History of Comic Book Rating Systems

This is not a history talk, and I am not a historian. I come here to tell you about a terrible war — one in which my tribe, if not me personally, have won. Funny things about wars and history — they always say the history is written by the winners. This is inaccurate, I believe — history is written by the survivors, and is written to present them as the victors. My goal is not to present history objectively, and I have no commitment to the truth, except as far as needed to convince you of my viewpoint. I am not without agenda. In fact, my agenda is immediate. Much like before, there is a terrible war once again. This time, it is an allied tribe. I wish to convince you all that we can, and should, win this war once again.

For a talk that is meant to be about the history of comic books, I wish to start by talking about the present of video games. Video games are a new form of commercial art, marketed heavily at children. In fact, most of today’s parents grew up with few — if any — video games. The lawmakers, mostly grandparents, have had even les exposure to video games. Myths and fact abound. On one side, Hillary Clinton and Jack Thompson seek to control the distribution of video games to kids. They are alleged, by moralists and professionals, to incite kids to violence.

“Corruption of the morality of children” is a time-honored way to kill new ideas.

On the other side, on the side that seeks to introduce the new ideas, are many people who believe in these ideals — and among them, “Penny Arcade”, one of the popular web-comics nowadays. I believe that this alliance is not accidental.

And so, I want to talk about the previous war. I want to talk about the allegations that comic books harm our children, and I want to talk about how they were fought. As a fellow comic-book writer, and a comic-book fan, it was my war, though I was born too late to fight it. But it is still a part of my collective memory. It is still a war that my tribe has fought — and won.

Every good hero needs a background. Our background starts with Siegel and Shuster, who created Superman in 1932. Comic books were already around, mostly dealing with detective stories. Superman is largely considered the first superhero, and the originator of the comic book genre. In post-Depression pre-World-War-II America, a man who was brave, true and flawless was needed to inspire and to sell — and sell he did.

Superman was sold to Detective Comics (later DC) in 1938, a hero and inspiration. Until World War II, superheroes continued being in vogue. Marvel Comics, nee Timely Comics, started in 1939, began sporting its own set of superheroes, alongside the traditional detective stories. The children ate up the superheroes, and could not get enough. In pre-WWII America, one way to get out of the unemployment line was to write a superhero comic book.

Post-war America was a different place. The soldiers coming back from the battlefield had money, and wanted to spend it on more “adult” stories. The detective stories, the war comics, the espionage — and especially the horror, were big money-makers. One can only presume that the horror stories helped the soldiers deal with their own battlefield traumas, in an age when admitting weakness was not acceptable. Be that as it may, the comic books have started becoming more bloody and more gruesome than ever. The children, who still wanted the comic books, were now getting blood and guts on the pages. Some were concerned.

The other thing every good hero needs is a villain. Our villain, a previous age’s Jack Thompson, is called Dr. Frederick Wertham, a psychiatrist. Like every villain, Wertham was in his lair, working on his doomday device. The infernal weapon was called “Seduction of the Innocent”. It was a book. “Seduction of the Innocent” was published in 1954. While it referred to “crime comics”, the good doctor used the term to describe not just the classical detective comics, but also the superhero and horror comics. The doctor had citings for the blood and guts allegation, but that was not enough. Wertham also claimed that Batman and Robin were gay partners — I bet you always wondered where that story began. Wonder Woman, to him, was a lesbian dominatrix.

While the comic book industry ignored the claims, immune to Wertham’s lies, not everyoe was so fortunate. The US Senate and Congress. These, contrary to what Bush would have you believe, are the real bastions of strength in the Federal goverment. They apportion Federal funds, and pass Federal laws. These two institutes, proud representatives of a nation that has decreed the freedom of speech as the most important right to protect, were concerned about the comic books.

Dr. Wertham’s words, warning them about a medium that they had not known, have struck hard. Surely, freedom of speech was not meant to protect gory violence in cartoonish pictures, paradaed for children to emulate. Dr. Wertham testified before the Senate Subcommittee for Juvenile Delinquency. Like so many before him, and so many after him, he was trying to convince them that the new medium, unmediated by previous media’s lack of direct interaction, could lead children into crime.

Goverment regulation is the bane of any industry. The comic book publishers, concerned about the coming regulations, decided to use the age-old method of innoculation. Innoculation, as we all know, is the technique of introducing a weaker agent of the disease in order to stave off its more harmful represantative. Enter the Comic-book Code Authority, the CCA. Look at (almost) any comic book published in the 70s and 80s, and you will see the CCA symbol — a stylized A, with a horizontal C running through it.

Once, again, the shadow organization of the Illuminati has managed, by manipulation, to strike down free speech. The eye in the pyramid, the same symbol as that on the Federal’s goverment dollar bill, was a signature. “Here,” it said, “is where freedom died.”

The deed was done, and the villain has succeeded in his diabolical plan. But what did the CCA stand for? What would they forbid showing in the pages of the humble comic book?

Crimes were never to be presented in a way that was sympathetic to the criminal. They were heinous things, as hard for the criminal as they were for his victim. No matter what, the criminal must be punished for his misdeeds. The horror must end. Literally, the word “horror” was never to be found in the title. The blood, gorce and torture must all happen off-camera, if at all. Zombies, vampires and werewolves were banned — perhaps as an early way to avoid becoming “Facebook Apps”. Sex, dirty words and nudity — all must be gone from the pages of the comic book, lest they mar a poor child’s soul. And drugs. Absolutely no drug.

This was the culmination of Wertham’s plan. At last, though he claimed it was too little, too late, his doomsday device was activated, and was damaging his enemies. But like any proud doomsday device, it contained a flaw, which the hero must exploit.

Our hero is a nice Jewish boy, Stanley Martin Lieber. For short, “Stan Lee”. With great power, Stan had always known, there must also come — great responsibility. Stan Lee was a comic book writer. That was his job, and his passion. The inventor of the “Stan Lee system”, which allowed him to multi-task on many comic books by off-loading a lot of the work to his artists, Stan Lee knew comics. He knew he had real power — the power of the written word. The power to influence mind.

Stanley knew that he must always use his power responsibly, in the service of good. He created spider-man, the iconic geek superhero, to inspire his readers when the bullies in school have got them down. He made science cool. He made sure Peter Parker would always uphold the law, even when his desire for revenge would have him do otherwise. Stan Lee was a true comic-book superhero.

Every hero needs a maiden to save. The United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare has cried to him in distress in 1971. Their distress was the growing usage of drugs in the teenager age bracket. Moved by their plight, Stan Lee could not refuse to use his powers — we all know what that could lead do. “The Amazing Spider-man”, issues #96-#98, were his strike for good in the battle against teenager drug use. In these issues, spider-man helps a friend battle his addiction problem, showcasing the horrors of drug addiction.

Like any Marvel comic, Stanley submitted this story to the CCA. The head of the CCA was reportedly “ill” at the time, and Archie comics publisher, Goldwater, was acting as the CCA’s enforcer. Leaping at the chance to hurt a competitor, he struck the story down, claiming that context was irrelevant — the depictment of drug use was strictly forbidden.

Not a man to be cast down by misfortune, Stanley made the brave choice, and convinced his editor to go aloong with it — they would publish this story without the CCA logo — without the eye in the pyramid’s blessing.

The code was eventually liberalized to allow for depicting drug use, as long as it is portrayed as negative and with harmful consequences. 1971 was when the code started to become weaker and weaker, as the comic book industry worked to battle it. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves were allowed back in, as long as they were “handled i the classic tradition…high calibre literary works”. As long as it was “art”, it seems, it was ok. As long as the CCA saw that they were using vampires in the approved manner, they were fine.

Zombies, being the new-comers on the literary scene without Stoker, Poe or Shelley to defend them, were left out in the figurative code. Never ones to shy away from a good battle, Marvel has renamed the animated corpses to be “zuvembies”, and enjoyed a long fruitful career of CCA compliant comics.

Homosexuality, in 1989, was finally not deemed a “deviant sexual practice” by the CCA, allowed into the comic books once again. But slowly but surely, the CCA was becoming irrelevant, the liberalizing efforts the last thrashing of a drowning institute. The news-stands, where a non-CCA comic book was not allowed, were waning in importance. The 1990s comic book buyer would go to specialty shops, or order directly from the publisher. There, the CCA was not the all-powerful spectre, the only gate to non-niche sales. The CCA stamp was getting reduced in size on the cover — and reduced in importance. Marvel started putting out the “Elektra” and “Punisher” comics, its non-CCA-ed series. They were selling like hotcakes! (“Elektra”, for reference, is awesome — while the “Punisher” sucks). The independents, marketing directly and via specialty shops, cared even less for the CCA. DC has also started putting out its line of non-CCA comics.

The CCA still exists. DC still submits some lines to CCA approval — but publishes them with or without the approval. Archie comics still submits most of its lines to the CCA. Nobody else does.

But rating systems will be rating systems. Marvel still had to convince parents that not all comics contain blood and gorce — that many are fine for kids of all ages, comic book’s loyal following despite everything. Enter the Marvel Ratings System. In 2001, Marvel has stopped submitting comics to the CCA entirely, and decided that it is powerful enough to make its own. From “All Ages” (published mostly through the “AGE” imprint) to “MAX” (featuring sex, violence and corruption) Marvel rates itself. MAX titles are guaranteed, by Marvel, not to be marketed to children, and not to be available in the news stands. “A”, “T+” and “Parental Advisory” ratings, however, will be. The names of the ratings changed as a result of trademark complaints, but little else did.

With DC and Marvel all but withdrawing from the CCA, its ability to control news-stand distribution is all but at an end. Comics are labeled, and people can decide what level of blood, gore and questionable morality they are comfortable with. Though the war has taken almost 50 years — from 1954 to 2001 — the war has ended. Wertham has gone on to be impressed with comic book fandom (completely discounting that the reason they became a fandom was because of the morality-destroying comic books). The CCA has become a zombie (though nobody is really sure if it’s really OK to talk about zombies).

And the children? The children have moved on to consume video games, featuring blood, gore and sometimes dead prostitutes. This new threat to the children’s moral fibre has not been appropriately dealt with, I’m afraid. Jack Thompson has been convicted in court (for being an idiot, mostly). Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination and her chance at the presidency. Yet the battle to ban violent video games, lest our kids will grow callous and uncaring for human life, still rages on. In 50 years, will my grand-children be sitting in a room, talking about how video games have been finally accepted into the mainstream?


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