Beginning next month, no comic books will be published with the Comics Code Authority seal on their covers. What is the seal and why is it significant?
Some people may think that comic books first became dark and violent in the 1980s, but more than 30 years before Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, parents and educators were worried about potentially harmful content in comics. These concerns first arose primarily around comics that sensationalized criminal activities, but that initial suspicion soon spread to other genres of comics such as westerns, romance, and superheroes.
Today no one expects the format of a film, book, or piece of music to dictate its content, but that was not the case in 1954 when civil rights pioneer and psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book in which he noted that many young antisocial and violent psychiatric patients he had interviewed were also fans of comic books. What Wertham seems to have overlooked was that comics were also read by law-abiding, morally-upstanding people across many age ranges. Wertham’s book and his subsequent testimony before a Congressional inquiry helped lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which placed a seal on the cover of comics whose content was deemed to be acceptable by the standards of the day.
This is one of the most prominent events in the history of publishing. It is a case of an entire format being stigmatized because of the content conveyed in individual books or through certain publishers. Novels or plays didn’t generate the same level of concern over content even if they contained similar depictions of objectionable behavior. It’s akin to saying that because some films released in the Blu-ray format contain violence and other questionable content then all Blu-ray releases should be reviewed by industry experts and carry a seal verifying that the content is family-friendly, but DVDs don’t need the same oversight.
CCA approval remained a relevant issue for decades. While not legally required, the absence of the CCA seal could hurt sales. Therefore it was rare that publishers chose to print specific issues of a series that had not earned the seal. The first such case for Marvel Comics was in 1971 with Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, which dealt with the drug addiction of Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborne. Although it clearly did not encourage drug use (quite the opposite), it did not receive the Comics Code Authority seal.
As fears abated and the comic format grew in popularity, most publishers worried less about CCA approval and eventually dropped it entirely. Marvel Comics stopped using the seal in 2001. Archie comics is the last series to carry the Comics Code Approval seal and will discontinue it beginning in February 2011. The publisher assures readers that they have no intention of changing Archie’s content, which will remain safe for readers of all ages.