Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ding Dong, The Comics Code Is DEAD!

The Comics Code, generally regarded as the most repressive set of content guidelines ever imposed on any entertainment medium, has been on life support for a while now.  Some chinks in its armor began to appear as soon as the early 70's when Marvel decided to publish its famous anti-drug story in The Amazing Spider-Man sans the CCA seal of approval, leading to changes in the Code allowing depiction of drug use as long as it was shown in a negative light.  The same set of changes also allowed for depiction of such previously banned classic monsters as vampires and werewolves, leading to the resurgence of horror comics over the ensuing decade. Zombies, by the way, were still verboten, but one or two managed to slip through the cracks anyway. In 1989, the Code was revised again to reflect new realities in the comics industry, such as the rise of the direct market and the emergence of an older readership.   
In 2001, industry leader Marvel Comics dropped the Code seal and instituted an in-house ratings system.  After that, it was just a matter of  time until we'd be reading a piece like the one which appeared today on the Comic Riffs blog declaring the Comics Code not only merely dead, but also most sincerely dead.  
After Bongo, publisher of the Simpsons comics, gave the Code the heave-ho sometime last year, only two publishers, DC and Archie, still bothered to submit their books for approval.  Only Archie, however, carried the Code seal on their entire line of books, while DC used it mainly for their "Johnny DC" line of titles for younger readers. 
Not that anyone noticed, of course.  A couple of years ago, I was doing research for an article on the current state of the Comics Code.  In the course of this research I talked to a few friends of mine who bought comics for their kids and asked them if the Code seal of approval had any impact at all on what they let their kids read.  My friend James had no idea what the Comics Code was, despite the fact that his daughter was a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog, which was published by Archie.  My sister and the father of her children told me that they simply used their own best judgment.  
James' ignorance of the Code is understandable, as the actual seal had radically shrunk over the decades.  Where once it was so prominent that it would sometimes obscure part of a comic's logo, in recent days  it was so small as to be almost invisible.
The Code no longer seemed to have any impact on what comics got carried by retailers, either.  In the few places outside of comics specialty shops where I found comic books for sale, there were just as many, if not more, titles available from publishers who were not members of the Comics Code Authority as from those who were.
Nor, I discovered, did the Code have all that much impact on the way comics were written.  As part of my research for this never published article, I interviewed Sean McKeever, who  at the time was the writer of Teen Titans, one of the handful of DC comics still carrying the Code seal.  He revealed that, at first, he hadn't even been aware that TT carried the seal.  He said that he only learned that fact when his editor pointed out something in one of his scripts that might not make it past the Authority's censors.
So, not that it really matters to anyone, but DC officially announced on their official DC blog on Thursday that, as of this month, their comics will no longer carry the Comics Code seal and that they have instituted a ratings system similar to the one Marvel's been using for the past decade.   The only real surprise here is that it took so long.  Somewhat more surprising was the next day's news that Archie Comics, long the Code's staunchest supporter among comics publishers, was abandoning the Code as well.  Although, I suppose, given that they were the last guest remaining at the party, its not all that surprising that they finally decided to head home. 
I doubt, however, that Archie's dropping the Code seal will mean we're suddenly going to see Veronica or Betty doing a nude centerfold in Archie's Pals 'n' Gals.  Archie comics were squeaky clean before the Code took effect, and will continue to be so as long as the company exists.  Nor is the absence of the Code seal likely to affect the content of DC's books.  Thus, this news, while long overdue and certainly most welcome, is essentially irrelevant. 
Thus ends the Comics Code's decades long slide into obsolescence and obscurity, not with a bang but a whimper. 

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