The Comics Code Authority: Rise, Resistance, and Downfall

(Warning: the links concerning underground comics, while informative, contain graphic images related to sex and drugs. If this makes you uncomfortable, then DO NOT click the provided links. However, no such images have been reproduced on this blog post, so I suggest you at least read what I’ve written. Enjoy).

All forms of media have had their detractors. Video games constantly get bashed for being too violent, and TV gets bashed for being too stupid. Radio probably had its own wealth of detractors, and new trends in music breed new generations of outraged old people. Books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Catcher in the Rye, and Harry Potter, as well as such plays as The Playboy of the Western World and A Doll’s House, have been banned and panned for such things as presenting biting satire, immodest women, or social reform (or, in the case of Harry Potter, witchcraft). Even oral tradition hasn’t always been safe. Remember Socrates? He was popular a while back. You know what the politicians of the time thought of him? Why, they liked him so much that they gave him a nice hemlock-cocktail. He was understandably quieter after that.

Naturally, comics have been met with similar criticism. In both the east and the west, comics have been the whipping boy for many causes, be they politically, religiously, or parentally-motivated. There is no shortage of reasons for this: the most commonly cited reason, though, is that comics are supposed to be for kids, and kids need everything censored and child-proofed until they can vote, drink, and smoke. What said detractors have historically failed to realize is that if you insult an art form enough, somebody will probably start using that art form just to make you angrier. In this sense, comics throughout the later half of the twentieth have been used as a soapbox for counter-culture. Whether these counter-culture writers and artists created out of spite, a desire for underground notoriety, or out of desire for real social change, the results may well have shaped comics as they are today.

Much grief among American comic writers can be traced back to the Comics Code Authority. Established at some point after 1954, the Comics Code Authority was created by the  Comics Magazine Association of America as a means of controlling content without resorting to government regulation. Some of the CCA’s mandates were understandable, such as not wanting criminals to be glorified, requiring good to triumph over evil, and perhaps more importantly, banning depictions of rape. Then there were some sillier rules, such as the banishing of vampires and werewolves, not using the word “crime” in titles or subtitles too often, and avoiding excessive use of slang. What really got under the skin of comic writers, though, was a fiasco before the CCA was officially instated, involving the story “Judgement Day” by William Gaines.

In “Judgement Day” Tarlton, a representative from Earth is sent to see if the planet Cybrinia is ready to join the Great Galactic Republic, only to find that the resident robots are split between orange and blue, with the former being the upper class and the latter being made to do grunt-work. Naturally Tarlton isn’t happy about this, and tells his tour guide that Cybrinia won’t be eligible for a GGR membership until they clean up their act. And the irony at the end? The astronaut was an African American!

Courtesy of Mars Will Send No More

Apparently the CCMA forbade stories which “ridicule[d]…any religion or race, (Comics Code History)”, and there was talk of the story either being censored or tossed. Realizing that the CCMA had entirely missed his point, Gaines threatened to sue, though apparently he still had to change parts of the story (Comics Code History). Although the story was eventually released uncensored in Incredible Science Fiction #33, it was clear to comic writers that the game had changed.

Through the sixties and seventies, underground comics worked hard to subvert the CCA’s authority. This underground comic movement mostly revolved around political satire and social commentary, though some memorable writers dipped into the obscene. Robert Crumb, for example, was well-known for producing comics tackling (and often satirizing) sexuality (Estren, A History of Underground Comics preview) (NSFW). The various strips Crumb worked for reflected this focus, with Snatch being the least-offensively named among them (Estren, A History of Underground Comics preview. Gilbert Shelton was a pioneer in the field as well, though his works appeared to be less sexual (Estren, pages 59-60) (NSFW).  Shelton’s most recognized work, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, dealt primarily with drug use, as the main characters were essentially hippies who lived to get high.

The premise in a nutshell

Although underground comics no doubt fueled the fires nipping at the heels of the CCA, real change would come from within mainstream publishers. In 1971, Stan Lee of Marvel Comics caused an uproar by publishing several issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, specifically issues 96-98, without the CCA’s seal of approval (Comics Code History). These issues dealt with the discovery that Harry Osborn, Peter Parker’s best friend and son of the Green Goblin, was abusing drugs, and was meant to serve as a cautionary tale rather than an endorsement. Apparently Marvel had asked for permission before publishing these issues and were denied, leading Stan Lee to publish them anyway. The CMAA was not happy, and Marvel Comics ended up promising not to stray from the code again, but the issues went through.

Harry Osborn failed to appreciate this achievement.

Additionally, the publication of these issues ushered in a wave of reform. Starting in 1971, the CCA began reducing their restrictions, which included lifting the ban on horror comics and certain sexual content (Comics Code History). Although there were still plenty of restrictions under the CCA, they practically became a non-issue after the introduction of direct market distribution. In short, direct market distribution allowed distributors who specialize in comic books to “solicit orders and distribute directly to retail outlets (Comics Code History).

From the eighties onward the CCA steadily weakened. Even after relaxing the rules, all of the major comic companies eventually dropped out of the system in favor of direct market distribution: Marvel dropped first in 2001, followed by DC Comics in 2011 and Archie soon after (Comics Code History). This has led to comics being self-regulated, and content becoming a process of negotiation between company and writer as opposed to a moral watchdog. For writers, artists, and publishers everywhere, this was a victory for the Freedom of Speech.


“His Mechanical Brain Is Charged With All Knowledge!” Mars Will Send No More. Moderated by Matthew Howard. 2/7/2011.

“The Comics Code Authority.” Comics Magazine Association of America. Facts about Code-Approved Comics Magazines. New York:

the Association, 1959.

Estren, Mark J. A History of Underground Comics. Published by Ronin Publishing, Inc., Box 1035, Berkeley, CA 94701. Copyright

1993 by Mark James Estren.


Estren, Mark J. A History of Underground Comics. Published by Ronin Publishing, Inc., Box 1035, Berkeley, CA 94701. Copyright

1993 by Mark James Estren.

Nyberg, Amy. “Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval.” CBLDF. Copyright © 2013 Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.