Last Friday, Archie Comics Publications, Inc. announced that it would no longer feature the Comics Code Authority’s Seal of Approval – the CCA being a mysterious, publishing association which for over 50 years served as the comics industry’s self-regulating arm – on the covers of its comics. It’s the end of an era that began back in 1954, when comics publishers came together and created the CCMA in an attempt to preempt a government crackdown on their product.
Comics had come under attack a decade earlier, when in 1940, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News, Sterling North, wrote a scathing article, calling comics badly drawn, badly written and badly printed a strain on young eyes and nervous systems. And that their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter stories”. North’s point was that kids shouldn’t read comics at all, they should read “real” books.
In the 1950s, comic books coated the shelves of bookstores, Woolworth’s, A & P’s, Howard Johnson’s and Kiddie Cities everywhere. American kids consumed them by the millions. Comic books were everywhere and Kids loved them. Teenagers loved them – which in the eyes of adults, made them Enemy #1. “Teenagers” were held under general suspicion in those days. It was the era that the “Teenager” as we know them (proto-adult, sullen, moody, prone to challenging authority, traditional standards of taste and bad behavior and in possession of disposable income) formed as a problems. Books about horrible teenagers teenagers were bestsellers and J. Edgar Hoover thought juvenile delinquency was a greater threat to the nation than Communism. If juvenile delinquents were reading comic books then comic books were the enemy. The official reaction to a deviant social or cultural phenomenon – rock n roll, television, rap music, video games, the internet – is almost always out of all proportion to the actual threat offered, implying a periodic tendency towards the identification and scapegoating of agencies whose effects are regarded by hegemonic groups as indicative of imminent social breakdown.
Public opinion had been roused in condemnation of the particular evil of the comic book – specifically the “horror and crime” subset. Parents groups protested, scientists and academics intoned dire threats, consumer groups urged parents to protest stockists who sold comics, and of course church groups held their customary mass book burnings.
In 1954, the guy who intoned loudest was a German American psychiatrist namedÂ Dr. Fredric Wertham. Motivated by a sincere desire to prevent psychological harm via horrifying and violent images, he penned a highly controversial and influential book –Seduction of the Innocent – claiming that crime and horror comic books were a major contributing factor in escalating Â juvenile delinquency (In comics circles, Dr. Wertham will be forever remembered as the guy who blamed juvenile delinquency on the funnies. Sadly, Wertham’s views on mass media public’s misperception of his views have largely overshadowed his broader concerns with children’s exposure to violence and the rest of his body of work, such as his writings about the effects of racial segregation which were used as evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education).
In 1954, Dr. Wertham testified at “The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency”, the high water mark of anti-comic book hysteria. Much of his comic book testimony was anecdotal evidence of the harmful effects of comic reading drawn from his book and from news stories about children imitating violence they had read about in comic books:
Some time ago some boys attacked another boy and they twisted his arm so viciously that it broke in two places, and, just like in a comic book, the bone came through the skin.
The majority of the committee’s condemnation was for those horror comics, which are inarguably horrific, depicting gross images of severed heads, axe murders, cannibalism, the walking dead, ghouls, physical monstrosity, sadism and torture. Wertham challenged the subcommittee’s definition of the horror genre, as according to him, it made:
No difference whether the locale is western, or Superman or space ship or horror, if a girl is raped she is raped whether it is in a space ship or on the prairie.
Wertham singled out “Superman”, for arousing in children’s phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune” – the Superman complex”. Wertham did not condone censoring comics, just age limits for comic books, like there are for movies.
Ultimately, the commttee concluded that they could not demonstrably link comic books with delinquency. They did feel that comic books should clean up their content, sending nervous publishers scrambling for a plan to self-police their wares lest the Feds do it for them. Hence a “Comics Code Authority” was formed to effectively censor their own books, an action Dr. Wertham called a “fool’s endeavor”.
The Comics Code was an attempt to assuage the nervous public, assure moms that their content was wholesome, that crime would not pay, depravity would not be rewarded and turpitude would be punished. Publishers would submit their comics to the CCMA and the CCMA would recommend changes. The CCMA had no legal authority, but it could decide not to stamp a comic with their ridiculous “seal of approval”, and many stores wouldn’t stock a comic without that “SEAL”. A few of the CCMA’s asinine rules were are:
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities. (Has ANY comic EVER adhered to this?)Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.
Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at or portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
Respect for parents, the moral code, and for honorable behavior shall be fostered. A sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for moral distortion.
I can absolutely understand the desire for some method of keeping graphic material out of the hands of children, be it MTV’s “Skins”, Grand Theft Auto or Life With Archie. The line between pure artistic vision and shock product is a thin one, as is the line between something which is trying to convey a profound message and something which is only pandering to prurient interests. As ridiculous as it may seem, children can be traumatized by comic books. I know because I was.
As kids, my brother and I were huge “Archie” fans. We’d bike to the magazine store/numbers joint in our neighborhood every week for the new Archie offering. We had a love/hate relationship with a spinoff/alternate-universe comic called “Life with Archie”. A radical departure from the typical Archie story wherein the carrot-haired dunce can’t decide between two physically identical girls, “Life with Archie” featured stories like “HOLOCAUST”: Due to egregious code violations, Mr. Lodge’s sweatshop explodes, trapping Betty and Veronica in a towering five-alarm fire, about to be being burned alive in their bellbottoms while Archie watches in horror. Amidst explosions and wooshing gouts of flame, Archie and (lazy, binge-eating asexual) Jughead scramble up the side of an adjacent building and onto the roof like Spiderman and then proceed to zipline across the gap, crashing through a window like Batman and Robin. If you weren’t disturbed enough by the “A” story, you got a “B” story, wherein an old, mysterious green box is opened, releasing a quick-spreading noxious gas, an evil force that threatens to destroy the entire city of Riverdale . The evil is “in essence, an invisible, odorless aura of Satan” that causes instant aging and decay to everything it touches, including people. You know…
One “Life with Archie” issue was particularly devastating to me and my non comic book reading sister and actually did absolutelyÂ cause us both emotional trauma. It was called “THE NURSERY NIGHTMARE”. I tracked down a copy and am disturbed to conclude that my childhood reaction to the comic was not outsized. “Little Teddy looked harmless enough… but Betty is about to find out its secret! Don’t miss THE NURSERY NIGHTMARE” screams the cover, with Betty in a psychotic trance, walking towards the edge of a craggly cliff, a disturbingly nasty looking teddy bear dangling from her hand.
The Nursery Nightmare has the gang tagging along with Mr. Lodge as he checks out a new acquisition, a hideously sinister looking, gothic seaside mansion which he intends to “flip”. Once there, the teens experience all kinds of standard brand haunted house creaks and breezes.”The whisper of wind through a drafty chimney, sometimes sounding like a soul in torment made our blood run cold…” A crazy old coot launches into a tale of the turn of the century family – previous owners of the ghastly mansion – a little girl named Nancy and her filthy rich and lacquered mustachioed father. Father and daughter’s happy lives in the seaside mansion are interrupted by the arrival of a diabolical, silver-haired governess named Evelyn, a gold-digging witch who secretly performs “strange black rites” and connives of horrible ways to murder Nancy so to have her father – and his millions – all to herself.
Evil, rapacious Evelyn gives Nancy an accursed teddy bear, which has the odd effect of putting the little girl into a psychotic trance. At one point, the spell of the terrible teddy leads Nancy out of the nursery and into a stormy night. She is found “drenched and cold, out in the pouring rain, the “thing” grinning evilly in her arms!” Nancy contracts pneumonia and narrowly escapes death, to the annoyance of Evelyn who immediately shoves the malevolent bear back in her arms for one more try.
Eventually, Evelyn succeeds in getting slaughtering Nancy. The beleaguered girl wanders off in the middle of the night with the bear and plunges to her gruesome death over a cliff, leaving the demonic doll behind. Unfazed by that horrific tale, the gang explores Nancy’s nightmare nursery and while Archie is inexplicably mesmerized by a green piggy bank, Betty grabs the evil teddy and is immediately stupefied, eyes glazed and ready to take the plunge out the nursery window. Archie and Veronica totally freak out, as a “clammy cold clutched at us like the fingers of death” and “Archie screams “Gasp! Look at her EYES!! Horrible! Glazed and lifeless they were!” Clutching the stuffed animal, Betty moves zombie-like to the window’s edge, Archie grabbing her just as she is about to fall to her death. When they see the diabolical bear on the ground below:
“it lay there…something satanic in its sweet smile, not worried about a temporary setback.”
Eventually the gang escapes the sinister house, but the reader is not so lucky. They are left with a haunting image of the bear, dripping with seaweed, back in Nancy’s bed in the haunted nursery, psychotically grinning, ready to unleash more evil.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Marvel Comics apparently read the Bill of Rights and realized they didn’t need a seal of approval from some made-up comic agency. They decided to create its own MPAA-like ratings system, rather than pay for the privilege of having its comics reviewed by a panel of old scolds. Archie is the last to abandon the badge of “the code”, a vestige of the Leave it to Beaver era, when TV viewers were left with a reassuring weekly dose of normative morality. I never knew what the Comics Code Seal on the cover of those Archie comics was, much less what it stood for. But I really wish I had never read that Nursery Nightmare. I wish the Comics Authority had protected me from Life with Archie.
RIP, Comic Code Authority Seal of Approval 1954 – 2011.