Panelists: Comics Code out of step with current trends

Wednesday, October 10, 2001

The psychologist who paved the way for the Comics Code Authority was a “sickie” who thought Wonder Woman was a lesbian fantasy about bondage, said former comic book publisher Carmine Infantino.

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, talked about comic books and free speech during an Oct. 2 taping of the First Amendment Center’s weekly television show, “Speaking Freely.”

The show’s participants — Infantino, former publisher and president of DC Comics; Wendy Pini, creator and publisher of Elfquest; and Joe Quesada, editor in chief of Marvel Comics — talked about the birth of the Comics Code Authority and how it affected their artistic freedom.

The CCA began in 1954 after psychologist Frederic Wertham accused comic book publishers of contributing to juvenile delinquency. Wertham also wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he said comic books were evil.

After hearing Wertham’s arguments, Congress recommended to publishers that they regulate themselves, rather than be monitored by the government. Publishers Marvel, DC, Archie and Harvey Comics then created the codes.

The codes originally stated that comic book illustrations could not show blood, dead bodies, nude or semi-nude women, men and women in the same bed, kissing or sexual activity, Infantino said.

One provision of the codes was: “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage.”

Today, the codes are a bit more lenient.

The CCA puts a logo on every comic book that follows its rules, which have been updated twice — once in 1971 and again in 1989. An administrator, hired by members of the Comics Magazine Association of America, decides which books will receive the stamp of approval. Participation in the code process is voluntary.

But Quesada said the codes are now irrelevant because people don’t know what the CCA stamp means anymore. “A mother who brings her child into a comic shop has no idea what the symbol means,” he said.

He added that the CCA and its rules are antiquated leftovers from the days of McCarthyism. “Everything about it was based on fear.”

Pini said that because she and her husband Richard, who helps publish Elfquest, don’t follow the code, they have more freedom to experiment in their editions. “We live in an environment where we really can express ourselves freely and choose the kinds of imagery we want to put out there,” she said.

Pini said she believes that fantasy tales can be used to comment on the human condition and censorship would hinder that effort. “We don’t believe in censoring ourselves in any way, whether it relates to the emotions the characters feel, the relationships, the sexuality or the decisions they make regarding violence.”

One of Elfquest‘s most popular issues featured elves that engaged in an orgy before going to war. This was the first book in the fantasy series that included a label warning audiences about the graphic violence, Pini said.

“[Characters] were bashing each other’s heads in, and there was blood everywhere,” she said. “But much to our great surprise, the human outcry was not about the graphic violence, it was about the sexuality.”

She said America’s puritanical background causes certain groups to be squeamish about sex, “but they’re very complacent about violence and how graphic you can be.”

“We were honored by being featured on some Christian fundamentalist television show as being satanically influenced,” Pini added.

Quesada said Marvel Comics also no longer follows CCA rules. “I always felt it was this very weird demon,” he said. “It always troubled me that it was there. We felt it was time to get out,” he added. “It was stodgy, it was old — it felt dirty, to be honest with you.”

Now, Marvel has its own labeling system, Quesada said. “Since we knew what the codes were anyway, we decided to give our own sort of rating.”

Parents will immediately know how to interpret the new Marvel labels, he said. “If it’s not kid-friendly, we’re gonna tell you.”

Wertham assumed that only children read comics, Quesada said. But many comic book lines also have a significant adult readership, he said.

Marvel developed a “mature line” 17 years ago called Epic Comics and recently developed an adult-oriented series called the Max Line.

“We wanted to have the ability to tell all sorts of different stories,” Quesada said. “If a creator wants to use the seven dirty words, we can just make sure we market [that line] to a certain audience.”

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