Near the top of the cover on nearly any post-1955 American comic book, you will find a strange little postage stamp containing the words "Approved by the Comics Code Authority." For nearly fifty years the "C.C.A." has controlled what you are permitted to read in almost all comics distributed to America's newsstands. So what is the origin of the C.C.A., still in force today, and how did it acquire this superpower?
Back in the late 1940s, before television, 10¢ comic books were the biggest selling entertainment around, consumed by nearly all children and many adults. In this expanding market, publishers jumped onto whatever was the next bandwagon: "true" crime launched by Lev Gleason's Crime Does Not Pay; romantic confessions introduced by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Young Love; and the twist-ending horror story perfected in Tales from the Crypt and William Gaines' other EC titles.
But the more popular these racy genres grew, the more concerned certain Americans became about their possible harmful effects on younger readers' morals. Since they first emerged in the mid-1930s, comic books had been criticized for promoting illiteracy and even eyestrain. But after World War II, America's moral guardians became alarmed by the rise in juvenile delinquency. Rather than confront issues within society or the family, they picked on comic books, misunderstood as solely for children, as the easy scapegoat.
The case studies of leading psychiatrist Fredric Wertham provided their campaign with the vital voice of scientific authority. Treating troubled youngsters in his clinic in New York's Harlem ghetto, Dr. Wertham became convinced that reading comic books had a negative influence on every patient. As the media seized on his findings, moral panic swept the nation. Religious and civic groups blacklisted offending titles and told their members to boycott retailers who stocked them. School teachers organized mass comic book burnings. Nearly 50 cities adopted local laws banning the sale of certain titles.
The anti-comics crusade climaxed in 1954, when Wertham published his unrelenting expose of the industry, Seduction of the Innocent, and his calls for government intervention prompted three days of televised Senate Committee hearings into the links between comic books and juvenile delinquency. It was the comic's darkest hour.
Ranged against the damning testimony of Wetham and other experts, the defenses of EC Comics' William Gaines and only three other publishers failed to persuade. Although federal legislation was ruled out as contrary to freedom of the press, the pressure was on the comics industry to clean up its act.
Gaines attempted to rally his fellow publishers into opposing regulation and funding independent research and a public relations counteroffensive. But nearly all either closed down or caved in and conformed to the C.C.A., the industry's new self-regulating authority with the strictest code applied to any medium. Publishers could not get their product onto the newsstands unless they paid to submit their material for approval and removed any objectionable content. Only Dell's range and Classics Illustrateds were wholesome or educational enough not to need the C.C.A.'s stamp. Of EC's once proud line, only the satirical Mad survived by converting to a magazine.
Thanks to the Code, comics survived this attack but at a price. The market was decimated, artists exiled, content infantilized. The medium had to wait until the unregulated underground comix outrage of the late 1960s to address adult subjects again.
In 1971 and 1989, the Code was gingerly revised. It still polices the minority of comics sold from the newsstand, though most publishers now supply their comics just to specialist shops. The future of the C.C.A. looks less secure after Marvel Comics' withdrawal in 2001 of its entire line, replaced by in-house, movie-style ratings.
Still, the critics have not completely disappeared, so the industry has set up the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, just in case....
Cover: Nick Cardy
Script: Jack Oleck
Pencils: Jack Sparling
Inks: Jack Sparling
- from House of Mystery (DC, 1951 series) #175 (July-August 1968).
- in Limited Collectors' Edition (DC, 1972 series) #C-23.
- in DC Special (DC, 1968 series) #11 (March-April 1971).
- in Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery (DC, 2006 series) #1.