Spider-Man Versus Censorship: A Short History of the Comics Code
By guest author: Tess Wilson
The history of comic books — from the 1930s on — has been riddled with controversy and censorship. Almost immediately after their debut in stores, the format garnered distaste from educators, parents and authorities because of its graphic nature and the autonomy it offered young readers. One notable response to comic books came in the form of a book by Dr. Frederic Wertham: Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954. Wertham “argued that children imitated the actions of comic books characters and that the content desensitized children to violence” (Nyberg).
As a reaction to widespread skepticism of comic books, publishers attempted to appease critics and regulate content through the creation of the Comics Code, which censored controversial topics in comics for nearly 60 years and was eventually abandoned in favor of creative freedom.
Wertham’s book — and his argument that reading comic books risked detrimental effects on impressionable minds — was part of a “landscape of concern” that reached a peak in the 1940s and 1950s (Tilley). As publishers struggled to reconcile the varied contents of their product with increasing push back from the public, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) was formed. On Oct. 26, 1954, this conglomeration of publishers developed, adopted, and enforced a strict code, known as the Comics Code, regulating the content of comic books (Van Gelder).
With its creation, the CMAA intended to “provide an effective bulwark for the protection and enhancement of the American reading public,” and was hopeful “that it w[ould] become a landmark in the history of self-regulation for the entire communications industry”. Individual comic books that adhered to the Comics Code were stamped with the Seal of Approval (Nyberg). This seal ensured that the comic in question met a series of 41 standards that covered both editorial and advertising aspects of comic books. No wholesaler was permitted to sell comics that did not meet these requirements, and since 90% of American comics books publishers adopted the Code, the CMAA was highly effective in censoring the comics that reached the public (Van Gelder 37).
The Comics Code standards included regulations related to content — both words and images — concerning crime, horror, occult references, profanity, marriage, sex, liquor, tobacco and “ridicule … on any religious or racial group.” The standards encompassed many areas of controversy, and were clearly motivated by the now widespread fear that young readers might be negatively influenced, or encouraged to mimic, the content encountered in a comic book. An example of this motivation can be found in the fourth standard listed in the “General Standards-Part B” section of the Comics Code. This standard reads:
“Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader” (Comics Magazine Association of America).
By restricting what was consumed by readers of comic books, the Comics Code naturally limited the creative freedoms of authors and illustrators of the genre. And while the standards attempted to be explicit and straightforward, even the distinction between what is “good” and what is “evil” is subjective enough that enforcement of this specific form of censorship proved complicated. Throughout its reign, the Code underwent several revisions, some of which were reactions to publishers and authors who resisted these restrictions. A 1971 New York Times article highlighted an unapproved Marvel Comics Group issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that was edited by Stan Lee. This incident was a notable turn in the history of the Comics Code because it was “the first time since adoption of the code that a subscribing member published without its seal of approval.” A letter from the National Institute of Mental Health prompted Lee to include a subplot concerning drug abuse in the Spider-Man issue as a way to “assist in the dissemination of factual information on drug abuse” (Van Gelder).
The same year that this issue was published unapproved, the CMAA released a revised Code that clarified some standards and eliminated others in an attempt to “make a positive contribution to contemporary life” and to “seek new areas for developing sound, wholesome entertainment”.
While this 1971 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man was not the only incident responsible for the eventual dissolution of the Comics Code, it was certainly a catalyst in this area of censorship. As Lee said in an interview about his stance on the subject:
“We can’t keep our heads in the sand. I said that if this story would help one kid anywhere in the world not to try drugs or to lay off drugs one day earlier, then it’s worth it rather than waiting for the code authority to give permission.” (Van Gelder)
By the time the Code faced its 1989 revision, distribution methods had changed significantly and comic books were being sold by sellers independent from the CMAA. Publishers gradually stopped adhering to the Code and, “by 2011, only two publishers printed the Seal of Approval on the cover of their comics” (Nyberg). Those two lingering publishers — Archie and DC — announced their abandonment of the Seal later that year. For a period of almost 60 years, the CMAA’s Comics Code attempted and largely succeeded in regulating the content of American comic books. As “industry-wide self-regulation” became less popular across many genres and mediums, publishers, authors, and readers alike embraced the rights afforded by the First Amendment. While illustrated works are still routinely and persistently challenged — in fact, in 2016, “the top two most challenged works were graphic novels” — the dissolution of the Comics Code was a necessary step toward creative freedom (Cavna).
“Banned Books Week: Why are illustrated books being challenged more than ever?” The Washington Post, 25 Sept. 2017. Michael Cavna.
“The Comics Code of 1954.” 1954. Comics Magazine Association of America
“A Comics Magazine Defies Code Ban on Drug Stories.” New York Times, 4 Feb. 1971. Lawrence Van Gelder.
“Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval.” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Amy Kiste Nyberg.
“Seducing the Innocent: Frederic Wertham and the Falsifications that Helped Condemn Comics.” Information & Culture, vol. 47, no. 4, 2012. Carol L. Tilley.
Tess Wilson is part of the Civic Information Services team at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where she connects patrons with tools for community conversation and civic change. She also contributes programming to our STEAM initiatives and The Labs@CLP, a teen digital media space. In her spare time, she creates zines examining mental health concerns, volunteers with a local feminist makerspace, and tries to keep up with two dogs and a cat. She is a collector of anything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisitions were an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh.