Comics Code

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Comics Code

Comics codes originated as a result of a post-World War II expectation in the rise of juvenile delinquency, attributable to the absence of mothers from homes during the war as they replaced their soldier husbands in the workplace. The fears were whipped into a frenzy by parents, teachers, religious figures, and some politicians, in public meetings, radio broadcasts, and periodical articles. In their eyes, comic books were the source of all types of youth problems, ranging from poor English and reading skills to juvenile delinquency.

The main concerns about comics pertained to their portrayals of crime and horror, although gender and sex figured prominently in the deliberations leading up to the writing of the codes. For example, the noted New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and other writers in the 1940s called attention to scantily clad women as undesirable elements of comic books.

When the first Comics Code was written by the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers in 1948, the first of six briefly stated points was that "sex, wanton comics should not be published" and that no female should be "indecently or unduly exposed" and "in no event more nude than in a bathing suit commonly worn in the United States of America." Furthermore, divorce was not to be shown in a "humorous," "glamorous," or "alluring" way.

Gender and sex were major discussion points in the pivotal year 1954, when comics came under investigation in U.S. Senate hearings, Wertham's influential book Seduction of the Innocent was published, and the Comics Magazine Association of America Comics Code was put into effect, administered by the Comics Code Authority.

In his book, Wertham scrutinized gender depictions, saying gender was linked to violence in comics as women were generally portrayed as victims or villains. Wertham thought comic books showing women as objects to be abused or used as decoys in crime settings resonated with young male readers' viewpoints. When women were comic book villains, the subtext, according to Wertham, was that men had to unite against such women. The book also covered romance comics, pointing out that they usually showed women in humiliating or inadequate roles.

The Comic Code of 1954 was one of the most stringent media codes of all time. Under sections on costume and marriage and sex, it banned nudity in any form, suggestive posture, illicit sex relations (hinted or actual), and sex perversion, and called for females to be drawn in proper dress "reasonably acceptable to society" and "realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities." Love and romance were to be treated in a manner to protect the sanctity of marriage and the value of the home.

The code was revised twice, in 1971 and 1989, adapting to society's more liberal stance on sex. The 1971 code stated that illicit sex acts and seduction could be hinted at, while the 1989 version allowed adult relationships to be shown with good taste and sensitivity and acceptable to a mass audience. Costumes are acceptable if they "fall within the scope of contemporary styles and fashions"; not allowed are "primary, human sexual characteristics" and "graphic sexual activity."

Still in effect, the Comics Code covers only the mainstream comic book industry. Independent and alternative companies, more prone to explicit and nonconformist portrayals of sex and gender, do not belong to the Comics Code Authority.


Beaty, Bart. 2005. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Lent, John A., ed. 1999. Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-comics Campaign. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Nyberg, Amy Kiste. 1998. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

                                                  John A. Lent