Near Mint Memories: Code-Breakers – Part 1

You know, I thought I had said all I could say on DC’s Identity Crisis and the Comics Code Authority (CCA). I’ve devoted a handful of columns to both inter-related topics, but fear not I’m not going to rehash them here. If you missed the NMM controversy bus the first few times it rolled into the neighbourhood, here are the past columns that dealt with the aforementioned topics: a) Escapism or Realism, b) Summer Crisis, and c) Codified Controversy

What I do want to look at in my next two columns are the Marvel books that helped change the face the industry in 1971 and 2001 respectively as it relates to the CCA. As I said in Codified Controversy:

“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…

…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 tea. The issue in question was published sans code and later Marvel’s new rating system was revealed.”

This week’s NMM will look back at 1971’s 3-part drug tale that began in Amazing Spider-Man #96.

In two weeks I’ll look at the first handful of attention-garnering issues starting from 2001’s X-Force #116


Those Swing’n Seventies… baby

For those of you who don’t want to shell out beaucoup dollars for Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, as they are valued at roughly $115.00 (US) each, the 3-part tale was reprinted in its entirety in 1986’s Marvel Tales featuring the Sensational Spider-Man #191. I was able to pick that reprint up on the cheap during this past summer’s comics convention season.

The story starts off with a dejected Peter Parker, the alter ego of Spider-Man, returning home to New York on a flight from London, England.

As was the hallmark of day, to ensure that each book was a good jump-on point for new readers, writer Stan Lee sums up the previous arc’s happenings with a quick blurb on page one:

“Last ish, we saw Peter Parker in London where he had gone to find the girl he loves. But, before he could meet Gwen Stacy, he had to become Spider-Man again, and go into battle.”

Peter didn’t end up seeing Gwen Stacy, or “Gwendy” as he called her, because he was sure that if she knew that both Peter and Spider-Man were in London at the same time that she’d figure that they were one and the same. Ah, the loveable loser strikes again!

However, since the Daily Bugle financed the trip, Peter did deliver some pix of Spidey to one of bosses,Robbie Robertson, to adorn the pages of the large metropolitan newspaper.

Being the nervous Nelly that Peter is (hey, I’m channelling the lexicon of the Seventies) he also worries about whether Robbie will make the connection… which he doesn’t.

This is also a time in Spidey mythology that Peter was living with Harry Osborn, the son of Norman Osborn, the rich businessman who was / is our hero’s greatest nemesis as the Green Goblin. The 3-part arc opens with Norman not remembering that he’s the Goblin, which is good for Peter since in his villain persona Norman knows that Peter is Spidey. Peter knows of Norman’s duel identity as well and is consumed with worry as he accepts a part-time job at Osborn’s company, due to Harry’s prodding. Our torm hero thinks that constantly being around the senior Osborn will trigger his Goblin identity and the ensuing memories, so he tries to make himself scarce.

This is also a time in Web Head lore when Harry Osborn is in love with a vivacious Mary Jane Watson (yes, its THAT “Mary Jane”) and is balancing college life with a busy work life too. Peter is in love with Gwendy, but just friends with MJ. And, MJ has eyes for “Petey”.

Sounds like an episode of the OC? Maybe, but here’s here it gets interesting!


A Drug Myth in the Cross-hairs

The actual parts of the arc that spoke to the drug matter didn’t come off as preachy and really flowed quite organically. There is, however, an element of the racial politics of the time at play.

The growing drug problem, in the early 1970s, years removed but still close to free-love hippiness, was seen as an acute problem among the black community, particularly the poorer segment. Although not a clean example, this is similar to how the AIDS virus was portrayed first, as a homosexual plague in the early 1980s. Once “reality” set it, society learned that the drug problem and AIDS were pretty much race and gender blind.

Very early on in the arc, a young black man succumbs to drug induced hallucinations and tries to “fly” off a building. Spider-Man is there to make the save. I imagine that this was done to reinforce drugs as a black community problem. Stan Lee was building up the myth to tear it down later in the arc.

In that same issue, Peter and his friends are off to see Mary Jane perform in an off Broadway show during the early stages of her acting career. Harry and Norman Osborn attend. The elder, unknowingly sinister, Osborn gets into an argument with one of Peter’s black friends who throws the gauntlet down in front of Norman and challenges him, as a captain of industry, to do more to tackle the drug problem and the black stereotype.

During all this, MJ makes advances on Peter, making both Harry and Peter uncomfortable.

The opening issue ends with a frazzled Norman Osborn assuming the Goblin mantle and challenging Spidey. (There really is no explanation as to why Norman reverts to his villainous identity.)


Dispelling a Drug Myth

After a brief battle, the Goblin assumes Spider-Man has fallen to his death, and flees allowing our hero to recover from being outmatched and embarrassed.

Peter returns home to an angry roommate who deals with the pain of loving someone who is making overtures to Peter by… popping pills. Stan Lee has sent a bold message – the drug problem effects everyone!

Peter is left contemplating what makes Harry so weak that he feels that he needs drugs. He also feels the helplessness of grappling with what to do about Harry after he collapses on his bed. Peter resolves to let Harry sleep it off.

What troubled me about this scene was that the drug issue had not been addressed in any (Spider) comics before, so one could assume that Peter wasn’t that familiar with it. So, how could Peter know that all Harry needed was to sleep it off? How does Peter know that he doesn’t need to go to a hospital?

Anyhow, later, Harry is seduced into a new designer drug, but for one-time only… common parlance of the addicted. The “I can quit when I want to” mentality which is anything, but true.

A pages forward, a “high” Harry confronts MJ, who spurns him, and he in turns to more drugs… and overdoses.

Peter finds his collapsed roommate, but now (for some reason – perhaps only due to writer’s perogative) knows he needs a hospital. As he prepares to take his friend to get help… the Goblin strikes again!

The Green Goblin confronts Peter at his home sans Spider-trapping!


Compassion from the Unexpected

One of the strengths of this arc was that readers got to see new sides of characters that they had known for years. The first character? An unlikely one in the form of… the Green Goblin?!?

Flowing from the previous issue’s cliffhanger, Peter appeals to the man behind the Goblin mask. He appeals to Norman and pleads – silently – with Harry’s limp body in his arms. The Goblin is stunned, caught aback by the familiar boy in Peter’s arms and… leaves, enabling Peter to take Harry to a hospital, but the Goblin will “be back! Sooner or later – Parker must die.”

Norman Osborn… the Green Goblin… compassionate? Well about family anyway.

Who was the other character that readers saw a softer side of? None other than… curmudgeon J. Jonah Jameson!

The Daily Bugle publisher questions Robbie Robertson on the drug story he’s planning. Readers learn that Robbie’s planning to run a story on Harry’s drug problem which is noteworthy because he’s the son of an affluent captain of industry, Norman Osborn. Jameson seemingly raises the issue that Osborn is a major advertiser for the paper, which worries Roberston.

However, that matter was raised as part of Jameson’s broader question about the “angle” of the story. Robertson responds that: “I’m showing that drugs aren’t just a ghetto hang up! They hit the rich – same as the poor. It’s everyone’s problem! We’ve got to face it.”

JJJ’s response? “Well, don’t just stand there, man! I want it in the next edition!” And, another side to him is revealed. He may hate Spider-Man, but he’s a principled newsman excluding is arachnophobia!

The story ends with a “final” confrontation with the Goblin who Spider-Man forces to confront a collapsed, but recovering Harry in hospital. The Goblin is shocked back into his Norman identity, shedding his villainous persona… for the time being.


So…

The strength of this arc was that it was still a super-hero story first with a message second. It didn’t beat you over the head with an anti-drug message.

Also, Gil Kane’s pencils were amazing. The expressions he gave to the Green Goblin moments watching his son were moving and helped peel the onion of the villain’s personality.

This is also the type of story that reinforces why writer Stan Lee is known as “The Man”. Its a very human tale that doesn’t forget who its audience is and doesn’t betray the medium by becoming a whiney public service announcement. He balances super-heroing and message-making quite effectively. The drug message just flows organically in the story.

This was a great story for its day and it challenged the status quo and helped evolve the CCA. As I’ve said before, the CCA in 2004 should adapt not be scrapped and follow the precedent set in 1971. Change is good.


Changing Times

What I found interesting is that the version of Marvel Tales 191 (from 1986) that I have actually has the code on it – although the previous image in this article does not reflect that as I pulled it off of the ‘net. Ah, what a difference a fifteen years makes.

As I mentioned earlier, the CCA was revised as a result of Marvel plodding through and publishing its Spider-Man issues sans code.

” 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.”

This 1971 arc is a far more meaningful code-challenging story than Peter Milligan’s obsession with sex, drugs and pop culture in his 2001 X-Force reimagining… but I’ll get to that in my next column.


Miscellaneous Memories

A reader had some interesting insights into my previous CCA-centric column that I thought I’d share with you.

Here is R. C.‘s very thorough and thoughful e-mail:

Good article, and ably sets out the reasonable alternatives to blind censorship. You would probably know that the argument has been made (by Alan Moore, for one) that the Code was nothing less than a conspiracy by the other, less successful publishers to put EC out of business by targeting specifically what EC did, particularly the wording of its titles and the composition of its covers. I think that’s probably a little paranoid, and it runs afoul of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanation is probably the correct one).

As you correctly point out, the Code fits in well with the concurrent mentality of McCarthyism and is consistent with what had already happened with the Hays office in Hollywood etc. The censorship concern was bound to be even stronger with what was perceived as a children’s medium.

It’s interesting to see what happened in other countries without the Code, where Comics aren’t necessarily a “respectable” medium but are not seen as beeing necessarily for children. For instance for many years Spain (and I think Mexico), France and Italy had Fumetti that are a combination of EC comics gore-horror with sex porn. They are very hard to take because of the sadism component. I wonder what Wertham would have made of them. The same thing goes for some (Hentai) Manga, I suppose.

Thanks for reminding me about the “Revised Code” in 1971. I have quite a specific memory of that. I bought the Spidey issues and noticed the drug theme (which was new), but didn’t notice the absence of the Code until it was pointed out to me a little later. (There was no Internet or fan press in them there days). I remember wondering where comics would go from there. (There was a slightly sexier, slightly gorier alternative in black and white at Waren with Vampirella and Creepy, but nothing “mainstream”).

It was only a matter of a few months (I think) until DC did drugs with the Speedy’s a Junkie storyline in GL/GA. Although this was edgier than the Marvel story (to the extent of using a main costumed character), it did get Code probably in reaction to the Spidey experience. And that whole GL/GA storyline edged the Code in other ways, particularly by your example that “Authority figures were also now allowed to sometimes be depicted as corrupt.”

When I get a chance I’ll read the SOTI (Seduction of the Innocent) now that I know where it is online. I don’t necessarily have a lot of sympathy for Wertham’s “keep the gory horror comics from the kids” but the other side of his discussions — the psychosexual analyses of Wonder Woman and Batman, for example — is kind of interesting and not always wrong.