Reggie and Me – Finally… the Code

After around a hundred pages of notes, months of research and several hours of audio… we’re finally at the actual Code itself.

The “mission statement” for this fourth chapter of our coverage was:

Following the Senate Subcommittee Hearings and Estes Kefauver’s Interim Report, the fate of comic books… insofar as their “regulation” was left in the hands of the publishers themselves.  Turns out, it was Public Enemy Number One (from all sides of the argument), Bill Gaines who would first suggest the publishers convene and self-regulate.  He felt, somewhat naively, that if left to their own devises, censorship would be kept to a minimum.  If he only knew…

At the first meeting of the new Comics Code Authority… it was made pretty clear to Gaines that the “Code” basically painted a target on EC Comics and himself specifically.  He’d leave the meeting, however… when the Code was eventually enforced, he had no choice but to submit his stuff.  Non-Code Approved books were being returned by distributors without even being opened.

John L. Goldwater, then-President of Archie Comics, was made the first President of the CCA.  Charles F. Murphy, New York Magistrate was appointed the Administrator of the CCA.  By the time the dust settled, just about every publisher you might’ve heard of joined up.  Two notable exceptions were Dell/Gold Key and Disney.  Dell, since “Dell Comics are Good Comics”, and Disney because… well, they’re Disney.

Because of the Code, comics were going to take a hit in popularity… there was little doubt about it.  It wouldn’t be the only reason why comics would wane, however… gotta remember, this is the mid-1950’s, and there was about to be more competition for the free-time of the American youth: television.  Entering the decade, there were approximately 15,639,872 sets-in-homes nationwide.  Leaving the decade, that number blows up to around 67,145,000!

Between the Code’s establishment and other entertainment being more readily available… by 1958, 24 out of the 29 comics companies that originally made up the Comics Magazine Association of America, Incorporated… were out of business!  All that were left (notably speaking), were Archie, Harvey, DC Comics, Charlton, American Comics Group, and Marvel Comics.  Dell/Gold Key and Disney were still kicking… but, as mentioned, were not part of the CCA.  Gilbertson, the company responsible for the absolute borefests known as Classics Illustrated were still around as well, mostly doing reprints at this point though.

  • Sales overall declined 45% from 1955 to 1961
  • In 1962, sales were down 56% from a decade prior
And now… finally, the Original Code (penned October 26, 1954):
  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.
  • Policemen, Judges, Government Officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
  • If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
  • Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited.  Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
  • No unique or unusual methods of concealing weapons shall be shown.
  • Instances of Law-Enforcement Officers dying as a result of a criminal’s activities should be discouraged.
  • The crime of kidnapping shall never be portrayed in any detail, nor shall any profit accrue to the abductor or kidnapper.  The criminal or the kidnapper must be punished in every case.
  • The letters of the word “Crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciatively greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title.  The word “Crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.
  • Restraint in the use of the word “Crime” in titles and subtitles shall be exercised.
Now, that was just the opener… “Part A”.  And a reminder… these were rules about comics being put into place… by people producing comics.  This isn’t the government… this is out of fear of how far the government might have gone.  Also, it’s pretty clear just from this first bit… that the CCA felt that Bill Gaines hadda go.

Part B:
  • No comic magazine shall use the word “Horror” or “Terror” in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil 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.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibals, and werewolfism are prohibited.
Check out the second and third bullets, if you haven’t yet… lots of subjective stuff there, innit?  How do you define “depravity”?  Is it the same way I define “depravity”?  How do you define and contextualize “lust”?  Is it the same way I do?  Feels like the start of one’a them “slippery slopes”, doesn’t it?  Makes ya think that certain publisher(s) might get a pass for certain things, where EC Comics another publisher might not?

Part C:
  • Dialogue
    • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words and symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
    • Special precautions to avoid references to physical afflictions or deformities shall be taken.
    • Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and, whenever possible, good grammar shall be employed.
  • Religion
    • Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.
  • Costumes
    • Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
    • Suggestive or salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
    • All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.
    • Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
  • Marriage and Sex
    • Divorce shall not be treated humorously nor represented as desirable.
    • Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed.  Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
    • Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered.  A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for morbid distortion.
    • The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of home and the sanctity of marriage.
    • Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.
    • Seduction and rape shall never be shown nor suggested.
    • Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.

That covers an awful lot.  A theory we floated, though I don’t think it made tape, was that this entire endeavor sought to stifle “maturation of society”.  There’s plenty here that hasn’t aged well… and it’s easy to cherry-pick those details.  “Sex perversion” and “sexual abnormalities” are probably where most eyes go if they bother to scan this piece.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what they’re hinting at here… but, it was a different time.  Heck, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) still referred to those “abnormalities” as mental illness back then.

Let’s look at some of the more “subtle” bits we’ve looked at.  Comic books cannot be shown as questioning authority.  Police and Government Officials were never to be shown as anything less than honest and right.  Divorce was not to be shown as a desirable option.  Moral values were emphasized… but, that’s a nebulous statement.  What’s morally sound to one… might not be to another.  There’s a lot of thought-policing going on here.  Same as it ever was for the comics biz, no?

Code for Advertisement:
  • Liquor and tobacco advertising is unacceptable.
  • Advertisement for sex and sex instruction books are unacceptable.
  • The sale of picture postcards, “pinups”, “art studies”, or any other reproduction of nude or seminude figures is prohibited.
  • Advertising the sale of knives or realistic gun facsimiles is prohibited.
  • Advertising for the sale of fireworks is prohibited.
  • Advertising dealing with the sale of gambling equipment or printed matter dealing with gambling shall not be accepted.
  • Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste of morals.
  • To the best of his ability, each publisher shall ascertain that all statements made in advertisements conform to fact and avoid misrepresentation.
  • Advertisement of medical, health, or toiletry products of questionable nature are to be rejected.  Advertisements for medical, health, or toiletry products endorsed by the American Medical Association, or the American Dental Association, shall be acceptable if they conform with all other conditions of the advertising code.

From cover-to-cover, the Code’s looking at it all.  The advertising guidelines… I don’t feel all that strongly about.  You’d hope that the average comic book reader would be able to tell, at a glance, which ads were legit… and which were scams, but I suppose that’s probably asking too much.  If you’re looking to scam kids with your miracle drug… ehh, you probably deserve to get the boot.

That… in several parts, was the original Comics Code.  Was it good enough for Kefauver and the Kronies?  Well… sorta.  Come August, 1955… Estes threatened yet another investigation of the comic book industry.  Judge Charles Murphy (NY Magistrate/CCA Admin) would respond to Kefauver’s plea, stating that the Comics Code Authority “flushed out” objectionable material in comics… and closed with the following statement:
  • “Therefore, I would greatly appreciate your calling to my attention any new trends that might be open to criticism.  It would also be helpful if you could send me (…) any other material which you feel would guide us in our work.”
Volleying the ball back into Estes’ court proved to be enough to call his bluff.  Rather than put in any further actual investigative effort, Kefauver simply wrote back to Murphy to state: “I think generally you are doing alright.”  One year later, as mentioned, Kefauver would be Adlai Stevenson’s running-mate in a failed bid at the American Presidency.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at “Life Under the Code”, but before I wrap up for today, I want to include some revisions made to the Code… specifically those made in 1971 and 1989.

January 28, 1971:
  • Vampires, ghouls, and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle, and other respected authors whose works are read in high schools around the world.
  • Narcotics or drug-addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit.  Narcotics or drug-addiction or the illicit traffic in addiction-producing narcotics or drugs shall not be shown nor described if the presentation:
    • Tends to any manner to encourage, stimulate, or justify the use of such narcotics or drugs; or
    • Stresses, visually, by text or dialogue, the temporary attractive benefits; or
    • Suggests that narcotics or drug drug habit can be easily broken; or
    • Shows or describes details of narcotics or drug procurement, or the implements or devices used in taking narcotics or drugs, or the taking of narcotics or drugs in any manner; or
    • Emphasizes the profits of the narcotics or drug traffic; or
    • Involves children who are shown knowingly to use or traffic in narcotics or drugs; or
    • Emphasizes the taking of narcotics or drugs throughout, or in a major way, of the story, and leaves the denouement to the final panels.

The times they were a-changing.  Somehow horror comics were no longer the “bane of the bassinet”… and attentions turned to late/post-sixties drug culture.  We’ll discuss a couple of stories from Marvel and DC (you know the ones) that “pushed back” on this tomorrow.

1989 Revision:
  • Healthy, wholesome lifestyles will be presented as desirable.  However, the use and abuse of controlled substances, legal and illicit, are facts of modern existence, and may be portrayed when dramatically appropriate.
  • In general recognizable national, social, political, cultural, ethnic and racial groups, religious institutions, law enforcement authorities will be portrayed in a positive light.  These include (…) social groups identifiable by lifestyle, such as homosexuals, the economically disadvantaged, the economically privileged, the homeless, senior citizens, minors, etc.
Gotta put this into perspective.  In 1989 comics distribution was a completely different animal than in 1954.  Newsstands were still “a thing”… but there was also that other way of buying comics: The Direct Market.  Add to that the absolute explosion of independent comics publishers… and the CCA started to appear even more antiquated than it was from the outset!  They had to “change with the times”… and, really grasp to maintain their… well, “authority” over the industry.  More on that tomorrow…

3 thoughts on “Reggie and Me – Finally… the Code

  • If the CCA was the industry's way to keep the government out of regulating comics and it was this harsh, I would love to know what the government would have done instead. Would it have been harsher or more lenient than the CCA. Did the comic companies shoot themselves in the foot trying to keep government out of comics?

    • We'd posit during the show that, had the government actually intervened, the guidelines would have been much more lenient… and much more prone to being tangled in "red tape" to be seen as worth the time to those officials involved.

      Thankfully (for them), they put enough of a scare into the comics industry that they sort of "over-corrected" and played things a little *too* safe for the better part of a half-century!

  • It's a shame the code isn't in place today! Morals have declined so much that I very rarely read modern comics


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