Good Riddance, Comics Code
I am the first to admit that parenting is a ridiculously tough job. It’s a task that is both Sisyphean and Herculean. It’s a Gordian knot and even when it goes well, it’s often a Pyrrhic victory. What I’m saying is, it’s hard on a Greek level. It’s the most important job I have, and I never feel completely satisfied with my performance. But as difficult as parenting is, I resent it when other people try to do it for me.
So I get angry when parent groups try to influence what can be shown on TV, or when a particular religious group protests a movie that they find offensive. Or when a stuffy psychiatrist from the fifties tells me what can and can’t be put in a comic book.
In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he blamed comic books for juvenile delinquency. At the time, crime and horror comics were really popular, and Wertham objected to what he felt were excessively violent and sexual images in these comics. His book caused enough of a stir that comics publishers established the Comics Code Authority. This way, they could self-regulate in hopes of avoiding government regulation.
The original rules laid out by the CCA were extremely restrictive. Comics published under the code were not allowed to include any violent or sexual imagery (and remember, the standards were much stricter then; I have a feeling that if Fredric Wertham laid eyes on almost any modern comic, he’d faint dead away). Crime always had to be portrayed in a negative light, and good always had to triumph over evil. No sin could go unpunished within a story. And some rules were just bizarre. For instance, the words “horror” and “terror” could not be used in a comic’s title, and certain concepts, like vampires and werewolves, could not even be mentioned. There is a famous anecdote about a writer named Marv Wolfman who found a loophole in this rule when he used his own name within the narration of his story (the tale had been told by a “wandering Wolfman”). However, this did lead to comic creators being given credit for their work, which was not a common practice previously, so maybe some good came of the code after all.
The Comics Code did change with the times, but it was always unnecessarily restrictive. Eventually, publishers stopped using it, first by creating “mature” imprints (Marvel’s Epic and DC’s Vertigo) that eschewed the code, and later abandoning it completely. Marvel dropped it in 2001. DC and Archie, the last companies to publish titles under the code, stopped using it this year.
And it’s about time. It boggles my mind that a relic like that would still exist, even in a reduced form, in 2011. These days, the average comic book reader is in their late twenties, so juvenile delinquency hardly seems like a concern any more. And what’s the point of applying such antiquated standards to one medium when every other moved past them years ago. I guess you can chalk it up to inertia. It had just been going on for so long that it was easier to keep on keeping on.
Unfortunately, there will probably always be someone trying to tell us what we shouldn’t be reading or watching or playing. I’m not opposed to rating systems, such as the one used by the video game industry, or that Marvel and DC have now adopted. But I do question their usefulness. They are intended to inform parents of the appropriateness of a work’s content. But the criteria for that determination are pretty subjective. I’d rather just have a codified list of potentially objectionable items, such as “explicit sex,” or “graphic violence.”
But even that is no substitute for actually paying attention to what media your kids are consuming. If a parent is upset because their child saw something that they feel is inappropriate on a TV show, the show is not really the problem. We can’t expect the world to be child-proofed. There are sharp edges out there. I think we do a greater service to our kids by teaching them how to avoid them, or if all else fails, getting them a helmet. Um… I’m afraid that metaphor may have gotten away from me, but you get the point: we should monitor what our kids consume, not what creators create.