Comics Code Authority

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The Comics Code seal
The Comics Code seal

The Comics Code Authority (CCA) is part of the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA), and was created to regulate the content of comic books in the United States. Member publishers submit comic books to the CCA, which screens them for conformance to its Comics Code, and authorizes the use of their seal on the cover if the books comply. At the height of its influence, it was a de facto censor for the U.S. comic book industry.

The CCA was created in 1954 as part of the CMAA in response to public concern about what was deemed inappropriate material in many comic books. This included graphic depictions of violence and gore in crime and horror comics, as well as the sexual innuendo of what aficionados refer to as good girl art. Dr. Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent rallied opposition to this type of material in comics, arguing that it was harmful to the children who made up a large segment of the comic book audience. Senate subcommittee hearings led by Estes Kefauver had many publishers concerned about government regulation, prompting them to form a self-regulatory body instead.

The CCA code was based upon the largely unenforced code drafted by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948, which in turn was modeled loosely after the 1930 Hollywood Production Code. The CCA, however, imposed many more restrictions than its predecessor.

Like the previous code, the CCA prohibited the presentation of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions ... in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority." But it added the requirements that "in every instance good shall triumph over evil" and discouraged "instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities." Specific restrictions were placed on the portrayal of kidnapping and concealed weapons.

Depictions of "excessive violence" were forbidden, as were "lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations." Vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies could not be portrayed. In addition, comics could not use the words "horror" or "terror" in their titles. The use of the word "crime" was subject to numerous restrictions.

Criticism and enforcement

The CCA had no legal authority over other publishers, but magazine distributors often refused to carry comics without the CCA's seal of approval. Some publishers thrived under these restrictions, others adapted by canceling titles and focusing on Code-approved content, and others went out of business.

Publisher William Gaines believed[1][2] that clauses forbidding the words "crime", "horror" and "terror" in comic book titles had been deliberately aimed at his own best-selling titles Crime SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror and The Crypt of Terror. These restrictions, as well as those banning vampires, werewolves and zombies, helped make EC Comics unprofitable; all of its titles except MAD were cancelled in the year following the CCA's introduction.

Psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham dismissed the Code as an inadequate half-measure

Updating the Code

In the late 1960s, the underground comics scene arose, with artists creating comics that delved into subject matter explicitly banned by the Code. However, these comics were distributed largely through unconventional channels, such as head shops, making CCA approval unnecessary for their success.

The Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971), the first of three non-Code issues that prompted the CCA's first update, allowing comics to show the negative effects of illegal-drug use. Note the cover-blurb reference to "The last fatal trip!" Cover art by Gil Kane
The Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971), the first of three non-Code issues that prompted the CCA's first update, allowing comics to show the negative effects of illegal-drug use. Note the cover-blurb reference to "The last fatal trip!" Cover art by Gil Kane

In 1971, Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee was approached by the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare to do a comic book tale of drug abuse. Lee agreed and wrote a three-part Spider-Man story portraying drug use as dangerous and unglamorous. The CCA refused to approve the story because of the presence of narcotics, deeming the context of the story irrelevant. With the approval of his publisher, Martin Goodman, Lee published the story in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May-July 1971), without CCA approval. The storyline was well-received and the CCA's argument for denying approval was deemed counterproductive. "That was the only big issue that we had" with the Code, Lee recalled in a 1998 interview: "I could understand them; they were like lawyers, people who take things literally and technically. The Code mentioned that you mustn't mention drugs and, according to their rules, they were right. So I didn't even get mad at them then. I said, 'Screw it' and just took the Code seal off for those three issues. Then we went back to the Code again. I never thought about the Code when I was writing a story, because basically I never wanted to do anything that was to my mind too violent or too sexy. I was aware that young people were reading these books, and had there not been a Code, I don't think that I would have done the stories any differently. "Stan the Man & Roy the Boy: A Conversation Between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas"], Comic Book Artist #2 (Summer 1998)

The Code subsequently was revised in 1971 to permit the depiction of "narcotics or drug addiction" if presented "as a vicious habit". Also newly allowed were "vampires, ghouls and werewolves... when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world". Zombies, lacking the requisite "literary" background, remained taboo. However, Marvel skirted the zombie restriction in the mid-1970s by calling the apparently deceased, mind-controlled followers of various Haitian super-villains "zuvembies". This practice carried over to Marvel's super-hero line. In the Avengers comic, when the reanimated super-hero Wonder Man returned from the dead, he was also referred to as a "zuvembie".

Writer-editor Marv Wolfman, on the panel "Marvel Comics: The Method and the Madness" at the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention, told the audience that when he began working for DC, he was forbidden to use the name "Wolfman" in print due to the Comics Code Authority's ban on the mention of werewolves or wolfmen. In 2007, he elaborated to a columnist that in the supernatural-anthology comic House of Secrets #83 (Jan. 1970), the narrator introduced a Wolfman-scripted story beginning on the next page by claiming it was told to him by "a wandering Wolfman". When the CCA reviewed the story, it denied the "wolfman" reference as a violation. Gerry Conway, the comic's editor, told the CCA the story's author was genuinely named Wolfman, and asked whether it would still be in violation if the name were clearly stated on the first story page. The CCA said it would then not violate the Code, and Conway gave Wolfman a writer's credit for the story, "The Stuff that Dreams are Made of". (Artist Alex Toth also received credit.) Afterward, other DC writers began asking for similar published credits.


In 2001, Marvel Comics withdrew from the CCA in favor of its own ratings system. As of 2007, DC Comics and Archie Comics are the only major publishers still submitting their books for CCA approval, and in the case of DC, only books from its Johnny DC and DC Universe superhero lines, with DC Universe titles sometimes published without Code approval.

1954 Code highlights

A couple of the rules of the Comics Code Authority that stand out are:

  • 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.
  • 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.

It's no wonder kids grew up with a sense that superheroes were the ultimate figures of truth and justice. During the early days a clear distinction was drawn between the good guys and the villains.

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