Some time ago, I put up a blog which reprinted what 20 writers thought about while writing comics in the 1970s. It was reprinted from Inside Comics. It proved very popular so I thought I’d put up another article from that four issue fanzine. This one features Leonard Darvin, Roy Thomas, Carmine Infantino, and James Warren talking about the comics code from 1974:
The Comics Code: 20 Years Of Self-Strangulation?
After 20 years of the Comics Code, what would you say have been the positive contributions of the Code to either the industry or the public?
LEONARD DARVIN: The Code made it possible for the comic book to survive as a mass medium for children, acceptable in the home and selling hundreds of millions of copies. Were it not for the Code, comics might have survived as a small, offbeat type of publication for adults, or in the kiddie area like Mickey Mouse.
With competitive trends as they are, if one publisher got into sex, almost inevitably another would get sexier, and so on, until the public would clamp down and say “I don’t want my kids to read them!” Though in 1971 we permitted the use of werewolves and vampires, the trend in that direction is not gory in Code approved books, and does not go beyond limits that we would defend for reading by a youngster, maybe not babies, but okay for teenagers.
There’s no arbitrary limit on age. The Code, on a sexual level, for example, is no more restrictive than many state laws which say that children under 17 can’t be sold a book which shows bare breasts. We have kept within the bounds of 17 or 18. It’s up to the individual publisher to decide that he’s putting a book out for kids of 7 or 8, or to decide to publish for 17 or older.
The Code can only be justified by the fact that a comic book is essentially a children’s reading device. Take that element away from it, then the Code certainly has no place, because I’m against censorship, and I know the publishers are against censorship generally for adults.
When you deal with children, even today, the feeling that we’ve gone beyond, in sophistication, the point where we were in 1954, is ridiculous. When it comes to children, people are still as sensitive as ever. There is always the danger of the government stepping in as is happening right now with standards for children’s advertising on television.
If we didn’t have the Code, competitive forces and periphery people, who are out of the business today, would come back into it, abuse the medium and kill the whole thing, as far as the mass medium goes.
CARMINE INFANTINO: It helped considerably by keeping out the lunatic fringe element. There would have been an awful lot of guys in there publishing who are not around now because of the Code.
ROY THOMAS: The most positive one is the fact that there is a comic book industry at all today. There was a time in the fifties when it looked as if the whole industry would go under because of the excesses of the few, or even the many. Now with self-censorship, that’s been very well taken care of.
JAMES WARREN: The Comics Code had done many things for many groups. Start with the publishers who got under the wire and had their stuff “acceptable” to the Code. This has been wonderful to them, because it represented a sort of closed shop in which they set up their own standards as to who they’re going to let into the ball game. Now for the publishers who fit into the Code, it was terrific because, for a while, nothing would compete with them unless it was in the range of what fit into the Code. As long as they, themselves, made the rules which they had to comply with, that was fine. So if you happened to have an ARCHIE going at the time, great, if you didn’t happen to, you were out of business.
Now, what benefits did the public get when Bill Gaines was torn apart unmercifully under the lights of the Senate Investigating Committee? Ask yourself what benefit you got from pulling Gaines apart. It is an unfair thing that I equate with the McCarthy days. What were Kefauver’s political motives? It did him a lot of good, got him on television at Gaines’ expense.
What did the public get, some good television viewing? Actually, I don’t think the public got anything out of it, it was shameful.
The news media who covered it beautifully got a lot out of it. They got good copy at the expense of a human being named Bill Gaines.
What have been the negative or nonconstructive effects of the Comics Code in the last 20 years?
DARVIN: You have to look at the answer in two ways.
Certainly in the course of the thousands of decisions we have made, we might have made mistakes and restricted the publication of some of the wrong things. Overall, especially since 1971 when we revised the code, taking into account the contemporary feeling about nudity for example, which is much more liberal than it was in 1954, we have not restricted creativity.
I think that we have promoted creativity by eliminating broad areas of emphasis on gore. The publishers looked for different areas because they had to. They went into social significance, the art became better, they had to sell books on another basis.
INFANTINO: None. I’m in favor of the Code. At one point recently, the Code looked as if it were in dire jeopardy because of financial problems. The boys on the Code and myself stood up and said we would back it up 1000/0 to keep it going. It’s a necessity. We really feel that.
You can be just as creative within the framework of those rules as you can without them. Everybody says that those rules are hampering them, but I think that there’s something wrong with the people who complain. It makes you think a little harder to be creative, there’s nothing wrong with that.
THOMAS: It makes certain things impossible. The Code has assumed the fact that the industry would be aimed almost entirely at children. In the fifties, there was a chance for some kind of break-through, when the books were beginning to appeal to a slightly older audience. They were halted because someone suddenly said, “You’ve gone too far, go no further.”
The question is whether the comics should be kept for kids just because they are read partly by kids, or whether they should have been allowed to grow naturally.
It took years for the comics to begin to catch up with other media. Even now we are not allowed to do things which are everyday occurrences in movies or T.V. as regards to language and themes. All these forbidden things are done on prime-time T.V. shows when everyone knows that they are going to be watched by 8 year old kids. But if the same kids see it in the comic books, somehow you can pin comics right there and say: This is terrible!!!
WARREN: There might have been some young people who could have been inspired, whose imagination might have been lifted and who might have gotten some great pleasure out of the comics they never got to read because the comics were never published. People like budding Bradburys, Fellinis, and Ku-bricks; anybody who had their imaginations soar to the heights when they were kids and read comics. Now I’m not saying that the comics had to include the kind of things that Bill Gaines was vilified for, but I think that there was a Middle ground between Archie and the stuff Gaines was putting out
There is a generation of kids that never read anything but Code comics who would be better off as budding creative people had they read other comics. I’m looking up to people who have said this to me time and again, even in print. Ray Bradbury has said that he loved his youth, and loved the comics he read, and loved the kind of stuff that inspired him to go on and become a creative writer. Who is to say that we haven’t lost out on a couple of Ray Bradburys because the stuff that the Code allowed was not enough to inspire them.
Given the Comics Code as it exists today, what changes or alterations would you make in the Code if you had a completely free hand in the matter?
DARVIN: The Code is a simple set of rules, easy to understand. However, when you apply it to a particular situation it’s not quite that simple, because there can be two views of it, and both can either be said to violate the Code or to conform to it. With the type of interpretation that we’ve developed, we occasionally will be very severe about holding to the very letter of the Code, and at other times relax a little—depending on the situation.
I don’t think that the Code needs revision right now. We can live with it, and the publishers can live with it, We certainly have not had any complaints from the publishers in the last few years.
INFANTINO: We did make changes in the Code when it was reshaped 2 years ago. We made clarification of areas which were kind of nebulous at the time. Mystery—some call it Horror—had a clarification: I said, what’s wrong with the stories of Poe and de Maupassant? If they’re classics and they’re good enough for a kid to read in school and for a teacher to teach him, why can’t we have things like that under the Code’? The group agreed. We bent the rules a little so that the Code would open up a little further, but not take the situation to the stages where some of the non-Code people have gone.
THOMAS: It would probably have to be that I would want to see no Code at all. Any changes that would be made at this point are really pretty minimal. I could talk about ridiculous restrictions: we could have vampires, but not zombies. There’s a provision that rape cannot be shown in any way, even the suggestion that there might have been a rape, I think that’s rather a mistake. It moans you can approach realism from certain angles, and then suddenly there’s one thing that’s completely shut off to you. It can make the whole story suddenly very artificial.
The language restriction should be lifted. But as long as we’re aiming primarily at kids, I don’t think we would do much more anyway. Many of our audience at various ages, including teenagers, not just young kids, object to the swear words. If we use a tiny bit of suggestive nudity, most people say that if its done tastefully, it should be done.
Other people object to it in any way shape or form.
All in all, the only way to do anything outside the Code is not to change the Code, but simply to do a magazine which does not fall under the Code at all. The black and white magazines just use those provisions of the Code which make sense to you, depending on what you think your audience is, and not those that don’t make any sense to you, and feel you shouldn’t bother with.
WARREN: I’d have to think about that before I could give you a snap answer. I would recommend changes, but before I could give you an intelligent answer, I would want to familiarize myself with the Code itself which I am not intimately familiar with because I don’t have to answer to it.
Given the overall nature of the Comic Book Code as it exists today, do you feel that we will continue to have a Code for another 20 years?
DARVIN: I think everything ends. I take a rather somber view of the situation. Too many people take the
Code for granted, unfortunately. Some people, not only among the fans, who always had a kind of negative view towards it—I think wrongfully—and perhaps some of the editors—although we’re pretty friendly these days—but the wholesalers and retailers feel that the Code isn’t so important anymore; it isn’t really necessary. The United States Supreme Court Miller decision will put increasing pressure on wholesalers and retailers to know the exact content of their books, something which may have serious repercussions.
I don’t think the Code will last forever. As to its tenure, when I first got a job on the Code in 1955 as a trouble shooter, I didn’t think it would last 6 months. I thought that the heat on the Comics Industry was off at the time. The Code was expensive and the money just wasn’t forth coming. The publishers were going into other fields, and I thought 6 months would see the end of it. Well, I’ve been here almost 19 years, so I’m not a good fortune teller. But it could last another 20 years, or it could die next week, neither of which would surprise me. I only say that it’s needed.’
INFANTINO: I hope it does. As long as I’m here, I’ll certainly be a backer of it. It’s an awfully rough job to evaluate and have one publisher screaming about another publisher: he’s doing this and he’s doing that. We’ve got a tremendous guy on the job, and I hope the Code lasts forever, it’s very important.
I don’t think that it’ll stay in the same form, nothing does. Things either change or die. The Code will evolve. Sophistication may come in areas we don’t even expect, but I’m sure it will come.
THOMAS: I think the Code, or something like it will be around if comics in their present form are around. The color Comics Code will exist as long as the color comics exist.
Most of the unfavorable provisions, the really silly ones against zombies and girls with anything but a 33 inch bust, have mainly been done away with. I think that while a certain amount of silliness is still left in the Code, that if we keep the color comics, we might as well keep the Code.
I wouldn’t like to see the Code expanded to the black and white magazines, because the story market is older. The Code was designed to protect a different audience, younger, which does not form the sole readership of comics. Now a more intelligent audience, an older audience for comics exists that has to be satisfied some other way, and I would really be very much against extending the Code into some other form.
The Code should stay right where it is, live or die depending on whether color comic books aimed almost exclusively at young children lives or dies. I like color comics, I would not like to see the black and white format dominate the field. I therefore hope that the Code has a long, long life.
WARREN: I don’t know the answer, but I’m inclined to say: No, it won’t. At least not in its present form. I wouldn’t want anything to continue for 20 years in its present form because taste changes within each year, and sometimes in even less time. If I had anything to do with it, I would review the Code every six months.
Although the Comics Code terms itself “Self-regulation,” and the members of the Code do indeed belong to it on a voluntary basis, it has been suggested that the Code constitutes a form of censorship. It has also been suggested that the Code has neutralized any attempted censorship of comic books. At any rate, the line between regulation and censorship is thin. How do you feel about this question?
DARVIN: I am personally opposed to censorship of any kind. It would tend to censor ideas and political thinking which would be a thing very opposite to my concept of what this country is all about. What I’m talking about now is state censorship which I’m against for comic books as well as for adults.
Self-regulation is what we do. The rules by which we operate are set by the very people that we’re regulating. As an administrator, I don’t make the Code, I have no power to make or change the Code. I may make recommendations, but the Board of Directors, on which sits a representative of every publisher and distributor, makes the Code. They set the standards. So self-regulation at the very basis is something not imposed from without, which is censorship, but imposed from within.
Governmental censorship would be the worst type, because that would have to be political censorship. Also if the wholesalers got together and decided we will not handle A, B, and C type of publication—that would be external censorship, too. But this Code is made by the very publishers who are putting out this material. Naturally, they are doing it in reference to public reaction, but nevertheless, they could choose not to do it that way, they could do it another way.
Secondly, no publisher can be forced to join the Code, he’s free to choose. One of the major publishers, Gold Key is not a member of the Code. There is also a vast underground comic field and they’re functioning without the Code. Gold Key is very cooperative with the Code, but has never joined. When we revised the Code, Gold Key sent for copies for their editors. Their editor, Joe Connaughton, is a very fine, friendly fellow. Recently we went after them to join, but they wrote back that they felt that their type of material did not need Code supervision. We resent that attitude because if other publishers took it, we’d have problems. We cause revision in less than 15% of the books that come to us, so 85% or more don’t need Code supervision, but they ALL need the Seal to assure the public. Gold Key indicated that they would join if they didn’t have to submit their books in advance, they don’t want to do that.
INFANTINO: I think that the notion of censorship is ridiculous. First of all, we the group that participate in the Code, who keep it alive, accept the corrections that Mr. Darvin will make in our work. By being a member, we’re accepting rules in the framework that we have set up.
From time to time, many of the editors, including mine, will deviate here or there, and the Code steps in and says we’re over the line, but the important thing is that we’re building our own rules, and we’re supporting this thing ourselves, so it is self-regulation.
It’s not censorship in the negative sense. You can be creative within the framework of those rules that were set up in the Code; it makes you think even further.
THOMAS: It’s strange because you could look at it either way. Actually, I think it does both. It is, of course, self-regulation because the comic companies pay the bill. But if you really have self-regulation, in the freer sense, where every company, editor, publisher, regulates himself, then you have nothing at all. That’s basically what existed before 1954. You HAD self-regulation; every company regulated itself. As a result, you had people playing baseball with parts of other people’s bodies—very gory stories, indefensible by almost any standards when aimed at an audience that was obviously composed at least moderately of young kids.
So the next step from that type of self-regulation, which is almost no regulation, is for the companies to get together and to hire an independent authority. Darvin is not employed by any one person. He can be talked with, argued with, even changed, if all the publishers get together and want and agree to change things. That’s self-regulation which regulates by an independent authority that neither John Goldwater or Stan Lee or Carmine Infantino can do anything about, and I think it’s a fairly healthy thing.
It’s better than the kind of regulation which would have come down from the Congressional Commission 20 years ago. Better than what would have grown out of the mood of a public stirred up by a handful of well-publicized abuses, misinterpreted evidence by Dr. Wertham and others—however well-intentioned it might have been—taking the good and the bad and lumping them all together. Any Congressional Commission growing out of that atmosphere would have been so regulatory that we would have had nothing left but CASPER, THE FRIENDLY GHOST, and I’m not sure that CASPER would have survived merely because he was a ghost. People grumble about Judge Murphy, the first head of the Code, but what he did was probably much less, and at least had a chance of gradually evolving and changing, whereas with the Congressional Commission interpreting the rules forever, the comic industry would never have had enough clout to force them to change. We probably came off better with the Comic Code than we would otherwise.
I’m in this weird situation of disliking the Comic Code, not the people involved, but the Code itself and its regulations, and at the same time realizing that it did comics a service which many of the excessive, more rabid E.C. Fan Addicts—of which I was one, but a more moderate one—would abhor. They abhor the idea that the Comic Code could have done anything except prevent E.C. from going onward and upward, as though Valhalla was just around the corner and the Code stepped in and stopped it. What was really around the corner was really even more gruesome stuff, along side that would probably have evolved, also, some more mature stuff. We would have had the very good comics and the very bad. What we got after the Comic Code was very bland comics for about 10 years. Gradually, things came out of that: the first National super hero, the bland career of the super hero, then Marvel, and then Warren from outside in the bleachers somewhere. Just Warren’s pressure on the comics companies as somebody competing with them and a new generation of artists and writers who have grown up since the Comic Code was evolved, all worked together to make the world ready for change in the Comic Code.
WARREN: When you have a censorship kind of thing, it is awfully dangerous. When one or two individuals say that this is okay for kids and this isn’t—well, what is a kid? Anybody who is 7 years old? Well, I’ve got a kid, let’s say, who is 7, has an IQ of 190 and does calculus. Is that an exception? We’re talking about general overall, where there is not any such thing as a general.
The implications are that the Code says: Thou shalt not depict the following... Thou shalt, it is okay to, depict the following ... That’s the basic factual definition of any kind of censorship.
There is nothing voluntary about it at all if, when you want to be in the comic book business, you’ve got to be in the Code. How voluntary is it if the hierarchy of the Code is going to say to a wholesaler and retailer to carry only Code merchandise and you’re guaranteed of no problems. What kind of gun are they going to hold up to the heads of these people. Put up your hands, or don’t put up your hands, they say. Well, I have to put up my hands because you’ve got a gun to my head.
In effect, over the past 20 years, the Code has said: Our comics are acceptable. This implies that the other comics are not. Voluntary becomes a semantic thing. Is this a free country? Well, yeah, I think it’s a free country, but we’ve got guys tapping my wires and rifling my psychiatric files. How free is the country?
The wholesalers have been brainwashed to accept only the Code approved comics as good and good for business. After 20 years of this, a lot believe this, and a lot of the public believes it, and a lot of the P.T.A.s believe it. You tell a lie long enough and the legend becomes fact.