I really wasn’t expecting to still be talking about this early project for quite this long. I figured by now I’d already be sharing some stories from 2018-2019. Guess that’s just another sign of how much graham we would cram into our shows. I hope readers are enjoying this trip down memory lane… I know they’ve been immeasurably helpful for me.
I’m at the point where I’m trying to get motivated about the future… both of this site and the podcast channel. I have a lot of mixed emotions about continuing on… but, I’d also face a lot of guilt if I just called it a day. Whichever way it ultimately winds up going, there’s likely to be quite an emotional challenge ahead of me.
Yesterday we went through the original Comics Code… and, I received a question from loyal reader and pal Chris U. in the comments. He asked if I felt leaving the regulation of the industry to the publishers themselves resulted in harsher guidelines than had the government actually intervened. That was the perfect question, as it leads pretty much into what we’re going to discuss today.
Reggie and I had posited that, had the government actually stepped in… the guidelines would likely have been far more lenient. Government officials and offices weren’t going to dedicate the time and manpower to judge the worthiness of comic materials. Also, the verbiage in the code would have likely been a bit less nebulous/subjective.
Comics, as they still do to this very day, over-corrected in the face of adversity. Rather than put up any sort of fight, or try and compromise with their “accuser”, the industry just, to put it crassly, bent over. People criticize comics for [insert whatever], and comics immediately change course. I could go into the “insecurities” of the comics industry (then and now)… but, if I start… I doubt I’ll be able to stop anytime soon.
So, do we have an example of over-correction in the early days of the Code? We sure do! Let’s look at a little story called “Judgment Day”, that appeared in Weird Fantasy #18 (April, 1955) from EC Comics… Bill Gaines is back again!
This story was flatly rejected by the Comics Code Authority (Judge Charles Murphy specifically)… and Gaines was told it would pass only if they changed the final panel. Ya see, this was a story about an astronaut… who, in the final panel, was revealed as being a (dun dun dunnnnnn) black man.
Al Feldstein, writer of the piece, would say:
- “Judge Murphy was off his nut. He was really out to get us.”
- “I went in there with this story and Murphy says, ‘it can’t be a black man’.”
- “But that’s the whole point of the story!”
Bill Gaines had to eventually get involved… and, boy did he! He threatened Murphy and the rest of the CCA that, if the story didn’t get a pass, he’d expose them all as racists.
- “This is ridiculous! I’m going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis to do this. I’ll sue you.”
- “If they do not give that issue the Code Seal, I would see that the world found out why.”
In the face of Gaines’ threat, the Code Czars relented. After all, there is nothing in the language of the code regarding “there shall not be black folk”. Murphy did demand a single change to the panel, in that Joe Orlando remove the beads of perspiration from the astronaut’s head… which was an artistic choice. The glistening sweat set on the black skin was supposed to look like the stars in space.
This is a pretty wild story… especially if we look at it with “current year” eyes. Did we feel that the CCA was racist? Maybe some of the individuals involved were… but the Code itself? Nah. Was this another sign of “over-correction”? Was this an attempt at avoiding perceived controversy? More likely… perhaps? Orrrr… maybe it was just an office full of racists. Who could say?
Bill Gaines’ story isn’t over yet. With the 24th issue of MAD (July, 1955) it would be upgraded from comic book to a traditional magazine format, which… allowed it to circumvent the Comics Code Authority altogether! MAD would go on to be a massive success… which at the time of the original scripting, was still going on. Today, though… looks like MAD isn’t really much of a “thing”, sadly.
In the interest of brevity, let’s jump way up to the eve of the first big CCA Revision… and a handful of issues of the Amazing Spider-Man. Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May-July, 1971) ran without the Comics Code Seal due to the subject matter it covers… which was drugs.
Stan Lee was reached out to by the United States Government Department of Health Education and Welfare. The letter expressing concerns about drug use among adolescents, and the Department felt as though comic books might be the best way to share an anti-drug message which could influence the youth of America. So, yeah… an actual Government Department asks Stan Lee personally to write this story.
The Comics Code Czars rejected it.
From Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Universe (2006):
- “They (the CCA) said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do this story’.”
- When asked why not, ‘According to the rules of the Code Authority, you can’t mention drugs in a story’.”
Even when Stan informed them this was an anti-drug story, he was told “it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs”. When Stan revealed that this was at the behest of the Federal Government, he was told “it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs”. And so, Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 would be the first books from a major publisher to run without the Code Seal since 1955! The Seal would make its return with issue #99 (August, 1971).
Of this, Stan would say:
- We would do more harm to the country by not running the story than by running it.”
- “I felt the United States Government somehow took precedence over the Comics Code Authority.”
Neal Adams (who we’ll discuss in just a few lines) would say in Wizard Magazine #0 (2003):
- The Code was totally rewritten because of Stan and that cover within the month.”
Stan Lee and Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 did change the Code (we looked at the revision yesterday)… but, it could’ve been another book and creative team responsible… if only the DC Comics of the day had half the guts Stan did.
“Snowbirds Don’t Fly” was a story that appeared in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86 (August/September-October/November, 1971). This is a popular story that many people associate with the loosening of the Comics Code. It has that very famous cover where Speedy is shooting up heroin. If you’re reading this site, you’re very likely aware of it. If not, well… here ya go:
Note the inclusion of the Comics Code Seal!
This story/cover (which was pitched before Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 were a thing) was initially rejected by Julius Schwartz… it would only get the green-light after the Code revision (hence it’s inclusion on the cover of GL/GA #85). This was seen by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams as a huge missed opportunity for them to be proactive. Neal would say, in Comics Scene Magazine #27 (1992):
- “We could have done it first and been the ones to make the big move. Popping a pill and walking off a roof isn’t the sort of thing that happens (this is a reference to the events of the Spider-Man story), but heroin addiction is; to have it happen to one of our heroes was potentially devastating. Anyway, the publishers at DC, Marvel and the rest called a meeting, and in three weeks, the Comics Code was completely rewritten. And we did our story.”
Another Neal quote from Wizard Magazine #0 (2003):
- “Stan took the ball and nobody said no. It became the thing to talk about. DC Comics was fit to be tied. They had it in the palm of their hands and they dropped it!”
We covered plenty more in the actual episode, but I feel as though these are the three biggest takeaways. If you want to hear us talk about a story by a “wandering wolfman”, zuvembies, the “Cosmic Code Authority” and so on, I’d encourage you to listen to the program.
Tomorrow, we ought to be wrapping up this look back at our Comics Code project… though, no promises. Our fifth and final chapter contained some pretty intimidating stuff for me personally, as it was the first time I engaged in any editorializing and saying things on-the-air that might’ve been considered somewhat controversial… I’ll tell you all about it next time.