Thoughts on the Comics Code

The Comics Code arrived during a dark time for the comic book field. It was a necessary evil to save the industry, the publishers concluded, after being savaged during the Senate hearings into juvenile delinquency. For the full story, check out David Hadju’s informative The Ten Cent Plague.

At first, the Code took its job quite seriously and you needed a college degree to work there. While not the most glamorous of jobs, it was still a good use of English skills and it helped restore the medium’s reputation.

It took Stan Lee to oppose the Code and release three issue of Amazing Spider-Man, sans seal, to force the Code to recognize the 1950s were dead and gone. The subsequently revised Code allowed not only the important Green Lantern/Green Arrow drug issues, but gave rise to a new cycle of  horror comics that led to new, lasting characters and showcased a new generation of talents.

The Code stopped being relevant as mainstream publishers stopped operating in the 1970s and 1980s as a new direct-sales channel opened up, letting newer publishers provide non-Code content for these shops.

By the time I was editing comics in the 1980s, Leonard Darvin was readying to retire from the Code and the dwindling membership meant oversight was being handled by an entity that ran multiple small agencies. There was one time I literally had to walk down to their offices to discuss a page of the Total Recall adaptation and get him to sign off. Later, he was replaced by Holly Munter. She and I had several years of great debates and invariably, I’d call to object to her objection, citing something more gruesome that had already seen print from a competitor. She was dedicated but clearly, her heart wasn’t in it by the time she left and I think it showed.

I find it interesting that DC Comics has finally chosen to stop using the archaic Comics Code seal of approval. On the one hand, they save some money on not submitting comics for review, but the release does not address the company’s role within the Comics Magazine Association of America. The CMAA not only managed the Code, but they worked with distributors on racking programs and other initiatives to ensure the comics released by its members got the widest possible distribution.

Back in 1981 or so, I got in a major argument with Eclipse Comics’ Dean Mullaney in the halls of Starlog Press. My position then, as it remains now, is that the CMAA should have been supported by all the independent companies that sprouted up in the early 1980s. Whether they used the Code or not, a trade organization made sense and could have grown and evolved into a useful tool that might actually have helped some of the guys stay in business or avoid the pitfalls such as Black September.

When Marvel Comics decided to withdraw from the CMAA and drop the code in 2001, President Bill Jemas insisted on having all us ex-DCers sit in the meeting as he and Joe Quesada announced to the other members (DC and Archie) that they were leaving. For Bill it was all theater and for Axel Alonso, Stuart Moore, me and a few others, it was beyond awkward. None of us really needed to be there and the other companies had every right to be miffed.

Some sort of labeling/rating continues to make sense and matching the video game labels is as good a set of symbols as any other. It certainly clarifies things for parents who still pay attention to what their children buy and read. It also helps protect the companies from self-appointed watchdog groups that would only take a single misstep and turn it into a public relations nightmare for the company.

Of course, the graphic novels collecting these stories aren’t labeled and arrive in bookstores for the unsuspecting family friend or relative to buy a book totally inappropriate for the recipient. Perhaps, as the home video releases carry the MPAA ratings, the graphic novels should as well.

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