of a female crotch was hidden in every muscle crescent, every action was a diagram for violence, and Batman and Robin spent their downtime in a homoerotic frenzy. (Admittedly, they did wear robes a lot in stately Wayne Manor, but there was a time that was considered swank. To make it work, though, Wertham has to fall back on the canard that equates homosexuality with pederasty, a particularly nasty lie that continues to cause problems.) SEDUCTION is pretty seductive, and almost convincing, but ultimately it inadvertently paints comics as a vast Rorshach test; anything can be seen in them, whether it's there or not.

Since fingerpointing was the mood of the times, Sen. Estes Kefauver started a congressional investigation of the comic book industry. Kefauver's obsession was organized crime, and when the industry's connections to OG turned out to be minimal, Kefauver lost interest and Congress never took a stand one way or the other. Gaines, in the meantime, testified before Congress, a particularly scary proposition in the wake of the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunt against Communists that routinely destroyed lives and careers (Gaines gave a memorable explanation of how a woman's severed head on a cover, eyes rolled up and hanging by the hair from a murderer's hand, her body sprawled on the floor beneath her, was tastefully done because they didn't show the bloody stump of her neck), and decided the best way to ward off the impending crackdown was to show the comics industry could regulate itself.

"As near as I can tell, the Code rules were mostly the product of Archie Comics, who ... saw themselves as the "clean" comics and exemplars of moral fortitude."

Hence the Comics Code, which was immediately taken over by DC Comics and Archie Comics. By the time the Code came into effect, Congress had moved to other issues without so much as a backward glance, but that didn't stop anyone. DC effectively controlled the biggest distributor of the day, IND, meaning virtually no comic without a code seal could get distributed, a fact that plagued Marvel until 1968, when they shifted to Cadence Distributors and were no longer barred by the distributor from expanding their superhero line. Despite Gaines' involvement, the written Code was clearly a gun aimed at his head and the head of Charles Biro, whose CRIME DOES NOT PAY had started the crime comics craze in the late 40s. No depictions of vampires, werewolves, most other monsters. No sexual content of any kind. No portrayals of authority figures in anything but the most generous light. No use of the words "crime" or "horror" in titles. Etc. As near as I can tell, the Code rules were mostly the product of Archie Comics, who (despite years of superhero comics as lurid as any ever produced) saw themselves as the "clean" comics and exemplars of moral fortitude. (This Puritanical streak bubbled up a couple months ago, when the company took righteous umbrage at the laughable spectacle of Melissa Joan Hart, TV's Sabrina The Teenage Witch, trying to pass herself off as sexy in some tepid cheesecake shots in a couple of magazines. From the way Archie carried on, you'd think she'd pulled a train on the Seattle Seahawks on pay-per-view.)

This is instructive, since self-regulation continues to be a popular American catchphrase. (Videogame manufacturers have just started to wander down the same path; I wish them luck.) As I've said before, any debate over "standards" (aside from mechanical issues, of course; things go easier when an inch always equals an inch) translates into someone's attempt to gain political or commercial capital. Systems are always created for the advantage of those creating the system.

While economics played a big part - comics sales were way off by 1955 - the Code effectively forced most of the major competition to DC and Archie out of business. Gaines switched to a new line of comics, but distributors refused to carry them anyway (it might not have helped if they had; I not sure that even now anyone's ready for a comic titled PSYCHOANALYSIS), and he finally washed his hands of it, turning MAD into a magazine to dodge the problem and dumping everything else. Charles Biro simply vanished. Most others went straight for the kiddiest of kid's comics, leaving the teenage market to Archie and the action market to DC.

If the point of the Comics Code was to free up rack space by slaying competition, it did its work admirably. If the point was to have the comics industry abide by a strict content standard, it failed miserably from the start. Dell Comics thumbed its nose at the whole thing and continued without a problem; if it came down to a shootout between Archie Andrews and Dell's Donald Duck, there wasn't much doubt which way newsstands would swing. But distribution, not morality, was the critical issue. As it is today. (GREEN LANTERN-GREEN ARROW died not for lack of a Code symbol - all issues had them - but because Southern distributors didn't like the book's attitude and scrapped their copies.)

"If a major comics publisher can pull out of the CCA without repercussion, what power do they have?"Approved by the Comics Code Authority

If Dell and the Comics Code maintained an uneasy truce (or, more accurately, a willful ignorance of each other), the first real threat to the Code came with the "drug issues" of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Told not to publish by the Code, Stan Lee simply opted to publish without the Code seal. Nothing happened except AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sold as well as ever. Imagine the panic at the CCA: first underground comics (themselves the fruit of CCA repression, as MAD magazine, its popularity skyrocketing in magazine form, inspired a generation of cartoonists to mock American life, while Harvey Kurtzman's HELP, made possible by MAD's success, gave early publication to many of those cartoonists, like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton; the undergrounds then inspired "straight" comics to push the boundaries, further eroding the Code's grip) and then that. If a major comics publisher can pull out of the CCA without repercussion, what power do they have?

None, if subsequent events are an indicator. Buffeted by challenges, the Code has altered at least a couple of times since then. When independent comics rose in the late 70s, they mostly ignored the Code, planting their wares in welcoming comics shops, also new on the scene. Code subscribers mounted constant challenges. Even DC had changed significantly, trying to stay competitive and finding adherence to the Code made that difficult. How many comics in DC's line are Code books today?

When I was a kid, they kept trying to make the CCA look like a big deal. Spinner racks had the Code emblem pasted on top with the counsel that the Code seal guaranteed "wholesome" entertainment. Did this mean anything to anyone? When the Code was introduced, the organization took out a number of ads advising parents what the seal meant, but I don't know of any case where anyone aside from newsstand owners paid attention to it. When it first appeared, the Code seal ("Approved by the Comics Code Authority") was humongous, squeezing out other elements on covers. By the 60s, it was the size of a postage stamp. Now it's about a quarter of the size of the nail on my little finger. It used to go in a cover's upper right hand corner. Now it goes anywhere. It doesn't even register anymore, and even where it does, it's been so long since anyone was told what it meant that it means nothing.

After I moved to New York, I learned the Code was a small office stocked with wage slaves. Each reads the books they're given and applies the Code as they see fit, deciding for themselves what they should crack down on and what to let slide. (And if it had been applied totally and even-handedly, there would have been a lot fewer comics published; almost every comic disobeys the Code in some way or another.) There's an ostensible operation there, but no significant controls. (Unless a subscriber complains, at which point the decision is reviewed.) The only apparent reason for the code is to give editors/publishers a reason to reject ideas without taking the heat for it themselves ("the Code will never allow it") and to give whoever runs Archie Comics (traditionally, the capos of the Code) an extra paycheck every month. The operation is funded by dues from each publisher who subscribes to the CCA, and I can't imagine why any of them are still paying. What do they think they're buying?

Periodically, I've brought this up, and what I'm usually told is that the Code also does a lot of public relations work for comics that I've never seen, just selling people on the idea of comics. I don't know anyone who's ever seen it. If they're out there promoting comics so avidly, why does the industry have fewer customers than ever?

Now and then the cry for "self-regulation" comes up as if the Code had never been. But "self-regulation" has never prevented schlockmeisters and shockmeisters from entering the business if the market wanted them. It's never more than a public relations gimmick. It's never "self-" regulation anyway, it's control of a vast sea of individuals by an organization with its own agenda, saying "play by our rules or you can't play." But there will always be people who don't play by the rules, and they're always the ones that excite an audience bored with rules. In a creative medium, rules are death.

I guess STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN #2 is due from Chaos Comics this week. Thanks to all those who's congratulated me on getting the X-MAN assignment. More news on that later.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

Master Of The Obvious Home | Master Of The Obvious Archives

Master Of The Obvious