The Comics Code Is Dead: DC and Archie Drop Out
The dominoes fell quickly. From comic institution and infamous legacy of kneecapping a medium in order to “protect the children” to irrelevant and unused in just two days.
The Comics Code Authority was an industry trade group formed to promote self-regulation and fend off government censorship. The code was first adopted by publishers in 1954 in response to Fredric Wertham‘s Seduction of the Innocent and Congressional investigation into lurid and excessive comics, often horror titles.
A comic was submitted to a group of readers, who would then evaluate whether that issue was suitable to carry the CCA seal, shown here. Concerned parents were supposed to look for this stamp on the cover to be sure they were getting something suitable for their children. The size of the seal varied over the years, from taking up significant cover real estate during periods of concern to smaller than a stamp at other times. Many purchasers in the current age had no idea what it was about. Historians of the field now bemoan it as restrictive and controlling.
The first chink in the code happened in 1971, when Stan Lee pushed through the publication of The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 without the code seal. This story, about how terrible drug abuse was, demonstrated the problem with blanket rules. If you said that narcotic use, for instance, couldn’t be shown in a comic, you also couldn’t do a story about its evils. For much more on the history, including copies of the code in its different revisions, read Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code by Amy Kiste Nyberg.
In 2001, Marvel announced that they were quitting the group and would not be using the seal, instead adopting their own rating system. (At first, they ran into trademark issues, as they copied the movie ratings, which are protected as intellectual property to prevent movie companies from self-rating.) Since independent companies rarely used the CCA, aiming to sell to older readers through the direct market instead of attracting the young on newsstands, that left just a few big publishers as members.
At the time, Marvel was recovering from bankruptcy filings, and speculation had it that saving money was part of the decision. The publishers pay the CCA for evaluating their titles, you see, and while it’s not much, it’s still a cost. Former DC and Marvel editor Bob Greenberger has some memories of his experiences with the system.
DC Quits, and So Does Archie
The most recent news marks the end of the Comics Code Authority. At its company blog, DC Comics announced on Thursday that they will adopt their own rating system. Followup coverage at many sites mentioned that that only left Bongo (publishers of the Simpsons comics) and Archie as CCA participants. However, it was pointed out that Bongo hasn’t been using the code for at least a year, although they didn’t make an announcement of the change.
Then came the other shoe: Yesterday the only remaining CCA publisher, Archie Comics, announced that they would be dropping the code next month. In the piece, the company President, Mike Pellerito, pointed out how unnecessary it was for their content while taking a shot at DC:
“The code never affected us editorially the way I think it did other companies,” he said. “You know, we aren’t about to start stuffing bodies into refrigerators or anything. We have to answer to Archie fans.”
The “body in refrigerator” is an infamous reference to Green Lantern #54, where Kyle Rayner, the new ring-bearer, found his girlfriend’s murdered body in that kitchen appliance. Pellerito went on to say that “the decision to drop the Code from all Archie comics was actually made a while ago, and the organization hasn’t submitted comics for approval for ‘a year or more’.” (Which is strange, because the seal still appears on their books.) But they waited for DC to announce first and to be asked about their plans.
I’m intrigued by the mention of a Mature rating in DC’s scale. A number of recent DC titles have been excessive in terms of gore, violence, and adult content. Instead of simply appearing without the seal, would those issues have been more appropriately labeled? Or would the company have pretended that if it’s superheroes, it’s still okay for teen readers? It remains to be seen how this will play out in practice.
Smart guy Christopher Butcher speculates on DC’s reasons, asking if the cost-cutting was the significant factor. He puts this decision in the context of other recent changes that may not have been noticed, like cancelling book collections. Says Butcher, “time was DC would publish both of those books, despite the low sales, just because they solicited them and were following through on a promise to the customer. Now, they’re not publishing books that don’t sell well.” He also speculates that more DC trade paperbacks may be going out of print.
Update: Vaneta Rogers has a nice overview of how the Code didn’t mean anything anyway, with suggestions that companies were putting the seal on selected titles without ever submitting them, since the Authority seems to have become defunct in 2009.