Monday, July 21, 2014

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: The Comics Code Authority

“Comics are a new kind of harm, a new kind of bacillus the present-day child is exposed to.”

You don't see it any more these days.  Every single comic for decades used to have a little seal on the cover announcing its compliance with a voluntary self-governing code.  This seal meant that the comic had been checked over by the CCA and contained nothing considered improper for youths to read.
The story behind how this started is somewhat familiar to most comic book fans.  During the 1950s as the old popular comics such as Superman became less popular, comic book publishers started looking for other kinds of stories to attract readers.  Horror and more pulp-focused stories of crime and suggestive, mildly sexy stories started to dominate comic books.
At the same time, there was a growing awareness of a newer phenomenon called "juvenile delinquency" in which teenagers were causing trouble in ways they had not before.  Young people, previously fairly well behaved, were starting to rebel and become involved in crime, gangs, drinking, and even drugs.
A psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent in which he postulated that popular culture, mainly movies, television and comic books, were responsible for corrupting youth.  Alarmed parents, looking for someone to blame, grasped this concept and it grew in popularity.
Wertham testified before congress in 1954 before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency chaired by Estes Kefauver (later responsible for anti-mafia hearings).  Wertham was a distinguished Psychiatrist who had opened a clinic to help black youths in Harlem, funded largely by voluntary donations.
Dr Wertham's testimony was that comics of the time period were fixated on sex, violence, drugs, and sadism.  He noted (accurately) that Wonder Woman had bondage themes, then speculated that she was a lesbian.  He argued that comic book imagery, often lurid and suggestive at the time period, was having a negative effect on youths.  He was the first to publicly suggest that Robin was a homosexual victim of Batman's predation - that all sidekicks were likely such a relationship.
Dr Wertham pointed out what he considered 'hidden sexual imagery' in drawings such as tree bark and shading on costumes. He then went on to say that  that 95% of children in reform school read comics, and this was proof that it contributed to juvenile delinquency.
Dr Wertham also was very critical of television, calling it "a school for violence", and said "If I should meet an unruly youngster in a dark alley, I prefer it to be one who has not seen Bonnie and Clyde."
Comic book companies saw a trend in the mood of the public and congress.  Either they made a public display of dialing back the more extreme blood, gore, violence, suggestive material and unethical activity in comics, or they'd be forced to by law.  Already parents were having bonfires to destroy comic books and protesting their publication.  Some businesses were starting to refuse to carry comics, nervous about the mood of the country.
So the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA) created a board that would check their comics, called the Comics Code Authority.  Among the requirements were that good should triumph over evil, and that police should not be depicted as corrupt or being killed.  Restrictions on the portrayal of concealed weapons and kidnapping were implemented.  Forbidden was any depiction of "excessive violence," "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations."  Also banned were vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies, and the word "Crime" in the title.
Anything that seemed too sexual such as cleavage on women, bare midriff costumes, any depiction of "sexual perversion" and most "good girl" art were all banned.  Love scenes were to promote the "sanctity of marriage," and scenes of seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were all prohibited.  The Comics Code Authority was very similar to the Hollywood Production Code implemented much earlier.
Eventually, comic books moved away from the code, starting with Marvel Comics in 1971 in a Spider-Man story specifically requested by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.  They asked Stan Lee to write a story showing how bad drug use is to kids, but the CCA rejected the story.  So Marvel ran it without the code approval and seal, and nobody seemed to notice.  Gradually, publishers began skipping the code, and by the late 1980s it had been dropped entirely from comics.
The general consensus, unstated or not, is that this entire episode was the result of right wing radicals and religious extremists oppressing art and freedom and trying to impose a rigid conservative ideology on the culture.  But was it?
Fredric Wertham himself was not right wing religious extremist.  His writings were used in the support of the Brown vs Board of Education decision, he fought for and was influential in the desegregation of schools.  Wertham was a disciple of Sigmund Freud who testified in defense of child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish, arguing that his fixation on religion was the cause of his madness (saying that Fish viewed his murder of boys to be sacrifices ala Isaac in the Bible and cannibalism was communion).  Influenced by Marxist cultural theorist Theodor Adorno, Wertham's efforts were continually for social reform, as defined by the latest progressive theories.
Historian and Wertham expert Bart Beaty wrote a book about the man, praising his efforts in the budding communications field, his progressive liberal ideas, and his fight for social reform.  Wertham was a strong defender of the Soviet Spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and wanted to write a book reconciling Freud and Marx.  He was consistently anti-business and anti-freedom of the press when it came to children.  When he opened his clinic in Harlem, Wertham named it after Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law who translated portions of Das Kapital into French.
Wertham never called for the burning of comic books, and in fact was not concerned with their content aimed at older readers.  He wanted laws to "protect" children younger than 15 from the more lurid and violent content, not understanding that they effectively were already.  Kids younger than 15 were not interested in the monsters and pulpy content of EC and the heavy text and wordy comics that he condemned were just not read by kids.
Its easy to see why, with modern eyes, Wertham is viewed as a prude and a right wing religious type. 
He was prudish and seemed shocked by sexual content.  But that was (and still is) not inconsistent with leftist political viewpoints.  Being concerned about children's exposure to sexual and violence content is hardly unique to right wingers, particularly violence.  It is the left, not the right, primarily fighting to get violence in games, movies, and television reduced.  It is the left that fought to get Saturday Morning Cartoons to be less violent.
And in the cultural context, at the time, everyone was more conservative and concerned about sexual content and exposure of children to it.  His condemnation of Batman's homosexual predation on Robin was met with shock by both left and right.  The left has since moved further down the path away from this and toward near-total sexual acceptance (almost nothing is even considered perverted any more), but that took more than half a century of incremental movement.
Wertham's crusade seems quaint and silly today, but it was not at the time. Psychiatry at the time believed almost exclusively in nurture; that bad people were bad because of influences, not nature.  That juvenile delinquency was caused by exposure to bad things and corrupting influence, and that criminals were only that way because they were taught to be.  Prison became about reforming and socializing, not punishing.  
Wertham himself was a senior staffer at New York's Bellevue Mental Hygiene Clinic and before that the lead psychiatrist at Maryland's Johns Hopkins Hospital.  He was very well respected and his ideas not ridiculed or considered absurd at all.  There was testimony pointing out the poor research and shoddy work in his book and testimony, but his positions were not unusual at the time.
Ultimately the whole comics crusade was just one more effort by frightened and concerned parents to find something, anything to blame for their kids instead of themselves and the changing culture.  It was easier to blame movies, television, rock music, and comic books.  Disengaged parents, loosening cultural values, an inability to answer and deal with children's questions, increasing leftist influence in education, and a trend toward rejecting tradition and past ethical absolutes were unacceptable blame.  Better to find an easy to identify bad guy.
And ultimately, the whole thing fell apart.  Few really thought comics were corrupting children, because even the most gory ones never actually showed gore, only hinted, threatened, and suggested it.  Even a particularly shocking (and effective) tale of Dr Frankenstein building a woman from body parts he harvested from victims he killed had all the killing and dismembering, then rebuilding, happen off panel, undepicted in the comics.
But the result was comics became incredibly bland, choked off, and uncreative to the point of absurdity.  Those wanton temptresses Betty and Veronica from Archie comics were put in baggier outfits.  Images that remotely suggested anything adult were excised, cleavages were covered up, and so on.
Of course, these days comics have gone berserk the opposite direction, as the pendulum swings.  Now sexual content, horrific gore, nudity, drug use, foul language, and all sorts of perversity are shown in comics.  Homosexual main characters are trumpeted as some sort of great leap forward in progress, alleged heroes mangle and murder their enemies, and even Batman shrugs when his son decapitates a villain and brings the head home to show off to daddy.
Is this having a negative effect on teenagers and kids?  I doubt its having any effect at all - comics are more focused on late teens up to readers in their thirties.  They've pretty well abandoned the kids market and are losing readers pretty steadily to other media and entertainment options.
While comic book movies are making huge money, that's not translating into greater sales for comics overall.  People seem content to just watch a film rather than lay out 4-5 bucks for a comic once a month.
But the general belief that the Comic Book Crusade was some kind of right wing fanaticism, possibly tied in to the red scare which happened not long before, is without merit.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

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