Nigel Parkinson, Cartoonist

Nigel Parkinson, Cartoonist
This is him, at a recent Comic Con

Friday, 11 November 2011

Spidey battles the Comics Code

The latest edition of Roy Thomas's excellent 'fanzine' ALTER EGO  no. 105 has been published with a fine cover recreation of Spiderman trapped under a great weight of machinery, graphically demonstrating this issues theme, the effect of the Comics Code in the USA in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The feature has plenty of examples of changes wrought, with stories published BEFORE the code being bowlderized by having guns, fists, knives removed, sweat lessened, skin colour changed (always to white) and wrinkles decreased(!). Even more interesting are stories which couldn't be reprinted without major alterations, in some cases all the dialogue and some pictures completely done anew!

The turning point for the Code, when it's rather draconian oppression was held up for scruitiny, came in 1971 after Marvel comics were asked to do an 'anti-drugs' story by the government. However, the Comics Code forbade the use of and the mention of drugs, so it would be next to impossible to accomplish the request. Stan Lee, editor at Marvel, decided to publish the story, (a rather heavy-handed and glib tale, as it turned out) in a 3 part Spider-man run, WITHOUT the seal of the Comics Code. And, as the world didn't end, the comic still sold, and garnered plenty of positive reaction, the Code was seen to be due a review, which in turn led to it's weakening and eventual termination.

Here are the published cover (top) of one of those Spider-man issues, and a rejected cover rough for the same issue. I guess it was deemed just TOO graphic! Note that the seal of the code is not present on the version that reached the shops, but IS on the rough, clearly done on a photostat of a cover template.

ALTER EGO is a fascinating read, as always, and you feel like you've just done an Open University degree module on the subject once you've digested everything, it's so detailled and backed up with notes, examples, opinions of those involved and direct reportage. That will not appeal to many, I know, but I find it endlessly interesting! Good on yer, Roy!


Lew Stringer said...

Sounds like an excellent issue! I have mine reserved for me so I'd better get along to my local comic shop and pick it up.

I've been enjoying the reprints of the pre-code material in the Atlas Era Marvel Masterworks. The effects of the "outrage" against comics of that era was heavy handed indeed. Good on Stan for standing up to them with the anti-drugs story. The revisions made to the CCA after that were very welcome, bringing in Marvel's new horror era (Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night, Ghost Rider etc.)

Interesting that today, whenever Marvel reprint Son of Satan, Tomb of Dracula, etc (which were aimed at children and all ages in the 1970s with no restraints) the books now carry a Parental Advisory! A step backwards methinks but obviously one that Marvel feel necessary to avoid a 1950s style backlash.

Kid said...

Got mine over a week ago, NP. Fascinating stuff to be sure. What a lot of people seem to forget is that, without the code, we'd probably never have had the 1950s superheroes revival at National Periodicals (DC) - or Marvel Comics in the '60s.

Same goes for Britain. Without that so-called 'backlash' against horror comics, there would have been no Eagle to brighten up the lives of '50s schoolboys. With no Marvel Comics in the States, we'd have had no Wham!, Smash!, Pow!, Fantastic or Terrific over here. Now there's a thought.

Would there even have been a comics industry - or would we have had comics that were even better (but more graphic)? No one can say for sure of course, but - speaking personally - thank goodness for the Comics Code and what resulted from it. My childhood wouldn't have been the same without it.

Lew Stringer said...

The birth of Eagle had little to do with horror comics. It was a reaction to crime comics. Eagle debuted in 1950, before horror comics really became a popular trend.

Wham! had been around for two years before it included any Marvel reprint. Smash! also debuted without Marvel strips for a few months.

Even without the Code, it's still possible that superheroes would have made a comeback at some time, and Odhams could still have reprinted those strips. The lack of a CCA seal didn't mean that every story was full or gore and violence. Far from it. Most Marvel comics avoided such things anyway. (It was their rivals that went to excess, and even those strips look tame today.)

Kid said...

As you well know, Lew, crime and horror comics were generally lumped in together when being condemned for their possible harmful effects on young minds. Alastair Crompton's The Man Who Drew Tomorrow's chapter, A Little Horror in the Nursery, talks about the controversy horror comics were starting to have (on a wider scale) when Marcus Morris decided to come up with something more wholesome. The result - The Eagle. It was designed to have a more positive influence on its readers than US imports of crime AND horror comics.

And although Wham! had been around for two years before it featured Marvel reprints, it was because of these reprints (and the ones in Smash!) that the rest of the Power Pack emerged. I was referring to Wham! in that context. It was because the comic was in slow decline that the reprints were introduced. If not for them, it would probably have been merged or cancelled a lot sooner.

As for your closing paragraph, you'll find that my above post allows for that as a possibility - but it was by no means certain. As for strips from yesteryear looking tame today - everything does. Back in the '30s, the Universal Frankenstein and Dracula movies were considered genuinely shocking - not today. Some may consider that a measure of how far we've fallen.

It's sometimes extremely difficult - if not foolish - to try and judge what deserved to be regarded as shocking several decades ago by today's standards.

Kid said...

Further to the above, here's part of Marcus Morris's own account of the factors which led to the creation of Eagle:

"It was about this time that, with the help of a journalist, Norman Price, I wrote an article for the Sunday Dispatch. It was headed 'Comics that bring Horror into the Nursery', caused quite a stir and earned me twenty guineas. Anvil's debts were then about three thousand pounds. But at least it was a start.

The phenomenal rise and rule of the comic in America, plus a study of the papers and publications that children were reading in this country, seemed to point an obvious moral-and hence came the idea of Eagle. Many American comics were most skilfully and vividly drawn, but often their content was deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems. But it was clear to me that the strip cartoon was capable of development in a way not yet seen in England except in one or two of the daily and Sunday newspapers and that it was a new and important medium of communication, with its own laws and limitations."

Lew Stringer said...

In the latest edition of Alistair Crompton's book American comics of the time are referred to as "pornographic".

With that, and Marcus Morris' comments you quoted, I think it's clear there was some considerable hyperbole going on at the time to put down American comic books. Check out Martin Barker's 'A Haunt of Fears' for the full story.

Kid said...

Not the point, Lew. You're entirely free to disagree with Marcus's perception of US comics ('though I'd wager his assessment more accurately represents how they were viewed in the context of the time, as opposed to later standards), but the fact that those perceptions (however much you disagree with them) were major factors which led to the creation of the Eagle cannot be disputed.

Kid said...

Incidentally, it's no surprise that a Christian mimister would regard certain scenes in crime and horror comics of the time as 'pornographic' - to him (and others of a similar outlook), this would not be hyperbole, but rather a statement of plain and simple fact.

Another fact: Your statement that the birth of Eagle had little to do with horror comics is clearly at odds with the account of its 'birth' by the person who 'sired' it. You'll forgive me, I'm sure, if I give his account more credence.

Lew Stringer said...

Yes there were some horror comics around at the end of the 1940s, when Eagle was first thought of, but, as I said, horror didn't become a popular trend until after Eagle launched. Crime comics were the main trend when Eagle was birthed.

As for Christian ministers believing crime & horror comics to be pornographic, that's their *opinion*, not fact.

I'm sure many kids of the Fifties enjoyed Eagle AND horror comics, (in fact I know some who did) at least until that choice was taken away from them in the mid-Fifties.

I'll say no more on the matter as I'm sure Nigel doesn't want this to be another endless debate.

Kid said...

On the subject of endless debates, Lew, they wouldn't occur if you applied yourself to what was actually being said, and not what you think was being said. (Or, in some cases, want to have been said.) I believe I was quite clear. I said that from Marcus Morris's point of view, he would've regarded his opinion and description of some comics as being 'pornographic' as a simple statement of fact, and not an exaggeration. (In other words, I wasn't saying that his opinion was fact, only that he believed it to be.)

Although the 'big stushie' about horror comics didn't occur until the '50s, they were around in the '40s (as you concede) and people were aware of them. Obviously it took a little time for things to come to a head on the matter, but, before the subject gained a higher profile, no doubt there had already been concerns amongst some people about the contents of such comics and their possible effects on children. Obviously Marcus Morris was aware of them. As he mentions the supernatural aspects of some content, he clearly isn't referring only to crime comics.

And on the subject of whether some kids enjoyed horror comics AND Eagle, I don't dispute it. But once again you've wandered into territory I wasn't addressing. The scope of my comments was confined to whether horror comics were a motivational factor which led to the creation of Eagle, which you dispute.

According to the man who created Eagle (with the assistance of Frank Hampson), they were. End of debate. You need to learn to curb your enthusiasm when it comes to automatically disagreeing with everything I say.

Now, put that egg on your face to good use - go and stick it on a sandwich and have it with a nice cuppa char.

Anonymous said...

The Comics Code was evil. The censorship was so heavy handed it almost destroyed the comics industry. Rather than just clamping down on violence and terror, or giving a rating system that would put adult comics out of the reach of children, the new Comic Code went after ideas such as civil rights, anti war sentiments and the evils of drug use. It took 15 years before Stan Lee stood up to it with the issue of Spider-Man shown here. As it stood, the Comics Code was deplored by comics creators. Good riddance to it.

Kid said...

I think calling it 'evil' is going a bit too far, as the Code often resulted in those operating under it to exercise much more imagination, ingenuity and creativity in circumnavigating its 'restrictions'.

I'm sure I've read of quite a few comics professionals of the time saying that it didn't really have much of a negative effect on their work.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever actually read any pre code comic books?

Kid said...


Anonymous said...

In that case you'll be fully aware that the comic books of the period did not propagate juvenile delinquency but instead were highly moral in the outcome of their stories. Furthermore the introduction of the Comic Code did nothing to stem the crime rate in America but it did do severe damage to the comic book industry, affecting the jobs and careers of people who had done no harm. Now that is a crime, and that is one reason why the Comic Code was evil.

Lew Stringer said...

Not every pre-code story had moral outcomes. Some were just gruesome, some were plain silly. (Although most stories, from the many I've read, were neither gruesome, immoral or violent.)

The Code was excessive though, going to ridiculous lengths such as banning words such as horror, terror and crime from being used in comic titles! Ridiculous.

I'd also suggest that the climate of fear whipped up by the anti-comic campaigners did far more harm to young minds than a drawing of a zombie ever did. I imagine the book burnings that took place would also cause more trauma for some children than any vampire story too.

Kid said...

Here is a simple fact of life. One extreme usually gives rise to another. As an example, corporal punishment in schools was phased out as a reaction to its misuse. (Getting belted for not being clever enough for example. I once received 5 or 6 whacks for being unable to master an algebraic equation.)

So, because the application of corporal punishment was abused in extreme ways, the pendulum swung completely in the other direction and now there is a serious problem with discipline in schools.

It was the same with comics. What was perceived at the time as a serious threat from certain publications led to, in some instances, an extreme reaction to them. What may seem ridiculous now, however, probably made sense at the time. By banning the use of words like Terror, Horror, etc., in the titles of comics aimed at juveniles, it was felt that it prevented kids from being unduly attracted to such themes.

Did the Code sometimes overreact? Certainly. This was caused by overzealous jobsworths applying the LETTER of the code instead of the SPIRIT, when a little common sense would have sufficed. NP's example of the Spider-Man story is a perfect example of this.

People lost jobs? People lose jobs all the time. I see no reason why comic contributors should be shielded from the harsh realities of life. I'm quite sure that, in retrospect, a few of them saw it as the best thing that ever happened to them as they moved into even more lucrative markets like advertising, book illustration, etc.

People are going to lose jobs because of the cutback in use of plastic bags in shops. Manufacturers will probably have to lay people off because of a fall in demand from supermarkets. Is that evil? Or do the benefits from reduced use outweigh the negative aspects? Who really knows? My point being that few things are rarely as simple or as obvious as some may suppose.

And as I previously noted, it seems rather pointless applying modern-day sensibilities of what is regarded as shocking or appropriate to products of another age when people obviously regarded such things differently.

Anonymous said...

You're bombarding the argument just as you do on the Jim Shooter blog. You started to lose me in the first paragraph and I have no idea what your comment about comic bags means. I've made the points I wanted to here. Disagree with them if you're so inclined.

Kid said...

I'm not 'bombarding the argument' - I'm considering and contrasting your point of view in a wider context, to better develop and illustrate why I think as I do.

The only major discussion I've had on JS's blog is with someone who believes that it wasn't Jerry Seigel's intention to have Clark adopted, and that his adoption was a 'ret-con'. I pointed out that a 1934 version of the strip by Jerry Seigel and Russell Keaton showed that Clark was indeed adopted, and, as this pre-dated the Action Comics #1 origin (which, because of the brevity of the one-page origin, is ambiguous on the matter), therefore demonstrated the author's earliest intention.

Introducing facts relevant to the topic cannot fairly be described as 'bombarding the argument'.

Same goes for analogies that illustrate truths relevant to the discussion. You may be incapable of considering comparisons beyond the confines of your own narrow understanding, but that doesn't invalidate my approach.

I was actually referring to supermarket carrier bags being phased out as part of a government plan to reduce their use and consequent detrimental effects on the environment. One assumes this is a GOOD thing. However, it will probably mean hard times and perhaps loss of jobs for those who produce plastic carrier bags. Loss of jobs is a BAD thing - but the thinking behind what may lead to those loss of jobs can hardly be described as 'evil'.

Catch my drift? I was demonstrating that not every action which may sometimes have unfortunate 'by-product' results can necessarily be described as evil. The purpose and intention of the action must also be considered.

Hence my view that it's taking things too far to describe the Comics Code as being evil.

Uncle Creepy said...

Horror comics were in vogue before 1950 Lew. Even Captain America could be considered a horror comic with its gruesome ghoulish villains. From 1949 to 1950 horror comics such as Witches Tales were on the increase so those could have been the ones that influenced Rev.Morris. EC were latecomers to the horror genre. HTH.

Lew Stringer said...

Fair point about Captain America, although I'm not sure those golden age issues were distributed to the UK.

Witches Tales was launched in 1951, a year after Eagle launched. There were some horror comics (such as Eerie Comics) published as early as 1947 so Morris may have seen those if they found their way to the UK. I still think he was mostly referring to crime comics though, and the "supernatural solutions" he mentioned were references to superheroes I believe.

At any rate, his outrage against "horror comics" and Eagle being the antidote, turned out to be a profitable way to sell his new venture. Convenient, that.

Kid said...

I'm not persuaded that Marcus would've viewed Superman and Batman as belonging in the 'supernatural' category, but - as indicated in an earlier comment of mine - the term 'horror' did tend to get used as an umbrella description of crime AND horror comics, as well as any title of questionable moral value or lacking in wholesome appeal. (From Marcus's POV.) In short, ANY comic which had content that could be regarded as being of a 'horrific' nature.

However, Marcus had undoubtedly seen some of the eary 'actual' horror comics and would've been including them - and his revulsion to such publications - as one of the factors which led him to create the Eagle.

Unlike accounts of the creation of some Marvel characters, no one at the time disputed Marcus's recollections (in specific regard to the matter under discussion), so there's no concrete reason for dismissing it as being 'subjective' or inaccurate.