I am slowly falling for the charms of Spider-Man. I’ve been a long time, vocal “Spider-Man is overrated” person. But Miles Morales has won my heart. I love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was sweet, heartfelt, funny, and not Infinity War, so I’m set. Also I cannot stop listening to this soundtrack (I am listening to it now, as I write).
There was just one thing. One, little, 5-second thing, that threw me off. It was this lil thing:
There it was, smashed between the Marvel intro and the beginning of the movie. The seal of the Comics Code Authority.
I didn’t know anything about the Comics Code Authority (CCA) until earlier this year, when I attended a panel at C2E2 that talked briefly about how the CCA kept LGBT+ content from being published, and I learned a bit more when I started volunteering for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which actively fights censorship of comics, and currently owns the Comics Code Authority seal. My general understanding of the CCA was “the 50s through the 70s was a rough time for comics.” Which is inaccurate, because the Comics Code Authority Seal did not stop being used until 2011.
But what actually was this thing, and why did they put it at the beginning of Into the Spider-Verse? I turned to google to find out. Looking at easter egg lists for the movie proved unhelpful, and mostly just said “this was a thing put on comics until 2011,” with no actual analysis. Which. I’m not sure what I was expecting to get from a listicle. More google search terms, maybe?
So I just started digging into the actual history of the thing, hoping that would give me answers, and it kinda did. Spider-Man was involved. But anyway, here’s where a few hours of googling spat me out:
The Comics Code Authority was a self-regulatory organization that major comics publications formed to avoid government regulation. In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, and began his campaign against comics. His argument: Comics are making juvenile delinquents of our youths.
Sound familiar? Replace “comics” with…I dunno, violent video games, Marilyn Manson, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music, YouTube. There’s always something corrupting our youths. Somehow most of us turn out just fine.
Wertham gets enough parents and educators riled up about this that the government started looking into these “comic magazines” and what they were doing to our children. Part of the industry (famously Bill Gaines of Mad Magazine fame) wanted to stand up and fight back, but a significant part wanted all this to go away, and to avoid government-sanctioned regulation.
And thus, the Comics Code Authority was born. The original 1954 code included the kinds of things you would expect, no sex or sexiness, no gratuitous violence, no swear words. And then there was weirdly specific shit like this:
(11) The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.
Also good had to triumph over evil, antiheros are not a thing, and don’t make law enforcement look bad. Honestly, just give the whole code a read. It’s effing nuts.
The CCA would be one thing if it functioned like the MPAA, which assigns ratings to our movies (which is still problematic, but that’s another blog post). A rating system allows other kinds of content to exist. But due to the structure of comic book distribution, many comics carriers wouldn’t even carry a title that didn’t bare the Comics Code seal of approval. This, my friends, is where the CCA hops right into censorship territory. No more horror comics. No more crime comics. Publishers crumbled under the CCA (see again, Bill Gaines). The CCA wasn’t a rating tool, telling parents what was safe for their children to consume, it was a censoring body, telling the entire industry what it could and could not publish.
The code remained pretty much the same, until 1970, when Spider-Man swung in on a web of drugs to kinda halfway save the day.
Stan Lee (RIP) went to the Comics Code Authority for approval to write a Spider-Man story to tell kids not to do drugs. And they said no. It didn’t matter that he’d been approached by the US Department of Health and Human Services to write the thing. It didn’t matter that there was nothing explicitly in the code banning depictions of drug use. It didn’t matter that the story demonized drug use. No little CCA stamp for you, Mr. Lee.
Stan Lee, being the badass that he was, published the three-issue arc anyway. The stores weren’t going to stop selling Spider-Man. And they didn’t. The series sold anyway, without the approval or the seal. Stan Lee saves the day and gives the middle finger to the Comics Code Authority.
Except take out that middle finger part, because Lee didn’t actually mind the CCA. Hence only kinda-sorta saving the day. Here’s Lee in a 1998 interview with Comic Book Artist:
As far as I can remember—and I’ve told this to so many people, it might even be true—I never thought that the Code was much of a problem. The only problem we ever had with the Code was over foolish things, like the time in a western when we had a puff of smoke coming out of a gun and they said it was too violent. So we had to make the puff of smoke smaller. Silly things. But as far as ideas for stories or characters that we came up with, I almost never had a problem, so they didn’t bother me. I think the biggest nuisance was that sometimes I had to go down and attend a meeting of the [CMAA] Board of Directors. I felt that I was killing an entire afternoon.
Nonetheless, Stan Lee triggered a change in the code. In 1971, the CCA made a few things more chill, but still remained incredibly restrictive.
The Code changed again in 1989, probably in an attempt to stay relevant, but changes in how comics were distributed allowed non-CCA-approved books to be carried on comic shop shelves. The CCA officially died in 2011, basically useless, when Archie Comics was the last publisher to drop the seal from its covers.
There’s obviously more to this story, and a LOT has been written about this time in comic history. If you got this far, thanks for sticking with me, fellow nerd. Now you know what that seal means at the beginning of Into the Spider-Verse, and the part Spider-Man plays in its history.
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: