Near Mint Memories: Codified Controversy

The comics (Internet) world has been in a tizzy since uber-scribe Brad Meltzer’s opus Identity Crisis hit stands. The book has re-ignited an ages-old debate about whether super-hero comics are escapist fantasies or mirrors of “realism” (tongue-in-cheek).

For those who’ve visited The Nexus’ DC Comics forum or have read my previous columns on the subject – first in NMM: Escapism or Realism and then in NMM: Summer Crisis – fear not, I’m not going to re-debate the issue. I’ve said me piece and you’ve inundated me with yours – some agree with me, others don’t. I have welcomed the spirited debate and continue to welcome e-mails and forum posts on it.

However, while this week’s NMM column isn’t on the Identity Crisis saga, it does touch on a topic that emerged from the controversy: the dreaded Comics Code Authority!


Fertile Grounds

It all starts with psychiatrist Dr. Fredrick Wertham in 1954 and his crusade against violent comic books. He penned Seduction of the Innocent – a book with the subtitle: the influence of comic book’s on today’s youth – that essentially put forward the position that comic books led to the delinquency and sexual perversion of children. This was a time when horror comics were prevalent and outselling super-hero comics.

Had the book been released at any other time in American history it may not have resonated as much as it did in 1954.

Think about it. The 1940’s and 1950’s were a time of fear and change in the United States.

For example, it was during this time that the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), formed in 1938, began to actively investigate those alleged to have conducted unpatriotic behavior.

In 1947 HUAC began investigating the Hollywood movie scene and turned friend and against friend in the search of left-thinking communists. This eventually led to jail time for those found to be communists and even those who were uncooperative and citing, to no avail, the 1rst Amendment. Many were also blacklisted in Hollywood – a literal list that had over 300 names on it by 1950.

This was also the time of the Korean War.

1950 saw then U.S. President Harry Truman give the green-light for the development of the Hydrogen Bomb. A new U.S. President in Dwight Eisenhower coming to Office in 1953.

That brings us to 1954 the year Wertham’s book was released. This was also the year that U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy began televised Senate Hearings into alleged communist activities…. what became known as the “witch-hunt” termed “McCarthyism”.

This was also the time of J. Edgar Hoover.

Much of what I’ve just regaled you with may not be familiar, but just to help with the frame of reference a bit more, the year after Seduction of the Innocent was released, in 1955 now famous civil rights figure Ms. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “white” portion of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama and sparked the wick of the civil rights movement in the U.S.

Wertham’s book directly led to Senate Hearings as well. Comic books were the subject of examination in 1954 of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee Investigation on Juvenile Delinquency.

Wertham was a key speaker before the committee which pretty much brought EC Comics, the only publisher at the time delivering adult comic books, horror, etc., to its knees. The committee asked EC publisher William M. Gaines, for example, to explain how bloodied severed heads, among other horror visuals, were suitable for children.

Other comic book publishers, seeing their livelihoods at stake, quickly agreed to self-regulation, and the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was born.


The Initial Code (1954)

The CCA had no legal authority, but publishers and distributors of the time rarely carried comic books that did not bear the code’s seal of approval.

The code’s seal was essentially a white postage-stamp-like large marker on the comic book’s cover.

The code had many parts, but was straight forward in its rules on the depiction of crime, horror, sex, marriage, religion, race, attire, and advertising.

It essentially prohibited visual or literary depictions of sexuality, gore and extreme violence, as well as tobacco, liquor, fireworks, knives, and similar types of advertising.

The code also insisted “good” would always triumph over evil, that authorities be depicted respectfully, and prohibited scenes with vampires, werewolves and zombies.


Code World

EC Comics was able to survive the strict code standards, which seemed almost targeted to force them out of business, by essentially switching Mad to a magazine format and avoiding the requirements of the “comics” code.

However, even with the creation of code, Dr. Wertham was unhappy as he viewed the comics industry’s self-regulation a sham. Interestingly, Wertham was not part of any ultra-conservative movement. He was actually known as a progressive of sorts for his compassionate work in New York with minorities and the less fortunate.

Wertham’s continued criticisms aside, the code essentially killed horror comics and stifled crime, western and the romance comic books of the day. Many comics creators left the industry and a handful of publishers went under. Although this is the source of much debate, the super-hero comics genre was minimally impacted by the code. Super-heroes comics were outsold by other comics genres at the time.

The code’s seal on comic books was essentially a visual thumbs up for parents, educators and the government certifying that the material was approved and suitable for children. The code branded American comics as a kids’ medium and drove off much of its adult followers. The stigma that comics are for kids remains today even though much of today’s readership aren’t children.

Underground comics rose in the 1960’s and published books without the code, but the big publishers, like National (now DC) and Marvel, still stuck by the code. However, Marvel would challenge the code in the 1970’s with the government actually on its side.


The Revised Code (1971)

The National Department of Health approached Marvel Comics in 1971 to publish a comic book on the hazards of drug use. Marvel agreed and crafted a Spider-Man tale that the CCA (Amazing Spider-Man #96) didn’t approve. The story was published anyway.

The code, in response, was amended.

It now would allow for the depiction of narcotics use in comics as long as it its dangers were depicted.

Incidentally, vampires, werewolves and the other horror genre creatures that were initially prohibited were now ok’d for depiction so long as they were portrayed in the tasteful tradition of horror creative greats such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar A. Poe, and others.

Authority figures were also now allowed to sometimes be depicted as corrupt.

Even with the code’s revision its influence on the industry has progressively diminished over time.


Dwindling Fortunes

In the 1980’s DC Comics published code-less mature readers books and later launched an imprint for adults called Vertigo.

Many of the non-DC and Marvel aboveground comics publishers in the 1980’s and beyond did not have the code’s seal. And the non-American market hadn’t for years and published erotic and violent comics.

In 2001, Marvel Comics stopped using the code and adopted its own rating system. This was likely sparked by the CCA‘s requested revisions to a then surging-in-popularity book, X-Force (#116), by a new indie creative team. The issue in question was published sans code and later Marvel’s new rating system was revealed. PG (Parental Guidance) and PG+ on Marvel books basically meant the book was ok for teens and older readers while no rating meant the books were all-ages ok.

However, Marvel would later have to amend its rating system as “PG” and “PG+” are trademarked by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Marvel’s new rating system still has the lack of rating as a indicator for all-ages accessibility. However, Marvel PSR (Parental Supervision Recommended) now meant the marked book was ok for those 12 years of age or older, Marvel PSR+ for those 15 years or older, and Parental Advisory / Explicit Content signifying 18 years or older readership suitability

While Marvel has adopted a rating system, DC has chosen to selectively use the code. Some of its books have the code, others do not and seem to be geared for older readers (unlike Marvel’s system of no rating signifying all-ages readership), while others are still labeled for mature readers.

Incidentally, for those books that still use the code, the size of the seal has significantly shrunken over the years and is barely noticeable even if its on the cover.


Which end is up?

Today’s comics industry is a confused mess when it comes adoption of the code or use of a rating system.

The industry seems to be moving towards collaboration in areas that hopefully expand the base like Free Comic Book Day while self-regulatory processes through the code are used unevenly or not at all.

The comics industry needs common standards. Perhaps the code is a system from and for a different time. Fine. Then the industry should choose something else and agree on it.

There are standards for TV programming and movie ratings. There are certain programs on TV that you can’t watch until after 10 pm and movies where you need to be a certain age or older to view them.

The arguments that a rating system or standards are creatively stiffling, a form of censorship, or somehow unconstitutional are absurd. Other forms of entertainment have common standards, the comic industry should to. Hell, there are labels on toys!

The comics industry needs to do better in this area particularly when no rating on a Marvel book means that it is all-ages accessible while no rating on a DC book means that its certainly not all-ages accessible. Inconsistency and confusion are hallmarks of the current “system”.

The CCA is a great scapegoat for those who use its dubious origins as a way to explain away the need for any standards in comics – the code or otherwise. Regardless of how the code came about, what it intended to do in its time was laudable.

However, as times change, standards and ratings should evolve too. This has been the case in the movie industry for example. A PG movie today is certainly not a PG movie from 20 years ago. The goal posts have moved with the times.

Children grow up faster today. They’re more savvy and mature earlier then when I was a boy those 20 years ago.

Is the code the answer? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that the industry should just give up on the idea of standards.

Marvel may actually be an industry innovator as its rating system reflects the shades of gray of today and allows the publisher to better reflect and market its varied line of books.

Marvel’s current rating system isn’t as rigid as the black and white, right and wrong, CCA.

Marvel’s is an illuminating and flexible system, while cumbersome, is a good launching pad for a industry-wide discussion on a common ratings system. I would just suggest that the industry use less cumbersome rating acronynms then Marvel’s – the less letters, the easier to follow.

“Buyer beware” seems to be the reader’s new adage – not that readers really care about ratings or codes or anything with the whiff of a “standard”.


Miscellaneous Memories

Well, that trip down memory lane over (for now), and unrelated to the Comics Code Authority, I’d like to briefly chat about a trade paperback (tpb) I recently picked up: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Its a tpb that retells the 2-part classic by comics greats Chris Claremont and John Byrne (when they were the hot “new” kids of the comic book industry – pre-Internet of course).

Its a time-travel story focusing on new X-Man Kitty Pryde known then as Sprite (later to be called Shadowcat) and her future self Kate. In a very different 2013, the giant Sentinel robots patrol North America, and keep humans and power-dampened mutants under their thumbs.

Many of Earth’s super-powered heroes and villains, whether mutants or otherwise, have been killed by the Sentinels with only a smattering of “name” mutants remaining: Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Magneto, Frankling Richards (the son of Reed and Sue Richards of Fantastic Four fame) and Sprite. Also, a red-headed mutant named Rachel (Summers perhaps?) also travels with our ex-X-Men in 2013.

Rachel’s mental abilities are key to sending the mind of Kate Pryde back to 1980 into the body of her younger self to prevent her dark future world from coming to pass.

In the present (at that time) of 1980 we also have the X-Men tackling a newly reconstituted Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the thread was weaved here where blue skinned X-Man Nightcrawler starts questioning whether he is somehow related to the evil, blue skinned and shapeshifting mutant Mystique. Lots of drama and action in this story!

This 2-part tale from the 1980’s is bookended by an X-adventure with Marvel’s Canadian mutant team Alpha Flight and later by a solo-Kitty Pride right-of-passage tale.

Reading this classic collabortion of Chris and John really brought me back to the simplicity of comics of the 1980’s. The 2-part Days of Future Past was a great super-hero tale that embraced the science-fiction elements of the genre and was not ashamed to be a story about heroes in tights with fantastic powers.

Its interesting to see how John Byrne’s art style has evolved (a bit). The eyes of his characters were much larger in the 1980’s for example, but his actions scenes were and are still dynamic.

With the advent of the Internet its a shame that creators of Chris Claremont’s and John Byrne’s statures have to deal with faceless online “experts” critical of them personally not necessarily their work. The only vindication these creators have is that there most recent projects have done well sales wise. Their continued success, with some bumps on the road like all creators including Stan Lee and others, speak louder than the vulgarity of some these online stalkers. Let’s comment on creators’ work and leave the temptation of personal attacks alone.

I recommend X-Men: Days of Future Past as a great super-hero tale from yesteryear. Don’t be ashamed to read about super-heroes anymore! Dig in and enjoy.


This is Your Column-within-a-Column

Here’s YOUR column folks. Its the Question and Answer corner of NMM where we pose a question and you answer.

We’re also still looking for a name for YOUR Q&A feature. We’ve had some cool suggestions, but you still have 2 weeks to submit your idea for the name of this column-within-a-column. So, send your suggestions to me at jebabos@yahoo.ca and Chris and I will choose the winning name. The winner will receive a free tpb courtesy of moi. The tpb choices will be revealed next week!

Ok, this week’s week’s question is:

Should the comics industry just dump the Comics Code Authority, adopt a more universal and flexible rating system like Marvel’s, or something else?

Send your responses to jebabos@yahoo.ca .

Last week’s question was:

If you could sit down and have a meal with any comics creator, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Here’s what Chris Delloiacono had to say:

It would have to be Stan Lee. From watching interviews with Stan “The Man” it’s clear that he’s one of the most engaging men ever to work in comics. He made Marvel Comics the industry leader that it still is and had a hand in creating more icons than any other person in the history of comics. I am riveted when he tells stories in interviews; I can only imagine what it what be like to sit and listen in person.

And, what I have to say:

I would love to have dinner with Julius Schwartz and Curt Swan together. They were such an important part of my youth – my reads of Superman. Of course, back then I was more into Superman than the wizards behind the curtain, but those Superman tales gave me such joy and a sense of awe as a kid.

Also, here’s some feedback we’ve gotten on our recent NMM columns:

James Lawson:

Thank you for the article on Jon Sable, but I think First Comics as a whole should be looked at. It was an independent company that relied very little on super heroes and more on genres that weren’t covered by the mainstream companies. Badger, Nexus, Dynamo Joe, E-Man, Blaze Barlowe, Flagg, Sable. Having read comics since 4 years old, when this came along in my teenage years it allowed a breath of fresh air that kept me from being burnt out. My favorite line? From an issue of Badger: Badger’s druid friend: “Look at this oak, so gnarled and old, yet grand and bold!” Badger: “An oak, no joke, so don’t have a stroke.”

James Lawson:

In regards to “Identity Crisis”, I would like to bring up a few points. The first is that until I started reading all the opinions and reports about Sue Dibny’s rape, I didn’t look at it like that. Call it naiveness or not reading into the panels, but that is something I didn’t see. The second point is that Identity Crisis is probably a little harder to digest for some people because some of the things being shown in this comic tread on things we’ve accepted since first reading comics. I think above all else, this is meant to take some of the “shine” out of the DC Universe. I do approve of the way it is being done. While we as comic book readers are used to seeing heroes and villians “die” with a revolving door policy, we have to remember that the two most significant and far-reaching deaths in comics happened to supporting characters. The first was Gwen Stacey over in Spider-Man, which has haunted not only the readers, but some comic professionals to this day. The other was Iris Allen, Barry’s wife. Even though she has since come back, her initial death sent shockwaves not only through the Flash’s title, but provides a navigation point of sorts for things that are happening in Identity Crisis.

Brittp:

After just reading IC #3 we learn that it wasn’t Light who killed Sue, so doesn’t that make the rape scene in #2 a bit pointless? The JLA deal with people who who try to destroy/take over the world every day there has to be many pepole who die because of these plans, yet it’s rape where they draw the line and jack with someones personality? Yeah that makes sense. Rape a friend’s wife they almost turn you in to a vegetable. But be a hero, go nuts, kill friends, and try to restart the univese ( Hal Jordan) hey that’s ok, water under the bridge, want your power ring back? Pease.

A. Green:

I am so glad to find someone who sees the Identity Crisis miniseries for the dirty travesty it truly is. I was so foolish to look inside the pages at a comics convention earlier this week, and my insides cried out in pain. Worst of all, it was astoundingly misogynistic. The main problem with writers and even the publishers themselves today is that they seem to be capitulating to the demands of some faceless, anonymous crowd that wants “realism” injected into comics, even at the cost of destroying everything that comics stand for, and it seems that there’s a sudden, degrading trend to see to it that every couple/character/family in the DCU have some kind of tragedy occur to them. As if we the audience ever begged for such a thing to happen, or were going to boycott comics entirely if they didn’t.

To make matters worse, some of the writers, Meltzer included, appear to be connected to television and movies, whether they come from that industry or joined it later on, and the impression that some of them seem to give is that they value and advocate violence in their writings, no matter how questionable it is overall, and it’s enough to give a very bad image to movie and TV writers.

I certainly hope that the damage this series has wrought upon the DCU can be repaired in time, and with a lot of the negative reaction that’s risen already, I sure hope it will be.


Tune in next week for more memories made and those in the making!