The Comics Code Authority (CCA) was a self-imposed set of regulations implemented by the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), put in place as an alternative to the US government’s threat to impose its own standards. It was a code of censorship, forbidding wide swaths of content from being published, in response to a moral panic about comic books corrupting youth. It lasted from 1954 until just into this last decade when Archie Comic Publications, Inc. became the last brand to drop the CCA stamp in the year 2011. We’ll circle back to Archie in a bit.
You might be tempted to say “But we’re rid of the censorship code, so that’s water under the bridge now.” Well, no, it’s not so easy. Censorship is cultural robbery. It leaves a permanent scar on the literary record. Even though the CCA standards were taken with decreasing seriousness with every passing year of their practice, we have still been robbed of a half century or so worth of development of the comics medium.
Born from the crescendo of McCarthyism, the censorship motivated by the CCA put good storytellers out of work, made it difficult for creative people to earn a living, and even snuffed out a whole label for awhile. Let’s start with that last one, especially since it’s Halloween.
The assassination of EC Comics
You have no doubt heard of Tales From the Crypt, now a successful franchise which has spawned an Amicus horror anthology film and a late-80s / early-90s TV series, both of the same title, with several more films and TV series based on the franchise besides. Tales From the Crypt was just one of many horror anthology titles published by EC Comics, whose initials just stood for “Entertaining Comics.” You’ll also no doubt recognize the tradition of short horror (sometimes sci-fi and fantasy) stories from other works ranging from old pulp magazines to TV series such as The Twilight Zone up into our modern Black Mirror.
Beyond that, EC Comics put out a stunning range of titles written and drawn by some of the most legendary talents of that time. Along with adaptations of works from literary greats such as Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame (ironic note), EC Comics were also known for using the platform to tell some socially progressive stories. I’ve mentioned before that progressive philosophies and fantastic fiction go hand in hand out of necessity. EC Comics were no exception.
And, just as Rod Serling found himself censored on TV when his stories got a little relevant to current news, EC Comics must have stepped on some bigoted toes. When the Comics Code Authority rules were codified, they included rules such as:
- No comic magazine shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in its title.
- All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
- Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
- Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
Again, here is EC Comics’ title listing. Gee, you have to wonder why the CMAA members bothered being coy about targeting EC? In case you’re suspecting a financial motivation on the part of the other comics publishers who sat on the CMAA board, well, here it is from EC Comics founder William Gaines himself, with some supporting commentary:
Despite the alleged rules of the CCA, Gaines once submitted a story for approval which was rejected just because the main character (an astronaut in a space suit) is revealed to be, gasp, black. The complete story Judgment Day is now an exhibit at the Comic Legal Defense Fund.
Other comic book labels who didn’t happen to be publishing in the horror niche thrived under the CCA seal. Mind you, there was no government enforcement of the code. You simply submitted your comic to the review board, they approved it with the CCA White Rectangle of Purity, and it went on to retail outlets whom faced scrutiny if they sold comic books without the CCA seal to minors. Just like how Walmart would get heat for stocking “M for Mature” video games decades later thanks to certain bluenose lawyers, a comic in the mid-20th-century would not sell without the CCA seal.
The timeline leading up to the formation of the CCA started with a book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, a psychologist who naively pulled false data out of his beard to prove that comics were causing juvenile delinquency. Subsequently outraged parents had actual comic book burnings.
Also subsequently, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency was convened. William Gaines was brought before the committee to testify at what would prove to be his witch trial, complete with a prosecutor brandishing a copy of an EC Comics title and daring Gaines to defend its lurid cover art.
Before we leave the tale of EC Comics, we can mention that at least they got in some last laughs. The first is the fact that, driven out of the comics business on a rail, they were forced to turn to magazine publishing. That magazine turned out to be Mad. The other last laugh is that today, if you visit EC Comics’ official site, you’ll find cheeky quotes at the top on pages like their history section, “Seduce your innocence!”
(*insert hysterical Crypt-Keeper laugh here*)
The insanity of banning horror
The CCA did get re-examined and re-written by the early 1970s, prompted in part by the restrictions on horror content. They did this when it was brought to their attention that fiction of the very same topics – undead, vampires, ghouls, werewolves – were also the genres of literature being taught in schools of the time! When your public school curriculum is more liberal than your comic books, you know something has gone horribly wrong.
When you consider it, horror is the chosen genre, or at least side gig, of some of the most respected names in literary history:
- Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of crime, haunting, and ominous ravens
- H.P. Lovecraft’s life’s work
- Mary Shelley and Frankenstein
- Bram Stoker and Dracula
- Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House
- Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes meeting The Hound of the Baskervilles
- Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is chock full of ghosts
- Franz Kafka and The Metamorphosis
- What about William Shakespeare? What about the ghost in Hamlet or the witches in Macbeth?
- If you count dystopian fiction as horror, now you get Orwell and the rest of ’em in here too.
Whatever you do, wherever you go, please do this for your Uncle Petey: Do not let some intellectually dishonest troll get away with dismissing your love of horror fiction as juvenile. Horror is the very foundation of mature literature, the beginning of imagination, the motivation behind the first myths. Beat them over the head with Macbeth until they shut up, and then do not let them ever again ban horror.
Winners during the CCA era
As mentioned, not everybody was driven out of business by CCA censorship. Archie comics, the most conservative label in comics history, thrived, even though Archie founder Dan DeCarlo turned out to be a notorious pervert who also drew comics for men’s magazines. DC Comics’ Superman did swell, even though Superman co-founder Joe Shuster was a bondage illustrator. Speaking of which, there’s also Wonder Woman and her creator, William Moulton Marston. With all the closeted kink behind superhero comic founders, is it any wonder that they got so adept at telling stories about characters with secret identities?
You’ll also find that the suppression of creativity enforced by the Comics Code Authority created cultural pressure in the wonderful way it always does, and sired the underground comix movement. Chief at the forefront of underground comix was the delightfully screwed-up, but talented, but extremely screwed-up, but amazingly talented, Robert Crumb. Take a peek back at those EC Comics titles and see if you don’t recognize some of his inspiration here:
Did Crumb resent mainstream superhero comics soaking up all the fame while his work was confined to the spinner rack in every head shop in Haight-Ashbury? You decide:
We will have to rejoin this topic another time to take a few more licks of the hairy lollipop that is Robert Crumb, because he is to comic artists what Frank Zappa was to other musicians. Oh by the way, there were a bazillion other cool underground comix artists who are also worth a post of their own too.
Anyway, don’t think for a minute that the comics you can read right now were not shaped and molded by the CCA. It was their influence which forbid law enforcement figures from being portrayed in a negative light, even if that was justified by current news. It is the CCA’s influence that molded the characters of Superman and Batman.
The most important lesson from the CCA era is: Never think that it can’t happen here and now. Book burning still goes on today, right now, this month!