• Everything But Imaginary #384: Collapsing the Code (Bring on Sex and Violence!)

    Last week the final nails were put into the coffin of the long-suffering, slowly dying Comics Code Authority of America. DC Comics and Archie Comics, the last two adherents to the Code, both announced they will no longer be submitting books to the Code for approval. The Code has been withering in importance for years now, so the fact that these last holdouts are walking away is no real surprise, but in many ways it’s long overdue.

    First of all, it’s been a long time since the code has actually done anything. Sure, we haven’t seen any hardcore sex scenes cropping up in Betty and Veronica lately (you pervert), but that has far less to do with the code and more with the fact that Archie Comics is run by intelligent human beings who know what sort of thing their audience considers acceptable. On the DC side, some books have slipped through with a Code stamp despite some rather intense scenes that one would think would raise CCAA eyebrows.

    Second, the code is an antique. It was established in 1954 in reaction to parental fears stirred up by a witchhunt – the grand old comic book boogeyman Fredric Wertham led an investigation into the detrimental effects of comics on youngsters, which led to the publishers looking for a way to police themselves before somebody else did it for them. (This is a gross oversimplification, of course. For a far more in-depth discussion, check out the great book The 10-Cent Plague. And for a discussion on the issue that may make you wonder if history has judged ol’ Doc Wertham a little too harshly, check out Mark Evanier’s wonderful collection of his “Point of View” columns entitled Wertham Was Right. Don’t let the title turn you off, it’s an incredibly interesting book.) The system they established, the CCAA, came down with a set of rules so stringent that it effectively shut down EC Comics, killing off its wildly popular line of Tales From the Crypt and related titles, and prompting them to change their humor comic Mad to magazine format so it would not be subject to the code.

    (Another brief tangent, the last one for at least a paragraph or two, I promise. This has always seemed ludicrous to me. Changing the dimensions of the pages so it’s the same size as Time suddenly means Mad is no longer a comic book? Despite the fact that the interior content remained in the same sequential art format as every other comic in America and it didn’t feature any additional text pieces or articles to offset it? Size is the definition of a comic? Whatevs.)

    Originally, the code prohibited all manner of things that seem over the top today. Content – no depiction of drugs even in a negative light, no zombies, no vampires, no criminals being shown profiting from their crimes. No more freakin’ fun at all. Even cover text was moderated. Words like “Terror” were prohibited from being used in the titles of the comics, and there were even rules about how big certain words could be in relation to the other words on the cover. Over time these rules have been whittled away so much that, except for nudity and a couple of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, I doubt anyone can tell you what (if anything) it even limits anymore.

    Third, the code no longer serves the purpose for which it was designed. The original purpose of the code was – depending on who you ask – either an attempt to assure parents the content of the comic book was acceptable, or a way to keep “undesirable” comics from being published by getting the then-invaluable muscle of the newsstand distributor to refuse to carry them. The advent of the direct market in the 80s killed the power of the newsstand. Since then, comic shop owners have carried books with no code approval, and as comic shops took over the entire industry from drugstores and supermarkets, the power of the newsstand vanished. Even those few outside locations that still sell comics no longer pay any attention to the code seal whatsoever.

    As for that seal itself, that’s the best example that the code no longer serves its function as a parental assurance. When the code was launched, the cover stamp was huge, the size of a postage stamp or bigger, eating up valuable comic art real estate, sometimes even obscuring the logo. Over the years it got smaller and smaller. Today? Grab a recent issue of Superman and look for the code seal. It’s like playing “Where’s Waldo?” And even if parents could easily find it, they don’t know what it means anymore.

    Perhaps the most entertaining moment in the whole situation came a few days after DC’s announcement, but before Archie’s. Most of the news organizations that reported on their dropping the code mentioned that Archie and Bongo Comics were the only ones left using the code. Afterwards, Bongo quietly mentioned that they dropped the code a year ago and nobody noticed.

    DC is going to do the same thing Marvel did back in 2001 (and that other, smaller publishers have done since then), replacing the code with a rating system. Marvel definitely was ahead of the curve on this one, it’s a much smarter way to do business than a simple stamp, and it’s something I do think is necessary. Some people reject any sort of rating system as a form of censorship, but that’s terribly short-sighted. The original code, yes, was effectively a way to censor comics because nobody could get distribution for their books without approval. But there’s no such stipulation with DC or Marvel’s rating system. The only company that could theoretically flex that kind of muscle would be Diamond Distribution, but they’ve already got too damn much power as it is, so nobody point that out to them.

    I’ve got no problem with a rating system, when used properly, especially in an age where comic publishers are trying so hard to push the digital product. It’s good for parents to know if the comic in their hands is appropriate for their children before they hand it off. Can you imagine someone downloading a comic for their kids with a false idea of what they could be getting? “Oh, Preacher. This seems like a nice, Christian comic full of good, wholesome family valu—OH MY GOD, WHAT ARE THEY DOING TO THAT BALD MAN?” (Wouldn’t that be hysterical?)

    The code was an overly simplistic thumbs-up/thumbs-down, providing no real information about content. A hardcore rape scene or one burglar getting away before the end of the issue, either one could be enough to get a book rejected. But parents know all about ratings systems. They’re used to them. We have them for movies, TV shows, video games… and while I would find it preferable if the comic publishers got together and created a shared system the way movies, TV shows, and video games have, I think both Marvel and DC’s ratings are clear enough for a parent to know if they comic they have in their hands requires greater scrutiny before they give it to their kids.

    After all, that’s where I think the responsibility of the publisher ends. You know your kids better than anybody else. A 13-year-old may be mature enough to handle really heady content, like Sandman. The kid who sits next to him at school may not be emotionally mature enough to get past Jughead trying to win a pie-eating contest. And if you doubt that it can range so greatly, come sit in on my 9th grade class some time. Nobody should be able to tell you what your kids should be reading or watching, but giving you the information you need to make that decision yourself should be a priority. Of course, any rating system is only as good as the parents who use it. Truth is, the biggest warning label in the world won’t stop some parents from letting their 7-year-olds plop in front of the X-Box to play Grand Theft Auto: Let’s Donkey Punch a Couple of Hookers. But that has to come down to them. All any publisher has to do is give them enough information to make an informed decision. And this move puts the publishers a lot closer to achieving that goal than the terribly out-of-date-system we had before.

    Favorite of the Week: January 19, 2011

    It’s nice – so nice – when people remember that comic books are allowed to be fun. Tony Lee and Andrew Currie remembered that last week when they gave us the all-new Doctor Who #1 from IDW Publishing. This is the Eleventh Doctor’s comic book debut (at least in the States, I don’t know about the UK), and they made it a lot of fun with a done-in-one story set right after the most recent series finale. A computer glitch, timey-wimey thing causes all of the e-mails in Rory Williams’ spam folder to come to life and invade the TARDIS, resulting in the sort of wonderfully silly (yet still satisfying) story that can only be told with the Doctor. Andrew Currie’s artwork is also fantastic – wonderfully evocative of the actors from the show with nice set pieces that remind me of nothing as much as an alien equivalent of Las Vegas. It’s a real blast.

    Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast and the weekly audio fiction podcast Blake M. Petit’s Evercast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com and visit him on the web at Evertime Realms. Read past columns at the Everything But Imaginary Archive Page, and check out his new experiment in serial fiction at Tales of the Curtain.
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Terry Verticchio's Avatar
      Terry Verticchio -
      I remember reading Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, starting from the beginning. Then at issue 29 I noticed something different in the tone of the comic. The language was raw, the story gripping and hard. They even used the word "urine", which I'm sure for the 80's was unheard of. Then at the end the Editor mentioned it was the first issue that didn't have the code.

      Wow, what a difference that change made. And Alan didn't go crazy and started dropping f-bombs and have nude scenes in every panel. All that happened was the cuffs were off. He could write the story as he wanted. Not as the code permitted him.

      The code is dead. Let it sink into the earth where it belongs.

      Oh yeah, thanks for the mental image involving Betty and Veronica.
    1. Dirge's Avatar
      Dirge -
      Grand Theft Auto: Let’s Donkey Punch a Couple of Hookers.
      I can't tell you how many hours I wasted playing that.
    1. Andrea Speed's Avatar
      Andrea Speed -
      Sure, we haven’t seen any hardcore sex scenes cropping up in Betty and Veronica lately
      Lately, no ... but is this something we can look forward to? On the one hand, I'm offended. On the other, I'm intrigued.
    1. Mini's Avatar
      Mini -
      Quote Originally Posted by Blake View Post
      Doctor Who #1 from IDW Publishing. This is the Eleventh Doctor’s comic book debut (at least in the States, I don’t know about the UK)
      Yes it is, though he has appeared in strips in the Doctor Who magazine
    1. Blake Petit's Avatar
      Blake Petit -
      Thanks for the info, Mini. I never have any idea what's being published over there.