Tales from the Code: How Much Did Things Change After the Enactment of the Comics Code of 1954?

The year was 1954. An unknown group named Bill Haley and the Comets records “Rock Around the Clock.” President Eisenhower informs and warns concerned Americans about the falling domino principle of communism as tensions rise in a little-known country named Vietnam. The Lone Ranger ends its 21-year radio run with Episode 2,956 just as the Miss America Pageant is broadcast on television for the first time. Rear Window is number one in the Box Office, and Sports Illustrated debuts on the newsstands.

And, on October 26, 1954, the comics industry adopted the Comics Code Authority and began almost 60 years of self-censorship. As most people know, the Code was created in response to a public backlash against the comics industry in general, and it was implemented specifically as a result of publishers’ concerns about government regulation. The industry formed a self-regulatory body, which would impose and self-police a “code of ethics and standards” for comics. This was done by requiring that each comic book published have a seal of approval.

Although the Comics Code Authority had no official control over publishers, most distributors refused to carry comics that did not carry the seal. On December 24, 1954, The New York Times reported “NEW COMIC BOOKS TO BE OUT IN WEEK; First ‘Approved’ Issues Put More Clothing on Heroines and Tone Down Violence” by Dorothy Barcla. Soon, other stories appeared around the country and even in other parts of the world were talking about it. Here are some samples:

The 1954 Comics Code was very similar to the 1930 Hollywood Production Code, which was created by The Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association after state governments created censorship boards in the wake of a 1915 Supreme Court decision Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, which held that free speech did not extend to motion pictures. The Hollywood Production Code contained a series of “Don’t” and “Be Carefuls” for filmmakers that ranged from child pornography to heavy kissing.

The Comics Code was more strict that the Hollywood Production Code. For example, the 1954 Code barred the following: sympathetic criminals; details or methods of crime; disrespectful portrayal; glamorized crime or criminals; evil winnings; violence, torture, unnecessary knife and gun play; concealed weapons; murder of law enforcement officers; kidnapping; the words “Horror” or “Terror” (or emphasis of the word “Crime”); lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations; walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism and werewolfism; profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity; references to physical afflictions or deformities; slang and colloquialisms; attack on any religious or racial group; nudity and indecent or undue exposure; suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture; inappropriate dress; exaggeration of the female form; divorce; illicit sexual relations; violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities; disrespect for parents, the moral code, or anything that would not encourage honorable behavior; anything that would deemphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage; anything that would stimulate the lower and baser emotions; the suggestion of seduction and rape; sexual perversion or any inference to same; and all elements or techniques not specifically mentioned, which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the Code that were considered violations of good taste or decency.

As one could guess, this put severe restrictions on an industry that, in large part, had been selling horror, war, and romance comics. So how did the industry cope? Did the storytelling suffer? To examine this, I was able to track down some comic stories that were published before and reprinted after the imposition of the Code. These stories provide a sort of litmus test to see exactly what effect the Code was having on comic book stories.

A great example is a story called “The Invasion,” which appeared as a pre-Code story in Witches’ Tales #21 and then again as a post-Code story in Race for the Moon #1. This story is a great example of the type of changes that Code imposed as it contains both major and minor revisions.

For example, here are some subtle changes regarding the female figure. This falls under category four under General Standards Part C, Costume:

4. Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

As you can see in these shots, the woman’s cleavage has magically vanished in the post-Code version on the right.

The book also had some violent scenes remove. These kind of changes most like likely resulted from General Standards Part A:

7. Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.

Take a look at a comparison of two scenes in the book with the post Code version on the right. Notice that the original text wasn’t changed. So now, without the additional art, the text doesn’t really make sense.

But perhaps the biggest change occurs at the end of the story. Basically, “The Invasion” tells the story of a couple who sees a news briefing that says aliens are attacking. Here is how the story ends with the pre-Code version on the left and the post-Code version on the right:

As you can see, both versions feature a War of the Worlds hoax-type ending. But the original ending is so much more powerful. I should also add that the alien in panel two looks more human in the post-Code version, the bodies are removed in panel one, and the husband is not as wild eyed. I’m not sure how these changes helped society. However, most would agree that they weakened the story.

Consider a couple of panels from another story called “Colorama,” which was featured in Harvey Comics’ Black Cat Mystery #45 (pre-Code) and then again in #61 (post-Code). The title of the book was changed to Black Cat Mystic even though the word “Mystery” was not prohibited under the Code. The story isn’t important to the changes, but it involved a man trying to get a pair of psychedelic glasses.

The first change is pretty substantial. In the pre-Code version the protagonist is so desperate that he will stop at nothing, not even murder, to obtain his goal of obtaining his glasses. The post-Code version has subtle changes to the art and major changes to the plot to reduce this motivation to petty larceny. Again, like “The Invasion,” these changes alter the entire tone of the story and make it less powerful.

The second change is odd in that the policeman looks nicer. I would guess this ran afoul of General Standards Part A:

3. Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

As long as we are talking about that particular edict regarding law enforcement, take a look at the dialogue change in another story from Harvey Comics called “Disc Jockey,” which came out before the Code in Black Cat Mystery #46 and then was reprinted in Race for the Moon #1. Take a look at the dialogue in panel four. After the Code is enacted, the victim calls out for the police. Perhaps this was the Code’s way of creating respect for law enforcement by having people know that you ask for them to help. You might also notice that aliens became more human for some reason in the later version. Maybe the more insectile aliens were considered too gruesome and violated Section 3 of General Standards Part B .

3. All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.

Before we leave the world of Black Cat Mystery, I wanted to feature one more story. It’s called “Supreme Penalty” and it came out in Black Cat Mystery #47 (pre-Code) and then also appeared (along with “Disc Jockey” and “The Invasion”) after the enactment of the Code in Race to the Moon #1. The basic plot of “Supreme Penalty” is that criminals are punished for their crimes by being put into rockets that are shot off into space. A brilliant scientist doesn’t agree with the practice and decides the best way to negate the punishment would be to prove to people that he can come back from space. The dialogue on page one changes from “I don’t want to die” to “I don’t want to go,” summarizing the main difference in the two stories. They also changed his demeanor from terrified to slightly concerned. In short, in the original story, the prisoners die.

This change from death to exile continues throughout the story. And when our hero decides to break the law by murdering a judge so that he can be sent into space, the action presumably occurs off panel post-Code (on the right). In both versions, the motivation and action are the same. Well, sort of. In the pre-Code version, the barbaric practice is keeping people from trading with the planet; after the Code, the lack of trade is blamed on the fact that so many prisoners have cluttered the sky, so trade ships can’t get through. (Of course, in either version, if space travel is possible for trade, why would the hero need to prove that he could come back? But that is neither here nor there.)

In the post-Code version, the last page says the judge was just wounded and lived. Perhaps because of this, or despite it, the ending of the story changes as well. In the original, the scientist is allowed to live. But without death being at risk, the ending had to be altered. The writers did the best they could by changing the ending so that our hero gets life imprisonment in his office. Sadly, when you take away the “Supreme” in “Supreme Punishment,” the twist is nowhere near as satisfying as when the protagonist risks death to save his planet and gets a more lenient “life.”

In the course of my research, I was able to find one circumstance where I think the Code actually improved the storytelling in a story entitled “Till Death Do Us Part.” This story debuted before the Code in Journey Into Mystery #15 and then was reprinted in Vault of Evil #4 after the enactment of the Code. As you can see the art hasn’t changed at all and is still pretty gruesome (the pre-Code version is on top). But, the Code required that the text needed to be changed, as well as the coloring. So, now you end up eliminating the irksome “on the nose language” found in early comics and end up with a better product. I should also add that I think the coloring change actually enhanced the violence.

Stan Lee tells of another Code change that enhanced the story telling in Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Universe. He says:

The folks at the Code insisted the phone not be off the hook—too sexy, apparently—and they were upset by the final panel. A long shot of Fury and the Contessa embracing… To appease the CCA, the phone was redrawn ringing away without being answered… [and] a Photostat was made of [the gun in] that part of Panel 1 (enlarged), and it became the final panel. The Code was happy, and the country’s morals were saved.
The fact that a handgun in a holster is considered a strong sexual symbol in some circles never occurred to anyone at the Code.

Here is the final page. See for yourself whether it works better.

This next example is just lazy and amusing. It comes from Jesse James #24. I’m not sure what readers made of this when they saw it. I’m not even sure this story makes sense without the deleted phrases.

Of course, superheroes were not immune to changes in the Code. For example, here is a splash page to “The Gorilla Boss of Gotham” from Batman #75 (before the Code) that was reprinted after the enactment of the Code in Batman Annual #3. Obviously, the new version (on the right) is less violent. I also assume that it is disrespectful to throw law enforcement personnel to their deaths.

Speaking of Batman, here are some changes the first appearance of the Caped Crusader from the original version of Detective Comics #27 (my scan comes from Batman in the 40s; I don’t own the original comic, of course) and the reprinted version (mine is from Batman from the 30s to the 70s, but the change is also in other reprints). In the story, entitled “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” a murder suspect explains how his fingerprints came to be found on the murder weapon, a knife. In the post Code reprint, however, there is no knife at the scene at all, creating odd dialogue. Granted the Code forbid “excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play” in General Standards, part A, 7, but I would think the knife was pretty necessary to these scenes.

Apparently, these types of changes occurred frequently. David Hajdu describes similar changes being made to reprinted stories that had been issued prior to the code’s enactment.

For instance, one story, “Mack Martin Investigator,” drawn by Rudy Palais and first published in the May 1948 issue of Super Mystery Comics, showed the hero bopping an opponent on the head with a piece of office equipment. “Ever hear of a Dictaphone, stupid?” Martin asked. An emphatic “Bang” appeared above the head of the victim, who groaned “Ugh” as he shot a pistol into the air. In the same story, revised for publication in the January 1956 issue of Penalty Comics, the machine was whited out, giving the attacker empty hands. There was no “Bang,” no “Ugh,” no gun blast. But the dialogue–“Ever hear of a Dictaphone, stupid?”–remained. Inane to begin with, the line was not improved by being made an inexplicable non sequitur.

The same thing happened to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the creators of Captain America, in their book Fighting American. Mark Evanier tells the story in Kirby: King of Comics.

[“The League of Handsome Devils” from Issue 2 of Fighting American] was published shortly before the Comics Code enveloped the U.S. comic book marketplace, dumbing things down and shoving the smaller publishers—like the one publishing Fighting American—off the newsstands and out of business.

In 1966, Joe Simon and Harvey comics… put out a Fighting American reprint book…. It was issued under the Code and the censors required changes, which were made right on the on the original art. Of particular note is the first panel of the second page. An ice pick, clearly visible in the original printing, was surgically removed from the assailant’s hand and some of the text was altered.

Returning to Batman, here is another example of exactly what Hadju is talking about. This is from Batman #88, which was changed when it was reprinted in Batman Annual #6. Obviously, the gun is gone, leaving readers to wonder if the Dark Knight has a glass jaw.

Batman’s rogue’s gallery was also affected by the Comics Code. I read over at Comic Book Legends 273 that that the origin of the second Two Face, an actor named Paul Sloan, was changed as a result of the Comics Code, and the origin of Harvey Dent Two Face was left open. Sloane first appeared in Batman #68 (released before the enactment of the Code) and that story was reprinted in Batman Annual #3 (which was released after the Code).

As you can see from these scans, the origin of Two Face’s scars is changed from the all-too-familiar acid in the face that we all know and love (featured on the top) to an exploding light (featured in the reprint below). I should add that the motive was also changed to remove the fact that Sloane had stolen his attacker’s “girl.” Perhaps, this is because fraternization of this type violated the subsection of General Standard Part C that pertained to “Marriage and Sex” and prohibited divorce or the hint of “illicit sex relationships.”

I should add that Two Face didn’t really appear in comics from 1954 to 1971. It has been theorized that it was because his grotesque appearance would not appeal to the CCA reviewers. The same thing also happened to another of Batman’s most famous rogues. Catwoman completely vanishes after Detective Comics #211 in 1954 and does not reappear until 1966 (in Lois Lane: Superman’s Girlfriend #70). Once again, theorists believe that Catwoman ran afoul of the Code, especially since (like Sherlock Holmes’ “Woman,” Irene Adler) Catwoman usually escaped (or was let go by) Batman at the end as part of their flirtation. This would appear to violate General Standards Part A:

4. If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.

5. Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.

6. In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

So, why was Catwoman brought back? I’ll bet that we can credit Julie Newmar (and arguably Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt) for that, since the popularity of the Batman TV show and its purrfect portrayal of the felonious feline femme fatale is responsible for the return of Catwoman to the comics.

Bats wasn’t the only hero to suffer from the Code. Les Daniels describes an incident that occurred to Plastic Man in his book DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes:

The zeal of the Code censors resulted in absurdities like the rewriting of this story from Plastic Man #63 (July 1956). Having created Mr. Aqua, a villain made of water, Jack Cole disposed of him with a gag. Obviously Woozy has just swallowed Mr. Aqua, but the Code demanded new lettering to assure everyone that the bad guy had merely been spilled instead. As a result, no kid who read this comic book ever became a cannibal.

Turning away from the Distinguished Competition and over to Marvel, there were also some interesting changes to Captain America. First, an easy one: This splash page was changed presumably because it was too scary. The bound woman is also removed. The original is from Captain America #6 and it was reprinted in Fantasy Masterpiece #6.

The same issue also featured a Red Skull story from Captain America #7. You will note that he looks less frightful and more like a man in a mask. Apparently, that was something the people at the Comics Code insisted on. I will also add that credit for Simon and Kirby are gone, but I’m pretty sure that has nothing to do with censorship and will be a topic covered elsewhere.

And, like Two Face, Cap had his origin tweaked in later retellings to avoid the appearance of drug use, (again, courtesy of Comic Book Legends Revealed 365). As you can see from the scans below (from Captain America #1, pre-Code on top, and Tales of Suspense #64, post-Code on bottom), the needle originally used to administer the super soldier serum has been replaced by an oral version of serum. This was probably done to circumvent the Code. Although the Code did not specifically prohibit drugs, (in fact, the word “drugs” is not contained in the Code at all), it was interpreted so that portrayal of drugs violate a general section entitled Standards Part C, which prohibited “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency.” This is the provision that got Stan Lee in to trouble when he did those Spider-Man stories I wrote about last month.

As an interesting aside, here is a comparison of a cover to Captain America #101 (a post-Code book, left) to its reprinted version in Marvel Super Action #2 (a much later post-Code book, right). As you will recall, the Code made Marvel portray the Red Skull in a way that made clear that he just a guy in a rubber mask. Jack Kirby drew the more demonic looking Skull on the original cover, which was changed to comply with the Code. However, when Marvel reprinted the book, they used the original cover.

I had assumed that the Code had just become more lenient at the time the reprint was made. But, then I had lunch with Rob Anderson (of Rex, Zombie Killer fame) and he pointed out that the original cover was used in the Marvel Value Stamps (presumably not subject to Code review) before the reprint came out. Here is the copy of the stamp. So perhaps the inclusion of the artwork from the cover on the stamp led to the inclusion of the image on the reprint. It’s not 100 percent clear.

More clear, however, is just what Jack Kirby thought of the people at the Comics Code Authority who were judging his work. Mark Evanier explains in Kirby: King of Comics:

Kirby, speaking of a similar deletion in another story, once said, “I never thought they really believed they were protecting children from violence in comics. I always thought they did that kind of thing just to drive me crazy.”

So while it is interesting to see these comparisons from a purely historical perspective, the real purpose of this analysis is to see how the Code affected the books. In a few rare cases (Journey in Mystery #15 and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #2, for example) the story improved. A lot of times, the changes were insignificant to the content of the story and comic creators creatively found ways around the Code. However, as can be seen above, a lot of the time the stories had to be changed to the point where a) they didn’t make sense or b) they just weren’t as good. In all cases, the creator’s original vision was changed. That’s a shame.

Because my analysis can only compare stories that were able to come out before the Code to their revised versions, it is limited in the ability to see the effect the Code had on newly created material. As I was finishing up this post, someone recommended I look at Alter Ego 105 from TwoMorrows Publishing (coincidentally called “Tales from the Code,” which is what I named these segments). That issue features comparisons of original art and scripts that didn’t make it past the Code into the final art released in the books. They fall pretty much in line with the images in this post and, for the most part, the original versions are clearly better.

For example, here is a Code-imposed change from Conan the Barbarian #58. (The original version is on the bottom). Apparently, the first version is too suggestive.

Sadly, I suspect the more than 50 pages of examples in Alter Ego are only the tip of the iceberg. I shudder to think how many stories were changed before they ever saw publication. And all my examples represent changes in books for which the art was completed. As a comic writer, I have to wonder about the innumerable stories that were never even submitted for fear that the Code would reject them.

A lot of times people forget that censorship not only attacks the final product (which can arguably challenged after the fact like what occurred with Kirby’s Red Skull cover to Captain America #101); but, it also chills the creative process. When that occurs, there is no redress. And that is why censorship needs to be caught early and stopped before it can affect the creative process.

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Joe Sergi is a life-long comics fan and author who has written short stories, novels, comics, and articles in the horror, science fiction, super hero, and young adult genres. When not writing, he works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed US government agency. More information can be found at http://www.joesergi.net/.