(Yes, it is the triumphant return of DONUTWORLD and my return, presumably, to semi-regular blogging after a long hiatus. Welcome back, those of you who still have me in your feed readers or follow me on Twitter! Tell your friends, the World’s Greatest Blogger is back in action!)
So DC and Archie have both dropped the Comics Code, rendering the long-standing industry reaction to Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, the Kefauver Hearings and the vague, forced correlation between comics and juvenile delinquency* in the 1940s and ’50s at long, long last dead, dead, dead.
It is, of course, long past due. I’ve long been a believer in the theory that the Code was created by rival publishers specifically to kill Bill Gaines’ popular E.C. horror and sci-fi lines. So it’s no great loss.
Except for one tiny little insignificant nostalgic twinge: the seal.
That “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” seal was such a distinctive feature of American comics covers for so many years that it even made a Jeopardy! clue just a few days ago as one of the elements that make up a comic book.
When I was a kid, it was on every comic I saw, right alongside the price underneath the Marvel corner box or the DC bullet.* Like a lot of kids in smaller towns during the ’80s, I had to prowl the spinner racks at the grocery and drug stores; there wasn’t a comic book store in my town until I was in junior high. The closest thing to a comic book store was Woody’s Newsstand downtown, with four whole spinner racks full of comics. And that was the whole point of the Code: providing easy assurance to the drug store and newsstand owners that the comics they were selling weren’t going to get their stores picketed by parents’ groups or shut down for selling obscene material to minors.
*And, speaking strictly as a designer, I gotta say, I still think the classic ’80s/’90s DC bullet logo is vastly, vastly superior to the current iteration. But that’s just me.
At right around this same time, I realized I didn’t just have to read the comics, I could make my own. Amazingly enough, my first forays into comic book making did not involve a costumed superhero. Instead, my first homebrew comics chronicled the exploits of an Indiana Jones-inspired two-fisted-explorer-type. I produced three or four “issues” (probably eight pages or so each, drawn on printer paper and stapled together) of The Adventures of Herman Smith, Adventurer (for some reason, I thought this name was totally badass). They were silly in the way that only comics produced by an eight-year-old could be, and in retrospect, naively racist and jingoistic in a boy-leading-a-sheltered-life-in-the-Middle-American-suburbs kind of way. There was a hint, perhaps, of social consciousness in that Herman Smith fought poachers who were killing rhinoceroses and prevented evildoers from stealing the deed to a diamond mine that belonged to native tribe…but he performed these deeds with the assistance of a beturbaned manservant who called him “Master.” Yikes.
But on the cover of every issue of The Adventures of Herman Smith, Adventurer, I carefully drew the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” seal, because I assumed that it wasn’t a real comic book if it didn’t have that seal. I continued to draw the Comics Code seal as I moved on to my own superheroes: Night Shadow, a Batman rip-off totally original crimefighting millionaire playboy character? Comics Code approved! 747, a totally original character who flew around in a suit of high-tech jet-powered armor and who couldn’t possibly have been any less like Iron Man? Comics Code approved! Hercules, a two-for-the-price-of-one rip-off of Thor and Captain America combined totally original weakling who was given the power of a Greek god in a secret WWII-era government experiment? Comics Code approved! They were all approved by my own personal Comics Code Authority, in spite of Hercules’ penchant for tearing off his opponents’ heads (Hey, they were NAZIS! They deserved it!) and 747′s habit of lighting his enemies on fire with his jets (Hey, they were PURSE SNATCHERS! They deserved it!).
Eventually, a real comic book store opened in town and I discovered that it was quite possible to publish a comic book without the approval of the Comics Code Authority. By the time I was in junior high and drawing the adventures of Banzai Sushi, Ninja Fish (who was merely “inspired by” the original Eastman/Laird Ninja Turtle stuff and Usagi Yojimbo – I was sophisticated enough to call my rip-offs an homage by that point) and the Tick-inspired superhero parody** Mephistopholes Man, I was no longer bothering with the Code seal on the cover.
** You could tell it was a parody because, though it was essentially identical in tone and execution to my other comics, this one was funny on purpose.
So, as you can see, Marvel, DC, Bongo, Archie and all the rest that have dropped the Code seal over the last ten years were really just copying me. I’m a total trend-setter.
Nope, not going to miss the Comics Code. I think the general “the Comics Code set the medium back by thirty years” meme that’s common in fandom is a little overblown. EC’s own luridly violent and gruesome tales weren’t really High Art by any stretch of the imagination, and there wasn’t much of anything that the Superman or Batman books were doing in the ’50s before the Code that they couldn’t keep right on doing after the Code. But it was needlessly restrictive and hampered any growth that could have otherwise happened.
The end of the Code is like shedding a vestigial tail – getting rid of a useless relic of a bygone era. It was a long time coming, and while I think the industry as a whole could benefit from a unified across-the-board rating system, each company having their own ratings or editorial standards is better than the Comics Code where, to borrow Scott McCloud’s movie-rating analogy, the only acceptable rating was “G” and the standards for earning a “G” rating were much more stringent.
Still…I’m gonna kind of miss the Code seal.