Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval

By Dr. Amy Kiste Nyberg
Department of Communication & The Arts
Seton Hall University

The Seal of Approval, once prominently displayed on comic book covers, quietly disappeared in 2011. For nearly 60 years, however, censors funded by the comic book industry enforced rules about acceptable content. Only comics that passed a pre-publication review carried the seal.

Designed to resemble a stamp, the seal bore the words “Approved by the Comics Code Authority,” which was the regulatory arm of the Comics Magazine Association of America. The trade association’s Comics Code Authority and its Seal of Approval were the publishers’ answer to their critics.

Comic Book Critics

Controversy over comic books surfaced shortly their debut in the 1930s. The first group to object to comics was educators, who saw comics as a bad influence on students’ reading abilities and literary tastes. They filled professional journals with suggestions on how to wean their pupils from superhero tales. Comic books also represented a threat to their authority – for the first time, children could select their own leisure reading material.

Church and civic groups added their members’ voices to protests. They objected to “immoral” content such as scantily clad women in jungle comics and the glorification of villains in crime comics. The Catholic Church’s National Office of Decent Literature added comics to the materials it evaluated.

In postwar America, a new focus on juvenile delinquency drew a third group into the debate over the effects of comics – mental health experts. Among them was Dr. Fredric Wertham, a noted New York City psychiatrist, who campaigned to ban the sales of comics to children. He argued that children imitated the actions of comic book characters and that the content desensitized children to violence.

Seduction of the Innocent

Wertham is often ridiculed as a failed social scientist whose studies of the effects of comics lack credibility, but that is an unfair characterization. His case against comics is actually built on his practice of social psychiatry, which examines social and cultural influences on behavior, including popular culture. However, in articles for popular magazines written by and about Wertham, the underpinnings of his work were left out in favor of anecdotes that Wertham realized would resonate more with the audience.

The best-known of the comic book critics, he advocated for comic book legislation by presenting his work in professional venues, by testifying at legislative hearings, and by publicizing his views in popular media. His efforts focused national attention on comics but resulted in no legislation. Discouraged, he wrote a book he hoped would raise public awareness about comics. He published Seduction of the Innocent in spring 1954.

Wertham’s renewed attack on comic books prompted the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to begin its investigation of the effects of mass media with the comic book industry. Senators staged hearings in New York City on April 21-22 and June 4, 1954, calling a number of witnesses to testify.

EC Comics Under Attack

Among those testifying was William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics. Sen. Estes Kefauver badgered him into saying a Johnny Craig cover featuring a severed head and a bloody ax, from Crime Suspenstories, was in “good taste” for a horror comic. Gaines’ comments provided a front-page story for the New York Times: “No Harm in Horror” trumpeted the headline.

Although he could not have known it at the time, the hearings marked the beginning of the end for Gaines’ comic book company. The publisher tried to rally the industry to defend itself, but the others were looking for a quick solution to a problem that threatened their business. In October 1954, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and adopted a regulatory code.

Disgusted with the direction events had taken, Gaines initially refused to join the CMAA and submit his comics for review. Wholesalers, however, only handled code-approved comics (with the exception of Dell Comics and Classics Illustrated), so Gaines capitulated.

His relationship with his fellow publishers was short-lived. At least three versions of the story about Gaines’ dispute with the CMAA exist. In an interview, Gaines said a story showing a black astronaut with sweat on his face was rejected because the code forbid ridicule of any religion or race. When he threatened to sue, the code administrator backed down. A second version of the story suggests that Gaines was not able to get approval for the comic, but printed it with the seal anyway. A third account, told by Gaines’ business manager, said the EC story was rejected because it featured robots, which challenged Code Administrator Charles Murphy’s religious beliefs that only man was granted the ability to think.

Whatever the real story is, the fact remains that Gaines resigned from the CMAA on Oct. 25, 1955. He folded his comic book business and started Mad magazine, which was not subject to the Comics Code Authority. Whiles Gaines is the best-known casualty of the code, several other comic book companies also folded in the 1950s due in part to code restrictions, although with less fanfare. To be fair, however, other factors depressed the comic book market, including distribution woes and the loss of the reading audience to television.

The Comic Censors’ Bible

The Comics Code, the bible of comic book censors, went far beyond addressing concerns about crime and horror comics to implement broad regulations that addressed what CMAA President John Goldwater, of Archie Comics, identified as “problem areas.” The 41 provisions purged sex, violence and any other content not in keeping with critics’ standards. Respect for government and parental authority was stressed, and censors even became the grammar police, eliminating slang and colloquialisms. Comics books received the Seal of Approval only if they were suitable for the youngest readers.

As the controversy over comics died down, the Seal of Approval became less prominent on comic book covers. The enforcement of code provisions, however, continued to restrict the potential of the medium. Nothing inherent in the form of comics prevents comic books from telling stories for different audiences, but the perception of comic books as juvenile literature was reinforced by the Comics Code.

Spider-Man to the Rescue

Stan Lee has often told the tale of how Marvel Comics defied the Comics Code Authority, publishing the Spider-Man story arc about drug abuse. According to CMAA files, Marvel had asked for permission to publish the special issues but was denied. The request, however, triggered a review of the code. Revisions were crafted in December 1970, and publishers agreed the new code would go into effect on Feb. 1, 1971.

A special meeting of the CMAA was called on that date to chastise Marvel. Charles Goodman, representing the company, promised that after publication of the Spider-Man issues (cover-dated May-July 1971), the company would not publish any comics without obtaining the Seal of Approval.

The 1971 code relaxed the restrictions on crime comics and lifted the ban on horror comics (while still prohibiting the use of “horror” and “terror” in titles). In addition, the liberalized standards on sex reflected changes in society. After the Spider-Man controversy, the CMAA added a section on how to handle depiction of drug use. The code, although it was less restrictive, represented a lost opportunity in its reaffirmation of comic books as a medium for children.

Bypassing the Code

Only four publishers remained active in the CMAA during the late 1970s and the 1980s – Archie, Marvel, Harvey, and DC. However, a major change in comic book distribution made it possible for publishers to sell comics without the Seal of Approval. That change was direct market distribution.

Under the old system, still in place, wholesalers deliver comics to retailers along with other magazines. These wholesalers served as the enforcement arm of the Comics Code Authority by agreeing to handle only those comics with the seal. With direct market distribution, distributors who specialize in comic books solicit orders and distribute directly to retail outlets.

Distributors and retailers willing to handle comics without the Seal of Approval opened the door for publishers who sought to bypass the CMAA and its censors. Freed from code constraints, new publishers experimented with material – including adult-oriented comics – in order to expand the audience.

The Comics Code: 1989

Changes in distribution and the resulting rise of the so-called “independent” publishers (plus the fact that the CMAA was almost out of copies of the 1971 code) led to a push in 1982 for another revision. A draft written by a consultant hired by the CMAA was rejected. Gladstone, which published Disney comics, and Archie favored retaining the 1971 code. Marvel, too, indicated a willingness to continue under the old code. Harvey wanted a new code but warned against any “meaningless liberalization.”

However, DC indicated it was considering eliminating the Seal of Approval from its books, arguing the 1971 code was an embarrassment and a hindrance to the creative talent of artists and writers. As a result, the CMAA drafted a two-part document that met DC’s demands for broad guidelines. The “Principles of the Comics Code Authority” contained general statements about violence, language and other areas of concern. The second part, “Editorial Guidelines,” listed specific rules for each of the content areas. The CMAA forbid the release of this internal document to the public.

Comic Book Regulation Today

The impact of the 1989 code eroded as comic books disappeared from the shelves of general retailers. Comic book specialty stores willingly carried comics without the Seal of Approval, and even members of the CMAA created imprints for the direct market, bypassing the review process.

Marvel struck a major blow to the viability of the CMAA’s self-regulatory code in 2001 when it withdrew from the Comics Code Authority in favor of an in-house rating system. By 2011, only two publishers printed the Seal of Approval on the cover of their comics, Archie and DC. DC comics announced in January 2011 it was dropping the Seal of Approval, and Archie soon followed.

Today, publishers regulate the content of their own comics. The demise of the Comics Code Authority and its symbol, the Seal of Approval, marks elimination of industry-wide self-regulation, against which there is little legal recourse. Now, the comic book community can answer its critics by invoking its First Amendment rights, assisted by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, whose mission is to protect those rights through legal referrals, representation, advice, assistance, and education.

For Further Reading

Beaty, Bart. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986.

Hadju, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Lent, John, ed. Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Press, 1999.

Nyberg, Amy. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart and Co., 1954. Reprint. Main Road Books, 1996.