STRANGE TALES AND THE COMICS CODE

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Hello! Today I have a loooong essay for you, my Children’s Lit essay (that I submitted for my English/Creative Writing BA) all about Strange Tales, Marvel and the Comics Code! It received a mark of 76 (a 70 is a First, for those of you outside of the UK) and below you can read it in full! You’re welcome to use it as a reference in your own essays/articles/blog posts etc.–you only need to contact me for permission if for any reason you want to publish the full thing somewhere. If you have any questions/comments, please post your thoughts in the comments box at the end of the essay. Thanks! 

The comic book medium, having come of age on the American cultural scene, must measure up to its responsibilities.” How did the creation of the Comics Code Authority’s 1954 publishing guidelines affect both Marvel’s Strange Tales and the wider North American comic book community at the time of its introduction?

Marvel’s Strange Tales is a comic book series which originally ran for 168 single issues, cover-dated from June 1951 to May 1968[1]. The popular series is a departure from Marvel’s more contemporarily well-known superhero fare, with the original Strange Tales series tending to focus more on stories that revolved around violence, horror, gore and the supernatural. Strange Tales began, in part, as a response to the “horror bandwagon” of the 1950’s[2] which was partially fuelled by the release of popular Hammer Horror produced films such as Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. The popularity of these films, combined with an abundance of Horror literature from writers such as Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson, created a cultural phenomenon which saw ideas of monsters and ghouls rise in popularity, and Marvel took the opportunity to capitalise on this with the creation of Strange Tales. Marvel was also reportedly inspired by the popular publications of EC Comics[3], an American comics publisher most well-known for their Tales From the Crypt Horror-themed comics series and other comics which capitalised upon the “horror bandwagon” by featuring tales that had gory and/or horrific narratives.

Marvel’s Strange Tales series was popular with young comic book fans who enjoyed the comics’ depictions of horror, gore and the supernatural, with the series introducing a multitude of popular, “fan-favourite” mystical characters such as Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange, extra-terrestrial dragon Fin Fang Foom and immortal monster-hunter Ulysses Bloodstone. The majority of the time, these characters were portrayed in stories which utilised ideas of existentialism, mysticism and the occult, whereby they used violence and otherworldly powers to defeat their evil, megalomaniacal enemies.

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While these stories proved popular with comics fans, the introduction of the “Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, Inc.” (hereafter referred to as the “Comics Code”) in 1954 severely limited what kinds of things could be written about within Strange Tales. This Code was implemented after the release of Seduction of the Innocent, a 1954 book by German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Seduction of the Innocent claimed that comic books had “a soulless emptiness to them, and outrageous vulgarity[4]”, with Wertham “flatly stat[ing] that comics are an invitation to illiteracy, [that they] create an atmosphere of cruelty and deceit [and that they] stimulate unwholesome fantasies[5].” Wertham’s books lead to the now-notorious 1954 public hearings on comic books and their relationship to the rise in juvenile delinquency in North America. The hearings revolved around particularly graphic Crime/Horror themed comic books such as EC’s Tales From the Crypt and Marvel’s own Strange Tales, and these comics’ potential impact on juvenile delinquency[6]. The conclusion of these hearings “led to the complete bowdlerization of the American comics industry[7]” and the restrictive Comics Code became implemented throughout America.

The Code laid out a series of strict guidelines which aimed to “make a positive contribution to contemporary life[8]”, and which prevented the depiction of things such as gore and violence within comic books. Specifically, the Comics Code outlined the following points in regards to what was acceptable to publish in relation to horror, violence and the occult in Part “B” of the Code’s “General Standards”:

  • No comics magazine shall use the word “horror” or “terror” in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly nor as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism are prohibited.[9]

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This, clearly, meant that Marvel had to change and adapt Strange Tales to fit these new Comics Code guidelines, to avoid becoming blacklisted by the Comics Code Authority and potentially alienating its young readership and their concerned parents. EC Comics–the company which was, stylistically and historically, Marvel’s predecessor–fell victim to the Authority’s wrath after Maxwell Gaines, the owner of EC Comics, decided to fight back against the Comics Code Authority’s censorship. However, the Comics Code Authority was not concerned with Gaines’ stories being too horrific/violent, reasons one might assume a publisher of primarily horror-themed comics would be censored over. Instead, the Authority supposedly took issue with the reprinted Judgment Day (a sci-fi themed story about a black astronaut), in EC’s Incredible Science Fiction #33, print dated February of 1956. The story was reportedly “objected to” because of “the central character being black[10]”, as comic book news/information site Comics Alliance explains:

“Judge Charles Murphy (administrator of the Code) said that they would have to change the astronaut from black to white if they wanted it to be included. This was not part of the Code at the time…After being told that, clearly, the color of the astronaut’s skin was practically the whole point of the story, [the Authority] backed down a bit, but said that they would at least have to get rid of the perspiration on his skin…Feldstein and Gaines both refused to comply (I believe the terms they used included at least one use of the word “fuck”)…[11]

After several legal battles and arguments between EC Comics’ creators and the Authority’s employees, EC Comics eventually ceased publishing comic books, unable to fight back against the Comics Code Authority any longer, despite the Authority initially “back[ing] down a bit”. Marvel—aware of EC’s downfall due to the notoriety of the legal cases at the time–most likely came to the conclusion that adhering to the Code’s guidelines was the simplest (and cheapest) way of continuing publication without legal or public backlash. Of course, this would mean making stylistic and narrative changes to their publications, especially Strange Tales.

The Comics Code didn’t just have an effect on what comics publishers were producing, however, as the restrictions had wider implications for comic readers, restricting what was available for reading and what was being circulated in libraries and schools. It also brought up questions for psychologists and sociologists, with a multitude of academic papers on the supposedly damaging effects of unsuitable media—especially that which was advertised and aimed at children–being produced in the aftermath of the Code’s implementation[12]. What had begun as a simple restriction upon comics publishers and their titles soon turned into one of the most extensive and controversial examples of media censorship of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Immediately after the Comics Code was implemented, Marvel began to make stylistic and narrative changes to its publications, with Strange Tales being one of its most heavily affected books due to the series’ recurring depictions of horrific and supernatural subject matter. M. Keith Booker in Comics Through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas notes how Strange Tales “reflected the changing societal and political shifts and trends of the times[13]”, stating that “a clear shift in content can be seen after the institution of the Comics Code[14].” Whilst Strange Tales initially began to change due to the implementation of the Code, the public was also becoming generally less interested in horror as a genre. As the 1960’s began, comic readers’ interests shifted towards more superheroic characters, which may have been a product of the increased threat of nuclear war between America and its enemies, an idea which will be expanded on shortly. Superhero characters always become popular and more culturally relevant during or after a national crisis or tragedy due to their “saviour” powers, as pop culture site FanPop explains:

“As current events continue to shape the American sentiment toward terrorism and the world, the relevance of superhero media and its subtle impact on American culture continues to ring true. The superhero genre affects the population’s feelings regarding the terrorism threat and, in turn, real-world events affect the superhero genre, as if the two were locked in a dance of escapist dreams, fear of threatening actors, and the hope for someone to protect us from destruction[15].”

An example of this “shift” into “escapist dreams” can be seen with the introduction of the character of the Fantastic Four‘s Human Torch, beginning in Strange Tales #101, which was published in October of 1962[16]. This character introduction began Marvel’s shift into the “Silver Age” of comic books, where Marvel would focus more on superhero characters[17] as opposed to Horror/Supernatural ones in order to more easily comply with the Comics Code’s guidelines. The Fantastic Four were created as a team of superheroes who were also a family, albeit an unconventional one, and they combined their superhero powers with love and compassion, as journalist/writer Sabienna Bowman explains:

“Way back in the ’60s, when the Fantastic Four comics first debuted, Johnny [The Human Torch] was a high school student. Even though he was conventionally handsome, he faced bullying, especially from one student named Mark Snow. Johnny stood up to Mark, and ultimately turned him into a friend[18].”

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This idea of “turning a bully into a friend” is a uniquely American one that fit perfectly with the 1960’s liberal North American ideals of “make love, not war” as Americans began to grow disillusioned with the Vietnam War and the other violent military decisions that the American government was making during the 60’s. Whilst comic readers were eager for “saviour” heroes who could defend America from war and terrorism, there was also a desire to end violence from “the anti-war movement…a small but outspoken liberal minority[19]”, and this was reflected with the introduction of the Human Torch into Strange Tales, a character who had the power to both destroy his enemies with flame and “turn a bully into a friend”. This combination of “saviour” superhero powers and a personality that favoured love and acceptance was a wider reflection of the contradiction between those Americans who wanted peace and those who wanted war: The Fantastic Four, when introduced in Strange Tales, had the power to destroy their foes with violence, but only did so when love and compassion were not viable options. Margo Adler, writer of Heretic’s Heart, says also explains this juxtaposition a little more: “In the Berkeley of the mid-‘60s there was an extraordinary amount of experimentation with sex and drugs, but that doesn’t mean that love filled the streets. There was as much sadness, tension and anger as there was love[20].” This contradiction between “experimentation” and “sadness” was a reflection of both the tension between those Americans who favoured peace and those who favoured war, and also served to reflect the experimental yet angered nature of the underground comix movement, something which will be expanded upon later.

As well as this shift into more superhero-focused books, even the more horror/supernatural-focused stories which remained in Strange Tales changed in tone, with “stories shift[ing] from zombies and living skeletons to more science fictional stories of men who could turn off the sun or men who could steal sky scrapers[21].” By creating comics with more “science fictional” tones, Marvel could get away with still publishing interesting and engaging stories under the authority of the Code, even if it meant changing the tone of their once horror/supernatural-themed Strange Tales series.

This elimination of horrific and gruesome material within Strange Tales not only served the purpose of potentially decreasing the juvenile delinquency that Wertham claimed was a result of “unsavoury” comic books, but it also had a widespread societal and political message behind it. Whilst on the surface it might seem like violence and gore in comics were objected to for their being “unwholesome” or “immoral”, some critics have suggested that the Comics Code’s implementation reflected wider concerns for Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Patrick A. Reed of Comics Alliance suggests some socio-political reasons for the Code’s popularity with fearful Americans:

“Wertham’s crusade fit perfectly alongside the fear-mongering that consumed the country at that moment in time: the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ multiple investigations of Hollywood, and the accompanying waves of anti-communist hysteria; the sudden shift in social constructs and rise of “teenage” culture; the lingering shadow of the atom bomb; the Brown v. Board Of Education decision on the integration of public schools; and the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s books on sexual behavior; all provided plenty of openings for opportunistic moralists to stir up concern and look for scapegoats[22].”

This “rise of teenage culture” was the reason for the creation of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the first place (the Subcommittee which would go on to investigate the potential dangers of comic books in a court of law) and the 1953 comic book hearings can be likened to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, the “multiple investigations of Hollywood” that Reed refers to above. Comics writer Dwight Decker also comments that “Many fans have associated Dr. Wertham with Senator Joseph McCarthy, well-known for his anti-Communist crusade at about the same time, and legends circulate of Dr. Wertham accusing comic books of being a Communist plot or some such[23].” It can therefore be said that comic books did indeed become the “scapegoat” that fearful Americans were looking for, the Comics Code a reflection of a scared nation looking to restrain and restrict things that were, ultimately, out of their control. The violence and gore in comic books represented, for some, the revolution and insurrection that would come with a Communist uprising in America, and parents were eager to assure that their children were not being indoctrinated into Communist ideologies through comic book “propaganda” that promoted violence and rebellion. This is even directly mentioned within the transcript of the comic book hearings, when the subject of freedom of press is brought up. It is remarked that “the publisher of books and magazines enjoys the protection of our constitutional guarantee that the freedom to write and publish shall not be curbed.[24]” This claim that comic creators had legal “protection”, the prosecutors argued, had implications for free distribution of Communist propaganda to impressionable young minds, and a “plea” towards the parents of comic book readers is then made by one of the prosecutors:

“Parents, wake up! The objective of Communism is to despoil your children, to rob them of their respect for law and the teachings of morality, to enslave them with sex and narcotics. When that happens, the seeds of communism will fall on fertile ground.[25]

The dramatic verbiage and use of imperatives in this statement echoes the kind of statements that Joseph McCarthy was making during his time as Senator, such as this quote from McCarthy’s famous 1950 speech on Communists “invading” the State Department:

“Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the communist world has said, “The time is now” — that this is the time for the showdown between the democratic Christian world and the communist atheistic world? Unless we face this fact, we shall pay the price that must be paid by those who wait too long.[26]

This kind of melodramatic language created a sense of fear in the American public who did not want to “wait too long” and “pay the price” for ignoring Communism. This, coupled with the public’s tensions over the cold war with the USSR (and the potential threat of an eventual nuclear war) created a sense of fear-mongering not seen in America since Hitler’s rise to power.

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This was not helped by the fact that some of these Communist fears were not entirely unfounded, as it was documented that “The USSR had long carried out espionage activities inside America with the aid of U.S. citizens, particularly during World War II[27].” “The “Red Scare” of Communism would eventually lead to “a range of actions that had a profound and enduring effect on U.S. government and society[28]”, with one of these being the Comics Code. The American public’s fear of Communism, along with their desire to hunt out any individual that might have had ties to Communism, meant that no form of media was safe from regulation and censorship during the 1950’s.

To counter this fear of Communism in comic books directly, several anti-Communist comic books were made throughout the 1960’s, including the 1960 comic The Red Iceberg which “depicted Communism as an iceberg threatening to sink the United States, titanic-style.[29]” Whilst these anti-Communist comics were quite obvious and non-subtle in their didactic narratives, Comics Through Time points out that the comics “…did, however, indicate the potential of comics for use in more legitimate educational endeavours[30]”, something which this essay will elaborate more on shortly.

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Whilst it is easy to see the Comics Code as being nothing more than a scapegoat for fearful Americans in the 1950’s and 60’s, there are interesting arguments for and against passive audience theory–the idea that “audiences passively receive the information transmitted via a media text, without any attempt on their part to process or challenge the data[31]”–and its applications in regards to the consumption of comic books. Whilst there appears to have been a definite sense of fear-mongering created by the Comics Code Authority, there are also a variety of texts that, surrounding the time of the comic book hearings, suggested that there was a definite link between violent media and violent readers.

The “Hyperdemic Model”, now considered outdated by the majority of Media critics and academics, says that “…media has a direct, complete and immediate effect on the audience. The message for the media is directly received and wholly accepted by the user[32].” The Hyperdemic Model has often used comic book readers as an example of how passive audiences work, with one example being the famous book How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart which claimed that “Disney comics indoctrinate Third World readers into a Imperialist ideology…and that a distinct media effect has taken place[33].” In regards to Horror comics specifically, the Hyperdemic Model was used by Wertham himself throughout the comic book hearings, where he claimed that “the entertainment flows over the child[34].” Whilst both of these arguments make interesting points for the dangers of passive reading, it should be noted that these arguments have also not been well-received by either fans nor critics, with Carl Banks and the Disney Comic Book explaining that “Dorfman and Mattelart’s model is elitist, characterizing the readers whose liberation they champion as passive dupes to whom intellectuals like the authors must show the truth[35].” Similarly, Wertham’s theories on Horror comics were stated to have been “…not supported by research data[36]” during the 1954 comic book hearings. So whilst some critics at the time were concerned about the potential dangers implied for a passive comic reading audience, it would seem that most of their fears were unfounded, as illustrated by both scientific research and anecdotal evidence from young comic readers and reviewers who “thought Wertham had presented his arguments poorly, or that while comic books were as bad as he said, they were too trivial to worry about.[37]

Most modern Media critics and academics now assume that audiences are more active participants in media consumption, that they do not simply soak up any messages presented to them and take them as truth. Instead of passive audience theory, some modern critics prefer to think in terms of the “Uses and Gratifications” theory which revolves around trying to understand what the audience needs and wants from their chosen media texts. It is an almost opposite theory to that of Hypodermic Theory:

“In contrast to the concern of the ‘media effects’ tradition with ‘what media does to people’ (which assumes a homogeneous mass audience and a ‘hypodermic’ view of media), U & G can be seen as part of a broader trend amongst media researchers which is more concerned with ‘what people do with media[38]‘”

When looking at the Uses and Gratifications theory in regards to the implementation of the Comics Code, it can be argued that readers in the 1950’s and 60’s were using comics as a form of escapism, to forget about “the fear-mongering that consumed the country[39]” at the time of the Comics Code’s implementation. While some authorities were intent on regulating comics to try to gain some sense of control in a world full of fear, comic readers were instead using comic books as an escape from that very same fear, as Liam Burke explains: “Escapism has long been considered one of the fundamental attractions of comic books, from their Depression-era beginnings…[40]”. Of course, this “fundamental attraction” of comic books does not rule out the idea that gory/violent comics can be damaging and still be a form of escapism, but it does explain how Wertham’s ideas that were based around the Hypodermic Theory could be seen to be, fundamentally and scientifically, simply incorrect. Author Michael Chabon even parodies and explores this idea of escapism through comic books in his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, in which the book’s two Jewish-American protagonists createThe Escapist, a superhero “whose power would be that of impossible and perpetual escape[41]” during the “Golden Age” of comic books. Chabon directly addresses this idea of comic book escapism late in his novel, when one of the comic creators remarks that “The usual charge against leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe to actually be a powerful argument on their behalf.[42]” Chabon understands how comic readers during the 1950’s and 60’s were consuming and using comics in an uncertain time for the future of America, and Michael Aushenker comments that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is set in a time “…when Jewish American males thrived, conjuring up dime store escapism[43].”

As well as escapism, readers used comic books in a variety of other ways, including reading for educational purposes. Many Marvel comics, even before the Code’s implementation, were teaching readers a variety of knowledge about the fictional worlds that were grounded in American reality–even if some of this information was considered unsavoury, such as the “comics which describe[d] how to commit crimes[44]”–and the books themselves often promoted knowledge and learning. An example of this could be Strange Tales’ Doctor Strange, who has long been heralded as an avid learner and seeker of knowledge since his introduction in Strange Tales #110. Dr. Bryan Powell explains that: “His study of ancient texts, grimoires, tomes, and spell books girded him for the struggles that he would face as earth’s mystic protector[45]” and his home, the Sanctum Sanctorum, is portrayed as having several large, intriguing libraries, stocked full of magical and mysterious books[46]. By portraying Doctor Strange positively as an avid learner/reader and as a hungry, relentless seeker of knowledge and a “[student] of ancient texts”, Marvel sought to use Doctor Strange as a role model for children who could share in the Sorcerer Supreme’s passion for learning, and to also go against Wertham’s claim in the 1954 hearings that “[comic books] are not educational, but stultifying[47].”

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Besides educational and escapist purposes, there is also something to be said for comic books as being used simply as a form of entertainment. Whilst the subjects of entertainment and pleasure are often overlooked when discussing the merits of media, they are an important component of successful comic books and media in general, and the psychological benefits of “mere” entertainment have been scientifically proven. One example of this can be seen in the work of Harold Mendelsohn, a social psychologist who taught in the Mass Communications Department at the University of Denver from 1962 to 1988. He stated that: “Mass entertainment theory asserts that television and other mass media, because they relax or otherwise entertain average people, perform a vital function[48].” In a tumultuous time of fear-mongering and threat of war and/or nuclear attack in North America, comic books were a cheap, easy distraction for children who didn’t always fully understand the complex multitude of reasons behind the tension in America during the 1950’s and 1960’s. There is also a media theory called “mood management theory[49]”, which suggests that “individuals will select media content that promises to optimize their moods. In general, people are expected to choose media content that is more positive in hedonic value than their current mood state or media content that effectively distracts from a negative mood.” This theory of using media texts as a way to alter mood states in audiences is an interesting one because it suggests that the pleasure that comic readers derive from consuming comic books is an inherently psychological and chemical one, but one that directly opposes Wertham’s ideas that comic books are psychologically damaging to young readers. The claim in the comic book hearings that comics were a “psychological menace to millions of children[50]” is, therefore, most often seen by comic critics as a hyperbolic statement that had little scientific research to back it up at the time of the hearings, when comparing it to ideas of mood management theory and other more contemporary active audience media theories, in relation to comic books.

Escapism and entertainment have always been two closely linked subjects, though where escapism can often deal with ideas of repression, media theories of enjoyment and entertainment revolve more around the idea that audience’s moods can be altered through media consumption. However, there were conflicting ideas about repression versus entertainment at the time, even between psychologists and researchers who did not see comic books as a threat or things that “undermine[d] moral codes, customs and laws.[51]

These theories differ so much from Wertham’s ideas of links between media and juvenile delinquency that it is easy to see how the North American public were receiving conflicting and potentially confusing ideas about “new” media at the time. This confusion was potentially part of the reason behind the Code’s rigidity, with the Comics Code Authority seemingly not wanting to leave any room for discretion based on new psychological reports and studies. Whilst the Comics Code would eventually be updated and revised as the public’s attitudes about appropriate subject matter in relevant social issues began to change, these changes would not begin to be made until the 1970’s[52], which for many creators, was simply too late.

Whether or not Wertham and the Subcommittee had scientific proof that comics were psychologically damaging and a cause of juvenile delinquency, the Code remained throughout the 1960’s and unintentionally paved the way for the beginning of a new comics revolution.

Despite both the prominence and perceived “uprightness” of the Code, many comic book artists and writers refused to adhere to the new guidelines due to their moral and legal implications and restrictions. Some writers and artists opposed the Code’s restrictions on “controversial” content, with others more opposed to the idea that the government was attempting to control and regulate an art form and the business of art. There was also, reportedly, personal grievances involved within a Code which should have been fair and unbiased, and EC Comics founder Bill Gaines is even reported as saying that he “firmly believed that the Code was designed, at least in part, to put his company out of business.[53]

This rejection of the Comics Code’s guidelines also sparked an independent (or “indie”) comic revolution, with the term “underground comix” coined by indie comic creators to mean:

“…a new wave of humorous, hippie-inspired comic books that dealt with social and political subjects like sex, drugs, rock music and anti-war protest…these new comics became known as “comix” to set them apart from mainstream comics and to emphasize the “x” for x-rated[54].”

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These “x-rated” comics were clearly not intended to be read by children, unlike the majority of content produced by Marvel and DC under the Code, the moral messages and ideologies of which formed a didactic fiction for young comic book readers. These x-rated comics instead “blast[ed] various, social, moral and political taboos…all controversial topics[55].” Underground comix were an outlet for creators who felt oppressed by the censorship imposed by the Code, who took comic books to be as important as any other art form and who simply wanted the freedom to write about the political and moral issues of the day without fear of being labelled “immoral” or having their work linked to a rise in juvenile delinquency, as had been the case with the majority of “controversial” comics examined during the 1954 comic book hearings.

Underground comix were also more stylistically and narratively focused on ideas of nostalgia and a possibly subconscious desire to a pre-Code era of comics creation than their modern counterparts were, or were allowed to be. It has been noted that “The cover art of 70s gonzo comix often hearkened back to the medium’s pulp and scifi roots, albeit with a distinctly adult and tripped-out twist[56].” This “adult and tripped-out twist” reflected comic creators’ desire to break free from the conforming, non-adult restriction of the Code, and also fitted with the changing art style of the 1950’s and 60’s. Pop Art, a movement which saw its height during the 1960’s, was a style that “aimed to blur the distinction between “high” art and “low” culture[57].” At the time of underground comix’s inception, comic books were considered “low culture” by the majority of people, despite the talent and work that went into their creation—a fact seen in the way that comics were blasted during the comic book hearings, described as “being printed on cheap paper, and their artwork, color, drawing and printing are of such quality to strain children’s eyes.[58]” By creating elaborate, “tripped out” covers, underground comix artists could more easily show that their work was indeed a form of art, and contribute to the Pop Art movement by combining the “low culture” medium of comic books with the “high culture” elaborate, detailed artwork which adorned their comics’ covers.

As well as allowing creators the freedom to create controversial and “x-rated” content, underground comix creators set themselves apart from the mainstream comics publishers by being focused on paying artists and writers a fair amount for their work, with “The creators and publishers set[ting] new standards for the business of comic books, establishing rights for artists and writers that were rarely permitted in the mainstream comic book world[59].” Comic book creators who worked for traditional, big-name publishers in the 1950’s and 60’s were paid notoriously low sums of money for their work[60] that would go on to earn, in some cases, millions of dollars, and this is an oversight that still happens even to this day. A recent example of this would be the 2012 Avengers Assemble movie, based on Marvel’s Avengers comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby was not credited in the film’s opening credits for the original creation of the film’s characters while Lee was, and this was described as an issue that “highlights the issue that Lee was in a position to make deals for credits and profit shares, while Kirby never came close.[61]” Lee claimed that he was credited at the film’s beginning because he was an executive producer on the film[62], but many fans saw it as an insult to a co-creator who had been badly paid during his time at Marvel. Comic creators who worked for mainstream publishers such as Marvel in the 1950’s and 60’s also had little control over their content, as Joe Sergi explains in The Law for Comic Book Creators: Essential Concepts and Applications:

“In the 1950’s and 60’s, Lee supervised the creation of Marvel’s comic books from conception to publication…Lee also had the authority to ask artists to revise or edit their work before publication and frequently exercised that authority…Lee did not always consult with the artist before making a change to their work.”

Underground comix were revolutionary because creators had control over their own content, where no-one could “make changes[s] to their work” without their consent, and because these creators could write and illustrate literally anything that they wanted to. Through this, the creativity and imagination of comic creators thrived under the implementation of the Code.

Underground Comix, much like the Code itself, were a wider reflection of North American society at the time. Whilst the Comics Code was a reflection of the American public’s fear of Communism and other threats of attack and/or war, underground comix represented the ever-growing desire for individuality and non-conformity that came with the beginning of the 1960’s. The 1960’s was a time for experimentation and expression, a time for “a demand…that all of youth culture express its individuality[63].” This “demand” affected all aspects of society including art and artists, and the non-conformism of the era was reflected perfectly in the non-conformism of underground comix.

Steve Ditko, creator of Doctor Strange and regular artist on Strange Tales up until 1966[64], left Marvel for unknown reasons, but is quoted as saying “…I didn’t think the Code would let me do the type of stories I wanted to do[65]” and was also known for his love of Code-restricted genres like that of horror and the supernatural, shown by the fact that he “did work for Charlton Comics, on some of the most graphic and goriest horror stories of the pre-comics code era[66]”. Both of these quotes show Ditko’s lack of love for the Comics Code, which may have prompted his early exit from Marvel after the Code was instated. Ditko was also less worried about following the Code’s regulations than his Marvel counterpart Stan Lee, as can be seen in the following quote from Ditko where he discusses the creation of Marvel’s Spider-Man:

“Stan wanted me to take Peter Parker off the wire, ceiling, etc., to change the spider-like poses, action. Why? Stan was afraid the Comics Code ‘judges’ might or would reject Spider-Man because Peter Parker, the teenager would be seen by young buyers as something non-human, a freak, a spider-like creature…[67]

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Here, we can see the Code’s strictness and rigidity affecting creators’ work through a fear of publication rejection by the Comics Code Authority “judges”. Interestingly, Marvel would later go on to publish The Amazing Spider-Man #96: Green Goblin Reborn![68], the first mainstream comic story that portrayed and condemned the abuse of drugs and that would eventually lead to a revision of the Comics Code[69], but they would do so without Ditko. After departing Marvel, Ditko went on to work for Warren Publishing, the home of Creepy and Eerie[70]Creepy and Eerie was a publication not affected by the Comics Code, as explained by the company’s founder, Jim Warren:

“We would overcome [the restrictions] by saying to the Code Authority, the industry, the printers, and the distributors: ‘We are not a comic book; we are a magazine. Creepy is magazine-sized and will be sold on magazine racks, not comic book racks”. Creepy’s manifesto was brief and direct: First, it was to be a magazine format, 8½” × 11″, going to an older audience not subject to the Code Authority.” 

By working with Warren Publishing, Ditko could avoid the Comics Code and have the freedom to work on telling stories that revolved around narratives filled with gore, horror and violence, things that he was denied the opportunity of creating whilst working on Marvel’s Strange Tales.

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Marvel would go on to use the Comics Code’s seal of approval up until 2001, when it dropped the code in favour of its own ratings system, which let parents and young readers know what was subjectively appropriate and inappropriate based on a “mature” label on the comics’ front covers. This was partially spurred by the publication of Marvel’s X-Force #118, a comic renowned for involving the first Marvel gay kiss between two male characters[71]. This comic, whilst not involving any explicit sexual content, had to be clearly labelled as “Mature Content” under the Code’s restrictions, due to the kiss. DC and other large publishers soon followed suit after Marvel’s departure from its partnership with the Comics Code Authority, dropping the Comics Code in favour of their own ratings systems where they would have more control over their content and its distribution. In 2011, Archie Comics, the only comic publisher still participating in the Code’s system at the time, discontinued their use of the Code’s seal[72], rendering the Code completely defunct. Despite this, it was too late for Marvel’s Strange Tales, which had ceased regular publication in 1968[73], after pressure from the Code combined with a declining public interest in the horror genre meant that Marvel could make more money from its superhero titles than it could from Strange Tales.

To conclude, it seems impossible to separate the introduction of the 1954 Comics Code with the rise of independent “x-rated” comics throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, as well as the thematic and stylistic changes made to Strange Tales throughout its publication pre and post Code. However, it is harder to draw the conclusion that non-Code approved comics had an actual proven link to an increase in juvenile delinquency, which was the main reason for the Code’s implementation in the first place. There are a multitude of media theories, both contemporary and historical, which disprove the passive audience theory that much of Wertham’s case against comic books relied on, and it seems that the North American public were more concerned about controlling the rise of juvenile delinquency than they were about finding extensive proof for the cause of said delinquency. This, combined with an opportunity to use comic books as a scapegoat for the fear of supposed Communist uprisings and invasions at the time, meant that fearful parents were eager to support the Comics Code Authority’s guidelines, believing that regulating their children’s media content would help to keep them safe in an uncertain, ever-changing world.

As for the claim that “The comic book medium, having come of age on the American cultural scene, must measure up to its responsibilities”, made during the hearings, it would seem that those “responsibilities” were seen differently between comic creators and the Comics Code Authority. Whilst comic creators believed that they had a responsibility to create art that reflected the various socio-political topics of the time, seen through the kind of content present in x-rated underground comix, the Comics Code Authority (along with a large number of fearful parents) believed that comics instead had a responsibility to provide their children with education that centered around explicitly anti-Communist teachings and other similarly non-subtlely patriotic topics.

Comics’ creators had already “measured up to their responsibilities” by creating books that centered around the anger and confusion felt in post-war America, but unfortunately, the Comics Magazine Association of America failed to see this and imposed the Code anyway. Though, in many ways, you can view the birth of underground comix as a positive outcome of a restrictive regime, so perhaps it is more optimistic to instead view the Code as something which simply prompted creativity and was the catalyst for many creative, unusual creations from comic creators who, when told that they were not allowed to create what they wanted, simply decided to see how much further they could push themselves to create something as uniquely bizarre and uniquely American as underground comix were. Comic books will continue to be regarded as media which must “measure up to its responsibilities” as the public’s attitudes to social issues continue to change and develop, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

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