Not only does the Comics Code Authority no longer appear to have any power, but it's questionable what the organization has been doing for the last year — even though publishers like DC and Archie were still using its approval stamp on their comic book covers.
On Thursday, DC Entertainment announced the publisher would no longer be using the Code logo on its comics, creating its own rating system instead. Then on Friday, Archie Comics announced it would discontinue use of the Code stamp in February.But Newsarama hasn't been able to locate any evidence that the organization was functioning since 2009. And Archie Comics has indicated that it wasn't actually submitting comics for approval to the Comics Magazine Association of America, which oversaw the Code.
"We haven't submitted for a year or more," said Archie Comics President Mike Pellerito.
When asked if the CMAA was even functioning anymore, Pellerito said, "I don't think they are."
Joe Field, president of the comics’ retailer organization ComicsPRO, said he believes that, in recent years, the ability to use the Code stamp was given to any publishers who paid dues to the CMAA, without a requirement for submittal.
"It used to be that everything had to go through the Code, be stamped and sealed, and then could be sent off to the printer," Field said. "I think that, over the last number of years — and it's kind of obvious, because there were things that wound up with a Code seal that would have never gotten through the code — if a company was up on their dues, they could put the Code on their book."
The CMAA was formerly managed by Kellen Company, a trade organization management firm. The organization was represented by Holly Munter Koenig.
But when Newsarama contacted Koenig on Friday, she said Kellen Company has not managed the CMAA since 2009. She referred all questions about the CMAA to DC Comics.A spokesperson for DC, although not offering a statement on the record, confirmed that its dues were paid to the CMAA through December 2010 and that comics were submitted until that time. DC uses the Code approval logo on comics like Tiny Titans, Superman, and Batman, with the seal appearing on the covers of those titles published as recently as December 2010. At the time of this article, the publisher had not fulfilled a request for information on how those comics were submitted and to whom.
Jim Sokolowski, chief operating officer at Marvel Comics, was surprised to learn that the Kellen Company stopped representing the CMAA in 2009. "I did not know that," he said. Marvel has not used the Comics Code approval seal since 2001.
"The CMAA probably hasn't had any other functions than the [Comics Code Authority] since the late '90s due to the ever decreasing volume of comics being sold through newsstand venues," Sokolowski said. "I don't know if the CMAA still exists."
"It may just be a matter of [the Kellen Company's] deal coming to an end with the CMAA, and the CMAA deciding that it's just not worth it to be together," Field said.
The Comics Code Authority "stamp" of approval was established by the CMAA in 1954 in response to a public outcry — including Congressional hearings — about violent and sexual content in comics. It was inspired in large part by Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that reading comics led to juvenile delinquency."In the 1950s through mid 1990s, newsstand distribution demanded the Comic Code Seal," Sokolowski said. "Any major supermarket, drug, or convenience chain could not dedicate man hours to reviewing all the different comics coming into any of their stores and felt a level of indemnification by having the product reviewed and given a 'seal of approval' from an 'independent' third party. The Newsstand Wholesaler system refused to carry titles without the code seal. Later — I think the '70s — the CMAA started a Marketing and Promotions Committee that tackled sharing of rack costs, retail sales calls, and color striping."
But that power had waned in recent years, particularly after Marvel Comics abandoned the Comics Code Authority and implemented their own ratings system after X-Force #116 was denied approval in 2001.
Steve Rotterdam, who served for the last three years as DC's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said the Code also lost relevance in the last few years because advertisers stopped caring about it. Rotterdam would know, since he recently left DC to co-found the Bonfire Agency, a marketing firm that helps advertisers reach comic audiences.
"The vast majority of comic book advertisers were no longer making decisions to advertise based on the appearance of the stamp," Rotterdam told Newsarama. "From that perspective, whatever interest there was fueling the continuation of the Code — and the organization — waned substantially."
Sokolowski said the stamp also lost its importance when comics were no longer sold in grocery and convenience stores.
"The growth and dominance of the direct market — with each location having at least one resident content expert — coupled with the contraction of newsstand distribution made the code unnecessary," Sokolowski told Newsarama. "The age appropriate ratings of the MPAA [for movies], followed by the ESRB [for video games], also made the singular 'code seal' obsolete."
Terry Delegeane, managing editor at Bongo, told Newsarama that Bongo doesn't use the code anymore either, nor has it interacted with the CMAA in more than a year."Bongo worked with the CMAA and placed the Comic Code on its books for 17 years," Delegeane said in a statement to Newsarama. "We had a very positive and cooperative relationship with Holly Munter Koenig during that time. However, it has been over a year since a Bongo comic has had a Comic Code on any of its books. There is not any one reason for our decision to discontinue the use of the Code, but the change has not resulted in any significant change in the content or the sales of our books."
Pellertino said that even when Archie was submitting comics to the CMAA in recent years, the organization didn't appear to be scrutinizing comics from the publisher. "I don't think they were looking at our books," he said. "They knew that our books could pass a real scrutiny. What they let through seemed to be just about anything. We were never a worry for them. We just made good books that people wanted to read."
And eventually, Archie stopped submitting comics altogether. "But the code never affected us editorially the way I think it did other companies," he said. "You know, we aren't about to start stuffing bodies into refrigerators or anything. We have to answer to Archie fans."
And next month, Archie will no longer use the stamp. And apparently, neither will anyone else. "The code wasn't really that important for Archie," Pellerito said. "It was great for the industry; it saved it. But after awhile, it was kind of useless."
Field agreed. "When it really comes right down to it, it's been ineffectual and a relic of the past for probably the last 20 years," he said.
Pellerito and Field both said the absence of the stamp will not matter to consumers and shouldn't affect the industry in any way. "There may be some nostalgists who will miss comic books that actually have the seal on them," Field said. "But it's not going to make a difference to the interior of the comics."
"The larger story on all of this is how each of the publishers will police their own content," Field said. "I've never really been a fan of labeling books, because I've seen what that's done in the movie industry. We went from a movie industry that had a lot of general audience fare, that did quite well at the box office, to a situation where, once the 'scarlet letters' were put on the movie posters, it became a situation where more and more adult content was forced into movies in order to get into a more marketable rating. To me, that's the big question. Will the same thing continue to happen in comics?"Recently on Newsarama:
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