By Jon Weller
Walk into any comic book store today and you can pick up stories about superhero cannibals, romantic foul-mouthed feminist winged-warriors, or intimate trauma survival stories written by artists freeing themselves from something terrible. With the rise of interest in the graphic medium, following the popularity of some truly great film adaptations, it would be easy for a newcomer to dive into the complex medium of comics and miss the sixty-year war fought by the authors of America’s superheroes for their own freedom. As a result of this victory, the medium is free to express itself in ways many artistic forms fail to achieve. By opposing regulations placed on comics in the 1950’s, authors have been able to explore the ideas of sexuality, gender, race, along with a cornucopia of other pressing topics in American culture. Comics give the socially oppressed a voice where other platforms continue to fall short.
Late 1940’s America was a time to rebuild from the damages of war. Where superheroes like Captain America and Superman once were symbols of nationalist bravery, they now stood as a reminder of the nation’s recent traumas. Despite regulations against violence and gore within the comic book industry, the public continued to rally against horror and crime genres. With juvenile delinquency on the rise the United States, in 1954 the Senate held a subcommittee to define and curtail the problems. In order to skirt government censorship, a group of authors and publishers within the industry created The Comics Magazine Association of America and established the Comics Code Authority to appease the mass hysteria created by the misconceptions of horror and crime comic genres.
Some creators like Bill Gaines, an author and founding member of the CMAA, decided to revolt against the code by starting their own projects such as Mad Magazine. The majority of creators stayed within a small list of major publishers and tried to work within the confines of the code. This meant the retirement of many Golden Age heroes, to which works such as Watchmen or The Incredibles pay homage. While the country may have been at peace, the comics industry was gearing up for war.
Independent comics that disregarded the new guidelines took to selling in head shops and relying on the support of the underground. Comics without CCA approval were taboo, executives of the major publishers were frightened to produce them for fear of loss of profits and public outrage. As America wrapped its head around the first wave of narcotic epidemics in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the government decided to enlist the help of superheroes to combat the crisis. Comics Code strictly forbade any mention of illegal narcotics, and yet at the behest of the United States Government, Stan Lee found himself writing an anti-drug message into “The Amazing Spider Man #96.”
The story revolves around an adult taking pills and hallucinating he can fly. Spiderman catches the man before he falls off the building. He advises him to stay away from medicine he’s not prescribed. The message is clearly against drug use yet the CCA denied approval. Stan Lee went to his publishers and in May of 1971, they decided to publish in defiance of the Comics Code. This was the first mainstream comic since 1954 to publish without the approval of the CMAA; regardless of the milestone it presented within the industry, it went unnoticed by the public. This offered definitive proof to publishers that they answered to the public and not the censors.
In the coming years authors would continue to push the envelope, and in return, the Comics Code Authority applied their power to topics not often addressed by a white male-dominated medium. Not surprisingly works with female, people of color, non-binary, and homosexual protagonists were the most frequently censored. Jenette Kahn joined DC in 1976 as a publisher and would continue to fight for artist’s rights to tell their stories. She encouraged Frank Miller to write his groundbreaking piece Ronin and, after becoming president of the company in 1981, encouraged Alan Moore to create his magnum opus Watchmen. These two artists with the help of Kahn continued to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to the CMAA.
Todd McFarlane, after squabbles with Marvel over copyrights on his work for “The Amazing Spider-man,” would go on with Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to create Image Comics. Under this new label, they were free to disregard censorship. As Image gained advertisers, they no longer concerned themselves with approval from the CCA. Soon other major companies started publishing work specifically for the adult market. In 2011 the last major publishers would disband completely from the Comics Code Authority, rendering it obsolete.
The comic industry has long fought for its ability to say what it needs. Change did not happen overnight, but the determination of these artists made sure it was inevitable. While the childish connotations of comics continue to prevail today, they have come a long way from the boots and capes of the 1940’s. Jenette Kahn, Stan Lee, and many others pushed for women to be represented as real people; leading Alison Bechdel to create “Dykes To Watch Out For,” a strip that would define feminist art for decades to come. Alan Moore and Frank Miller created honest stories of war, encouraging Brian Wood to write about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Artists like Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein battled with executives over the importance of a voice for people of color, enabling Ta-Nehisi Coates to create A Nation Under Our Feet.
In the days of commonplace censorship from the MPAA and FCC, the graphic medium stands as a bastion of free speech ready for any artist who has something worth saying to use it as their megaphone.