In celebration of what would have been Stan Lee‘s 100th birthday, stories about his legendary contributions to comic book history are popping up everywhere, as they should. His writing brought a realism to comic book heroes, humanizing them and making them relatable. The stories and vocabulary he used in them aimed higher than a basic, elementary level. Lee created characters like Black Panther, the first mainstream Black superhero, and Daredevil, the first blind superhero. But one of the most important things that Lee did for the industry was to challenge, and bring about change, to the Draconian Comics Code Authority, or CCA.
What Was the Comics Code Authority (CCA)?
If you haven’t heard of the Comics Code Authority, it isn’t all that surprising. Its Seal of Approval on the cover of comic books died in 2011, with only a handful of comic books even bothering to have the stamp-like seal on their covers at the time. But for almost 60 years, the Seal of Approval meant that censors with the industry’s Comics Magazine Association of America had approved the content as acceptable. Without it, many retailers simply refused to sell the comic.
In the days before the creation of the CMAA and its regulatory Comics Code Authority branch, comic books had already stirred up the masses about their bad influence on America’s vulnerable children. Teachers decried how they impacted student’s reading habits, parents didn’t appreciate their children selecting their own leisure reading, and the church protested the immoral content found in the comics, like scantily clad women and the idolization of villains. Mental health experts soon entered the collective, insisting that children became desensitized to violence thanks to the actions of comic book characters. One psychiatrist turned out to be the key driving force behind legislating comics: Dr. Fredric Wertham. Wertham was a snake oil salesman with a degree. There was some merit to his findings, but he largely eschewed his results in favor of sensationalized anecdotes that he would present at gatherings, legislative hearings, and in publications. His efforts still didn’t instigate legislation, so he wrote a book to raise awareness of the danger of comics, Seduction of the Innocent, in spring 1954. This finally kicked the U.S.Senate into action, launching an investigation on the effects of comic books on juvenile delinquency, with hearings in April and June 1954.
One publisher in particular, William Gaines of EC Comics, bore the brunt of damnation during his testimony. One senator attacked Gaines on a cover of his Crime Suspenstories, one that depicted a severed head and a bloody ax, so ruthlessly that he forced Gaines to admit it was in good taste for a horror comic. If that wasn’t bad enough, the New York Times planted the story on its front page with the headline (head-off line?) “No Harm In Horror”. By the time it dawned on him just how damaging his testimony was, it was too late to rally others in the industry to defend themselves. Recognizing the winds had changed, publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America and its code. Gaines initially held out against joining his peers, but wholesalers had jumped on the bandwagon and refused to sell any comics without code approval, prompting Gaines to give in. It didn’t last long. Gaines resigned from the CMAA in October 1955, closed down EC Comics and launched a little magazine you may have heard of: Mad. Oddly enough, the “M” in CMAA didn’t include magazines, just comics (which presumably led to the “What, Me Worry?” line associated with the magazine).
The standards of passing the code were staggeringly high. There could be no depictions of gore, sexuality, and excessive violence. No backtalk, disrespect or sass against authority figures, and the good Lord help you if the heroes lost. If you wanted scenes with vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and/or zombies, you were out of luck. And if you thought you could make some coin through advertising in the pages of your comic book, you certainly could. But not if it advertised such sinful vices as liquor, tobacco, fireworks, nude pin-ups, postcards, and more. No slang, no illicit idioms, no words like “Terror” or “Horror” in book titles. Shots at religion and race were also not allowed. The code, essentially, neutered the comic book medium, limiting the untapped potential of explosive creativity to simple, moral tales you could share with grandma. While it wasn’t mandatory to submit comics for assessment, the only way to get them distributed was to have the Seal of Approval, the true definition of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Stan Lee Stood Up to the CCA
Stan Lee was around for all of it, and he was savvy enough to lead Marvel through the Code’s landmines and succeed where many others had failed. He pushed the boundaries, but didn’t cross them, instead finding new and creative ways of telling stories that resonated in a new way with the public. Lee used his forum to explore social commentary, how those in power could use it for the greater good, expanding the reach of comics from juveniles to teenagers and young adults. Lee was so successful, in fact, that in 1971 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Lee about creating a story around the dangerous effects of drug addiction, recognizing just how impactful Marvel Comics, and in particular Spider-Man, were on kids. Ironically, this setup a situation where one government agency was pushing for a story that went against the established codes of another.
The story that Stan Lee crafted intentionally skirted preaching to his readers, weaving the anti-drug message into the story as a sub-plot. Through the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man issues 96 through 98, Spider-Man was battling the Green Goblin in the main plot. Behind it, the story began with Spidey saving a drugged-out man, dancing on a rooftop, from falling to his death, and ended with Peter Parker showing the Goblin/Harry Osborne, Sr. how his son had turned to popping pills. The story was presented to the CCA and was rejected on the basis of mentioning drugs. Lee argued, pointing out that the message was clearly anti-drugs, difficult to do without mentioning drugs at all. It didn’t matter. The CCA wouldn’t budge, despite the fact the CCA didn’t specifically prohibit the word drugs or drug use, but on the basis that it violated a general section that blanketed anything that “ran contrary to the spirit of the code”. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Lee simply said “screw it” and released the comics anyway, without applying the Seal of Approval on the issues. And the world didn’t fall apart. The lack of approval didn’t hinder sales at all, and the story itself was lauded by parents, teachers, and churches. It had the societal impact that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and Lee himself, had hoped for. Suddenly, the CCA looked outright foolish.
Following their mishandling of the Spider-Man anti-drug story, the code was revised. Now, narcotics and drug addiction were allowed, if presented as a vicious habit. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves also were now allowed, because great authors of classic literary works like Frankenstein referenced them. Zombies were still not allowed, but the CCA had now lost its bite, with Lee and Marvel outright defying the restriction by calling zombies “zuvembies”.
DC Threatened to Stop Using the CCA’s Seal
When DC threatened to stop using the seal, further revisions were made in 1989, including the allowance of LGBTQ characters, but the CCA never regained the authority it had prior to the blow Lee made in 1971. This, coupled with a change in how comics were distributed (moving away from retail to specialty comic book shops that placed little value on the CCA seal), saw the CCA Seal of Approval’s last breath of life in 2011. Lee’s act of defiance opened the doorway to a largely unhindered comic book industry, where imaginative works are created for a wide variety of readers. It also proved that a David can beat a Goliath, that one man truly can make a difference in the world.