The History Behind Comic Books and Comic Book Censorship

Did you know September 25 is National Comic Book Day? Did you know that the Comic Code Authority (the censorship code that ruled the comic’s industry for over 50 years) is now completely defunct? It’s a big year for comic books and to celebrate National Comic Book Day, let’s take a look at the rise and fall of the censorship code and the rise of comics in general.

Which is the Real First? Historians May Never Agree

If you’ve ever wondered why so many dramatic titles have all been lumped under the title of “comic books,” that’s because the whole medium started out as a way for publishers to put together compilations of their  newspaper comic strips. While historians debate what defines an actual comic book, and thus, what the earliest comic book is, one of the earliest American contenders is 1842’s The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, which was a hardcover book featuring an array of chronological stories about M. Vieux Bois. The earliest contender for a comic book in the format we recognize was The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats, printed in 1897. The magazine was a reprint of the newspaper strip Hogan’s Alley, which starred the Yellow Kid. Hogan’s Alley was already one of the earliest weekly comic strips and when the black and white, 5x7 inch magazine was released on newsstands, it may have been the first real comic book as well and even featured the words “comic book” on the back cover. The first monthly comic book was Comics Monthly, first printed in 1922. The magazine would reprint a variety of newspaper comic strips from that month and its success was short-lived, folding after only one year in print. The first comic book printed in a format we’d recognize and on a monthly basis featuring some material created specifically for the magazine was 1933’s Famous Funnies, which many historians believe to be the first true comic book. The original Famous Funnies was distributed exclusively at Woolworths, but was later sold at news stands for the price of ten cents an issue. With a number of publishers printing existing comic strips in magazine form, it was only a matter of time before someone started creating original material specifically for comic books instead of newspapers. The first comic book featuring all new material was New Fun, which was printed in 1935 by National Allied Publications, which would eventually evolve into a little company now known as DC Comics.

Making Comics Super

Once comic books got going, it wasn’t long before superheroes entered the picture. While there are tons of contenders for first comic book, practically everyone agrees that Superman, introduced in 1938’s Action Comics, was the first ever superhero. Interestingly, the character almost never made it into the public consciousness. The creators, Siegel and Shuster tried to pitch the idea to newspaper syndicates for years and had pretty much given up on it when DC editor Vin Sullivan dug their story out of a slush pile and decided to run it as a secondary story in the first issue of Action Comics. Despite the fact that he wasn’t even in the lead story, Superman was featured on the cover and he quickly outshined practically all the other comic books DC had published up until that time. In fact, the term “superhero” comes from Superman and before that, heroes were ordinarily called “mystery men” or “masked heroes.” These days, Action Comics #1 is arguably the most valuable comic book on the market and of the four comics to ever be sold for over one million dollars, two of them were Action Comics #1 issues. After Superman’s meteoric rise to fame, it wasn’t long before other superheroes entered the fray, including Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain America, Green Lantern and Aquaman. Of all these characters, Captain America was the first to be given his own book without being tested in other stories first. Strangely, while he’s one of the lesser-known of the classic heroes these days, Captain Marvel was actually the most popular character at the time, outselling even Superman.

For a short while, superheroes dominated the marketplace, creating what historians call the Golden Age of Comics, but after WWII ended, it wasn’t long before the public grew weary of the infallible characters. Comic publishers started dropping superhero titles and instead began publishing more Western, sci fi, crime and horror comics. By 1952, the superhero trend was so dead that practically all the hero books were out of print with the exception of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, this ended up being the end of the industries hey day.

Won’t Someone Think Of The Children

True crime and horror comics may have been incredibly popular with comic book readers in the fifties, but for parents, these titles were seen as a devastating attack on their children’s innocence. When Dr. Frederic Wertham released his book, Seduction of the Innocent, blaming comic books for causing “maladjustment” in the children of the day, parents became even more alarmed and more organized. Soon enough, distributors were refusing to sell comics, schools were holding comic book burnings and the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency started to take an interest in comic books. By the mid-1950’s, 75% of comic publishers had been forced out of business. It wasn’t long before industry heads realized that if they wanted to stay in business, they had to start censoring themselves. In September 1954, the main publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and their leader established a strict set of guidelines for publishers to follow, known as the Comics Code Authority. The CCA seal was affixed to all comics that met their guidelines and soon it became impossible to get a distributor to carry any title that didn’t bear the CCA mark. CCA rules banned the use of the words “horror” or “terror” in a comic’s title. Vampires, werewolves, walking dead, ghouls, etc. were prohibited. Women had to be drawn without any exaggeration of their physical qualities. While “crime” was allowed to be in the title, it had to be in a smaller print than the rest of the title. No acts of seduction could be featured in any way. No drug use could be portrayed. And, when crime was shown, those committing the offenses could not display any gain from the act. Interestingly, one classic comic book, Mad, was able to circumvent these rules by switching to a magazine format after the CCA was enacted.

Rules Are For Squares

As the sixties counter culture started to expand, a new movement in comic books was quickly born, eschewing the CCA in favor of sex, drugs and violence. The first underground comic was Frank Stack’s 1962 work, The Adventures of Jesus. In order to escape harassment in his bible-belt home, Stack published the title under the name Foolbert Sturgeon. Many of the comics used the word “comix” on their covers to help identify them as being non-mainstream. The “X” was also a way to indicate that the content was made for adults. Rather than being delivered to newsstands like traditional comic books, these commix were mostly sold through head shops. Unfortunately, this also ended up putting an end to the movement in the mid-seventies as legislators started cracking down on the sale of paraphernalia and the head shops were closed. This meant mail order was one of the only ways for people to order the underground titles.

Loosening The Noose

Fortunately, mainstream publishers took notice of the success of the underground comics and in 1971, the CCA was revised to allow for sympathetic depiction of criminal behavior and corruption among public officials, the suggestion of seduction, vampires and werewolves. It wasn’t long before Marvel started to push the boundaries of the remaining rules. The same year, the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Stan Lee and asked him if he could include a few story lines that would warn kids about the dangers of drug use. Lee agreed and wrote a special three-part Spider Man story that included someone being saved by the hero after falling off a building because he was high and one of Spider Man’s friends was revealed to be a drug addict. Lee tried to get the issues approved, but the CCA administrator was sick and the acting administrator refused to let drug use be shown in the issues. Having the U.S. government on his side, Lee published the comics anyway and despite lacking the CCA approval seal, the issues sold well and were praised by critics. The media coverage embarrassed the CCA and soon the code was revised to allow the depiction of drug use if it was present as a vicious habit.

The End of A (Censorship) Era

As the years passed, comic books began to take a dark turn and became increasingly gritty and many were intentionally printed for adult readers. As a result, fewer and fewer titles bothered to seek CCA approval. By the 2000s, advertisers no longer cared whether or not the issue was approved or not and new publishers didn’t bother to join the CCA no matter how light-hearted their material was. In 2001, Marvel withdrew from the CCA in order to establish their own ratings system that was based on potential age groups for each comic. In 2010, Bongo Comics quit using the code and in the beginning of 2011, so did DC, opting to use a similar system as Marvel. A day after DC quit, so did Archie Comics –the last publisher still using the code, and with that, the code became defunct. I know a lot of our readers are comic book fans, so those of you who have knowledge in the area, do you have any good trivia to add? Or even some favorite moments from your favorite comic books? Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, Mental Floss #1, #2

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In 1869, therefore almost 30 years before "The Yellow Kid", italian-brazilian Angelo Agostini published "As aventuras de Nhô Quim" ("The adventures of Nho Quim") in a newspaper.

Agostini's works show a mastering of sequential art skills, as one can see in those scans from "As aventuras do Zé Caipora" (1883):
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