After the disastrous Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954, the Comic Magazine Association of America implemented the now infamous Comics Code Authority. Loosely based on the Hays Code that had governed Hollywood movies since the 1930s, the Comics Code was a full set of draconian rules that had two significant effects. The first was the near collapse of the comics industry with the banning of certain title words and subject matter. Second was the fact that those publishers that survived were quickly forced out of touch with reality due to the limits on subject matter. It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s that comics again began to openly mirror society (of course, they had done so subtly for decades).
For seventeen years this code remained unchanged and rigidly inflexible. Even the more human and relatable characters introduced by Marvel Comics in 1961 were still subject to the code. While there had been occasional issues containing material that was otherwise prohibited that were published with Code approval, this was on a case by case basis and was extremely limited in its scope.
In 1971, as part of the new War on Drugs, the Nixon administration contacted Marvel Comics’ Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee and requested that he write some comics that highlighted the dangers of drug use. Stan Lee was more than happy to comply with this request and wrote The Amazing Spider-Man issues #96 through 98 as an anti-drug story in which Harry Osborn suffers a bad acid trip and winds up in the hospital. Although the story obviously skips over some of the details involving Harry’s experience, readers are left with the impression that drugs are a terrible thing and should be avoided at all costs. This is exactly the message that was requested.
With the books completed, Marvel submitted them to the Comics Code Authority for approval and was surprised to find that the stories were not approved. While not specifically banned, the Code contained a clause stating that “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited.” In the opinion of acting Code Administrator John L. Goldwater, Marvel’s anti-drug issues were violations of good taste and decency, despite the fact that these issues were specifically requested by the federal government. To the credit of Lee and his publisher Martin Goodman, they decided to publish the story anyway, feeling that the backing of the government was more than enough to justify the lack of Code approval.
In the end, sales of the issues were not impacted and this controversy helped pave the way to the first major overhaul of the Code since its inception. Included was a policy that allowed for stories involving drugs as long as they were portrayed in a negative light. The newly revised code also allowed comics to feature vampires, ghouls, and werewolves so that publishers could print comics based on literary classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein, as well as works by authors such as Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. The changes also lead to the publishing of additional anti-drug comics such as Green Lantern #85 in which Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy is addicted to heroin.
In general, this whole series of events demonstrates how completely out of touch with reality the Comics Code truly was. Between 1954 and 1971 the United States underwent some dramatic cultural shifts with which the Code was completely incapable of dealing. The fact that a request from the Nixon administration was insufficient justification to warrant approval was yet another way the Code demonstrated that it was flawed from inception. Although it would be another thirty years before the Code was completely abandoned, once this first revision was in place, others followed, and progressively weakened the rest of the Code. This was also the first and only major problem that Marvel had with the Comics Code Authority.