recess radio program

06/21/07
The Comics Code
    by Stephanie Boluk

You may be surprised to learn that comics, not film, not TV, or even video games, have been subject to the strictest self-imposed censorship of any media industry. Between the 1930s and 1950s, comics -- those new, cheap, brightly colored objects that were full of thrilling action and most importantly, that were so difficult for parents to keep from children -- increasingly came to be seen as corruptors of the nation's youth. One editorialist wrote in 1941 that a child who read comics was a "damaged child, incapacitated for enjoyment of the more serene pleasures of the imagination."

The moral panic over comics, spurred in large part by the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, was so great that, in 1954, a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency convened to investigate the issue. In response, the industry decided to establish an association, the Comics Code Authority, that would regulate the content of comics. The first person assigned as watchdog to administer these rules, Judge Charles F. Murphy, commented that this was the "strongest code of ethics ever adopted by a mass media industry." From then on, every comic book cover approved under this new system carried the now-familiar seal that proclaims "Approved by the Comics Code Authority."

In addition to prohibiting the usual blood and mayhem, the comics code barred writers from telling stories that depicted resistance to institutional authority. In addition, no zombies, werewolves, ghouls, or vampires were allowed because much of the public outcry had specifically been against the violence and gore of horror comics. In fact, the terms "horror" and "terror" were banned from comic book covers outright. Another of the code's rules was that "in every instance good will triumph over evil and crime."

But what happens when you can't even represent the evil and crime over which your characters are trying to triumph? In 1971, Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, teamed up with the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to do a comic book about drug abuse. But the censors didn't approve the comic because in order to have Spider-Man fight drug abuse, it was necessary to represent drug abuse, something that was strictly forbidden. Stan Lee's solution? Simply remove the seal and publish it anyway.

Since that time, the comics code has, for the most part, slowly fallen into disuse. In many ways, comics were used as a scapegoat for expressing anxieties over juvenile delinquency and other social issues that were not as easy to isolate. The establishment of a code did little to fix the problems comics were reputed to have produced. Today, among the few titles you'll still see bearing the once ubiquitous seal of approval are the eternally teenage Archie Comics. You could say that the hysteria over kids and comics has somewhat abated, but it might be more appropriate to argue that it hasn't eased up so much as been displaced on to society's latest menace to childhood: videogames. History loves to repeat itself.

Copyright 2007 Stephanie Boluk

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Monday, 28-May-2007 17:33:37 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."