Most people who grew up reading comic books should be familiar with the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” logo on the corner of their covers - even if they’re not aware that their favorite four-colored adventures were governed by the Comics Code Authority rules. What was the Comics Code Authority, anyway? The short answer is a method of self-regulation employed by comic publishers in the '50s to avoid a government crackdown, which included a list of rules that all books needed to obey. The long version, however, involves an organization that conspired to hold back social progress in the medium for decades until one individual was brave enough to stand up to them: Stan Lee himself.
The first public outcry against the dangers of comic books came in the 1940s, as the industry hit its first peak. Several critics, including the soon-to-be-infamous Fredric Wertham, insinuated that comics were responsible for a rise in juvenile delinquency, and several publishers banded together in response as the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948. The Association created a code in 1948 as an attempt to curb criticism of the medium before it intensified. The initiative proved a failure when some major publishers refused to sign on, while others simply ignored the rules after agreeing to them.
The 1948 code included stipulations like, “Sexy, wanton comics should not be published” and “Divorce should not be treated humorously or represented as glamorous or alluring” - a preview of things to come.
The critics of the comic book industry got louder in the '50s, and the loudest among them was Fredric Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist. In 1954, he published Seduction of the Innocent, a bombshell of a book that laid the blame at the feet of several popular comics for a perceived recent increase in degeneracy among youth.
Wertham referred to depictions of aggression, promiscuous behavior, substance use, and deviant acts as evidence that comics were corrupting the children of America with influential imagery, and he supplied some pseudo-scientific studies to back up his accusations.
He went a step further in his fight against the medium by suggesting that comics were full of hidden messages - particularly when it came to themes of homosexuality - a claim that would quickly set off a firestorm of controversy and garner ample public attention.
Fredric Wertham’s bold anti-comic assertions caught the attention of both the public and the government - and in particular, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, who established the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Kefauver called on a number of individuals to testify before the Senate, including Wertham. At the height of McCarthyism in the United States, Wertham felt comfortable engaging in hyperbole, and boldly stated, “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of 4 before they can read.”
On the other side of the aisle, defending the industry, was comic book publishing legend Bill Gaines of EC Comics. Gaines had a number of semi-humorous exchanges with Senator Kefauver over the bounds of good taste, including the following:
Senator Kefauver: Here is your May 22 issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody ax holding a woman's head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that is in good taste?
Mr. Gaines: Yes, sir; I do, for the cover of a horror comic. A cover in bad taste, for example, might be defined as holding the head a little higher so that the neck could be seen dripping blood from it and moving the body over a little further so that the neck of the body could be seen to be bloody.
Senator Kefauver: You have blood coming out of her mouth.
Mr. Gaines: A little.
Reading the writing on the wall and fearing a pending government crackdown on the industry, major comic book publishers banded together once again to create a successor to the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers called the Comics Magazine Association of America.
The publishers figured it was better to regulate themselves than submit to outside regulation, so the CMAA set about drafting a new Publishers’ Code in 1954. While it would borrow plenty of material from the 1948 version of the rules, this new code would take things a step further to ensure that the public's fears were fully addressed.