Comic Books #5: The Comics Code Authority: R.I.P.

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written."
- Oscar Wilde

It's a fact that comic books from the 1940's and 1950's were often shockingly brutal and degrading. The Comics Code Authority was created in 1954 to deal with the public outcry against comics like this one from 1947.

From the cover:

Girl 1: SO!! You couldn't see me because you had a date with the boys! All right, wise guy, you asked for it! I'm gonna have a chat with the Cops! OH!!
Guy: Can I help it if you're too dumb to know when you're gettin' the brush off! GO AHEAD BIG MOUTH, squeal to the Cops! I'd like to see you try it!
Girl 2: Step aside, Frankie!! Let me give her a goin' over, woman style! I'd like to sharpen my nails on that fat face!!

Unfortunately, the code ended up being just as over the top as the comics they were trying to regulate with ridiculous rules such as "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds." The code also has the dubious distinction of bringing down the creative and talented powerhouse of EC comics. Tales from the Crypt was no more (but their publisher, William Gaines, would go on to success with MAD magazine).

For an example, one stipulation of the code was that "Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities." I'm guessing this issue of Junior (Fox Features' answer to the Archie comics) wouldn't pass the test.

The following commentary on the infamous Crime SuspenStories 22, 1954 was found here. [cover pictured below]

This cover wins the contest for "most notorious cover illustration" hands down. When the Senate Committee of the Judiciary to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency began hearings in New York City in 1954, this particular cover caught the eye of Senator Estes Kefauver. William Gaines, the publisher of E.C. Comics, was put in the awkward position of having to defend the cover:
"Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman's head up, which has been severed from her body. Do you think that's in good taste?" asked Kefauver.

"Yes, sir, I do...for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that blood could be seen dripping from it, and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody," replied Gaines.

"You've got blood coming out of her mouth."

"A little."
By the end of the day, William Gaines had achieved nationwide notoriety and crime comics had been pronounced guilty of corrupting the youth of America.

Of course, the inevitable question is where exactly to draw the line. Also, you would like to allow the comics to retain a little edge and not resort to silly and safe homogenized blather...

BUT you also would like to prevent violence run amok from getting into the hands of kiddies...

The solution (in my humble opinion) is to rely on parents, and not rely on the government to be our nanny. The particularly lurid comics won't be bought by mom and pop if they're doing their job as parents. And if (heaven forbid) one of these comics winds up in the hands of a minor, it won't ruin their life... kids are pretty resilient and will get over it.

The real culprit for this Comics Code mess is a book by Dr. Frederic Wertham called Seduction of the Innocent. The book spoke out against the comic industry and pointed the finger directly at specific issues of comic books. Parents across the country became alarmed. As it turns out, Seduction of the Innocent was a pretty messed up piece of work itself. In the book, Wertham claims that Wonder Woman is a lesbian, Batman and Robin are gay lovers and naked pictures could be deciphered from drawings of tree bark and muscles.

I especially love the theory that Batman and Robin are gay. The following comment (found here) highlights Wertham's supercharged homophobia.

“Batman and Robin, Wertham charged, inhabited ‘a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.’ They lived in ’sumptuous quarters,’ unencumbered by wives and girlfriends, with only an aged butler for company. They care for each other’s injuries, frequently shared quarters, and lounged together in dressing gowns. Worse still, both exhibited damning psychological characteristics: proclivities for costumes, dressing up, and fantasy play; secretive behavior and double-lives; little interest in women; and most damning of all, neurotic compulsions resulting in their violent vigilantism. Indeed, Wertham argued, depictions of Batman and Robin were frequently homoerotic, visually emphasizing Batman’s rippling physique and Robin’s splayed, bare thighs.”

“‘Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize the subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures,’ wrote Wertham. ‘The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies.’”

You be the judge...

Not surprisingly, juvenile delinquency did NOT decline after the institution of the comics code. And also not surprisingly, creative people found ways to bypass the rigorous code. One way was to issue the comics in magazine format - no longer technically a comic and therefore not bound by the code.

Eventually the code was modified, the sad truth behind the Wertham's "research" was revealed, and the code's influence shrunk to insignificance. Today only Archie comics and a few DC lines submit their comics for approval. Wertham would be so disappointed.


  1. I don't know. I did always wonder if Batman and Robin were a little too much into each other. :-)

    Serious though, this is something the government should not be messing with. It's like our government of today. There are more important things to be fixing than something along these lines. If parents are doing their jobs (which many of them don't), then they would be keeping these things out of their kids' hands. It's up to them. The govt. is not our nanny to look after us and make sure we don't see something we shouldn't.

    If you don't want to see such things, then don't buy them. If you don't want your kids to see them, don't let your kids buy them or don't buy them for your kids. It's as simple as that. The govt. never knows when to draw the line. The govt. is too big and powerful as it is. I want less govt, certainly not more of it.

  2. Gil

    I am familiar with a couple of these covers and even use them for lessons in my ESL classes before, to make up stories to. Soon my Chinese students were sort of freakin' out on me.

    Thanks for the cool link to the site with the Crime Does Not pay Story. Before my BTs were blocked here I certainly got in tons of comic book material. Such as the Warren stuff I post a lot of. They were the 1st I think to get around the code with the "it's a magazine, not a funny book" argument.

    I personally loved violent comic books as a kid and am glad my parents never checked out what I was reading.

  3. "the sad truth behind the Wertham's "research" was revealed"

    Can you elaborate on that a bit, please?