ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at Creators.co
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

Have you ever wondered why comic-book movies - and the comics they're based on - are so dark? After all, over the past few years, the number of superhero movies describing themselves as 'dark' takes on the genre seems to have been multiplying by the day - and films like The Dark Knight have long-since proven that they can be big business.

For every relatively light-hearted Marvel movie about a man made of Iron (who struggles with alcoholism and is always almost being murdered) or a shield-wielding American army Captain (who discovers that the very heart of world governance is secretly an evil organization run by Nazis), then, there's invariably another that's essentially about how much fun it is to watch people get killed in increasingly elaborate ways. Even TV's getting in on the (murderous) act:

Now, seeing as that's what we all enjoy watching, the rise of dark, brooding and ultra-violent superhero movies actually makes a whole lot of sense - but it's perhaps not too surprising that critics of the development often label it a shining example of modern society's gradual collapse.

After all, it's not as though our parents (and grandparents) would have been OK with this sort of grim ultra-violence, right?

Well, as it happens...

Dark, Violent Comic Books are Nothing New

Though they're now a little more inventive...
Though they're now a little more inventive...

Y'see, back in the 1940s, when superhero comics first took the world by storm in what is generally referred to as the 'Golden Age' of comics, superheroes weren't the sweet, good-natured folks we all grew up reading the adventures of.

Instead, they were violent, vindictive, murderous and often only borderline-heroic.

Or, in other words, they may as well have been written by Frank Miller in the 1980s. Like that time Batman hanged a guy using the Batplane...back in 1940:

YUP. Batman hanged a guy.
YUP. Batman hanged a guy.

The thing is, though:

There's a Reason We Didn't Grow Up on Stories of Batman Killing Everyone

And it sure isn't these two...
And it sure isn't these two...

And that reason is an organization called the Comics Code Authority.

Between 1954 and 2011, the CCA acted as a theoretically voluntary watchdog for the comic-book industry, acting as the self-appointed moral compass for what could and - more typically - what couldn't appear in comic-books.

So, in other words, they were an organization entirely dedicated to censoring - and effectively banning - comics...

It All Started With One Man

This guy...Fredric Wertham
This guy...Fredric Wertham

Namely Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent. Now, far from being the entertainingly trashy sexy-vampire novel it sounds like, Seduction of the Innocent was actually a rallying cry to ban comic-books, due to their being full of sex, violence and horror (otherwise known as the main reasons people were reading them), out of concern that they would cause children to imitate the behavior they saw in them.

Now, despite Wertham's book being filled to bursting-point with fabricated and deeply inaccurate information, it became a rallying cry for thousands of outraged adults, and even led to...

A Whole Lot of Burning Comics

Ahem.
Ahem.

With many believing comics to be a dangerous influence on children, the government seemed set to step in - and to preempt that, the comic-book industry itself opted to create a self-regulating body - the Comics Code Authority.

Which worked incredibly effectively, using one simple tool:

It All Hinged on a Seal of Approval

Yup, that iconic one.
Yup, that iconic one.

A very literal one, in fact - the Comics Code of Authority stamp, which appeared in the top corner of every comic the CCA had approved.

A stamp that, without which, most distributors would refuse to stock a comic.

Which opened the CCA up to some...interesting industry tactics:

DC (and Archie) Used it to Crush Their Opposition

Though likely not wearing a giant battle-suit.
Though likely not wearing a giant battle-suit.

The two companies - who by this point had already adjusted their comics so that they would easily fit within the constraints of the code - effectively forced the whole comic-book industry to sign up, meaning that anyone publishing violent, sexy or horror-centric comics (otherwise known as 'their competition') was forced to change dramatically, or go out of business.

Especially Since:

Some of the Rules Were Incredibly Strict

And not the fun Professor X kind of strict...
And not the fun Professor X kind of strict...

Some of the most restrictive?

"In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal [shall be] punished for his misdeeds."

Hence the lack of anti-heroes until the 1970s...

"No comic magazine shall use the word "horror" or "terror" in its title."

Which is just downright overly specific...

"Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited."
Sorry Teen Wolf...
Sorry Teen Wolf...

Because...werewolves?

And, of course:

"Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable."

Meaning, at the time, absolutely no homosexual - or anything other than straight - characters. At all.

Which Is Why We Got the Heroes (and Villains) We Did

Oh, old-school Magneto. So bad at your job.
Oh, old-school Magneto. So bad at your job.

All of those 1960s heroes who all acted more-or-less exactly the same, before learning a moral at the end of the story? That's because of the CCA:

"Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader."

And that constant stream of identical villains, all trying to maniacally take over the world, but being embarrassingly defeated every single time? Yup, that was the CCA too:

"Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals."
HE'S HIDEOUS, is the point.
HE'S HIDEOUS, is the point.

And, of course:

"In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal [shall be] punished for his misdeeds."

Which is why Doctor Doom, despite being a super-genius, was completely incapable of ever actually defeating the Fantastic Four...

All of which continued for decades, until eventually:

Stan Lee Saved the Day

Just like sometimes.
Just like sometimes.

Way back in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, Stan Lee wrote a story-line that involved the use of narcotics - the depiction of which was directly prohibited by the comics code.

Now, despite the story-line showing drug-use in a pointedly negative light, the CCA saw it as breaching the rules, and refused to give it their seal of approval.

And, so, Stan just went ahead and published it anyway.

At Which Point the CCA Changed the Code

Yup, Mr Fantastic would've totally been in the CCA.
Yup, Mr Fantastic would've totally been in the CCA.

Adding in looser restrictions, including:

"Narcotics or Drug addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit."

And, crucially for all you werewolf fans out there...

"Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world."

Though still no zombies - making it fortunate Robert Kirkman wasn't born thirty years earlier.

Before, Eventually:

The Code Fell Apart in 2011

Like Iron Man armor in the wind...
Like Iron Man armor in the wind...

By which time the CCA had loosened it again (finally stopping it from being deeply homophobic, for one thing), and the majority of comic-book houses (DC and Archie being the unsurprising exceptions) had already opted out.

Which only took about twenty-five years longer than the industry took to completely ignore it.

The Most Surprising Thing About the Comics Code, Though?

Hulk Not Mentioned?
Hulk Not Mentioned?

It's arguably the reason a whole lot of the world's greatest superheroes exist.

Y'see, while DC may have come up with a whole lot of their legendary heroes back in the 1940s, and continued publishing them throughout the century, it wasn't until the explosive arrival of Marvel's Silver Age superheroes in the early 1960s that superhero comics really came of age.

And the odd thing about those '60s comics? They weren't just incredible despite the Comics Code - they were arguably improved by it. After all, in order to avoid censorship, iconic creators like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - not to mention the countless other legendary writers, artists, inkers, letterers and editors of the time - found innovative and outside-the-box ways to both skirt the CCA, and to provide awesome entertainment within it.

So, Without the CCA, We Might Never Have Fallen in Love With the X-Men, Avengers and Fantastic Four...

Especially Hawkeye.
Especially Hawkeye.

And what kind of world would that be...?

What do you think, though?

via comicartville, CBLDF, Time

Trending

Latest from our Creators