R.I.P.: The Comics Code Authority

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The Comics Code Authority, the organization responsible for making sure American comic books were safe for children’s consumption, blinked out of existence late last week, following the withdrawal of the final two publishers that used its services. It was 56 years old.

The initial version of the Comics Code was adopted by a consortium of American comics publishers in October, 1954. The industry was running scared at the time–there were Senate hearings that year on the idea that comic books were breeding juvenile delinquents, and the earliest comics to be approved by the Code plastered its seal very visibly on their front covers. (David Hajdu’s book The Ten-Cent Plague is a fascinating history of that moment in comics.) As originally formulated, the Code insisted that crime be shown not to pay, banned the words “horror” and “terror” from comics’ titles, and ruled out “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.” It also insisted that ” females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities”–that one was hard to enforce–and tut-tutted that “a sympathetic understanding of the problems of love is not a license for moral distortion.”

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: I, Zombie)

Later revisions relaxed the Code a bit. A 1971 revision noted, in a kind of fantastic run-on sentence, that “vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula,  and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe,  Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.” By 1989, the tone of the Code practically shrugged in places: “Healthy, wholesome lifestyles will be presented as desirable. However, the use and abuse of controlled substances, legal and illicit, are facts of modern existence, and may be portrayed when dramatically appropiate.”

(More on TIME.com: A Brief History of Vampire Comics)

Marvel Comics stopped submitting its comics to the Code in 2001,  switching to its own internal rating system. Last week, DC Comics announced that it would no longer seek Code approval for any of its titles; in recent years, its only Code-stamped comics had been its line for small children and a very few superhero titles (Superman yes, Wonder Woman no). Then Archie Comics, the last remaining publisher working with the Comics Code, followed suit, effectively ending an organization whose usefulness to the industry had become entirely vestigial.

The Comics Code Authority is survived by various ratings systems, the fading idea that the comics medium is wholly a subcategory of children’s entertainment, and a lingering sense of censoriousness in American popular culture.

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