The long history of the Comics Code Authority Seal has taken another turn.
But this turn is more like an about-face, as the symbol of censorship in the comics industry now helps defend freedom of speech.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization that defends First Amendment rights for the comic industry, announced yesterday that it has inherited intellectual property rights to the Seal.
"[The Seal] will now be associated with an organization protecting creativity as opposed to a force that stifled it," said Charles Brownstein, CBLDF executive director, who pointed out this announcement appropriately falls within Banned Books Week. "Anyone who’s read a comic book in the last 60 years has had some superficial interaction with this icon, and to be able to harness it to raise awareness of the First Amendment and the dangers of censorship is a vastly good thing."
As Newsarama revealed in January, the Comic Magazine Association of America, which administered the Code, has been defunct since 2009. Use of the Code was discontinued in February by the few publishers who still used it.
"As the Comic Magazine Association of America, was winding down they approached us to inquire whether we would be interested in receiving the Seal of Approval," Brownstein told Newsarama. "Through a brief, and fairly straightforward process, they assigned us the rights to the Seal for use as part of our fundraising and education program. It was a donation from industry’s dying self-censorship body to assist its mature First Amendment defense body."
But this isn't the first time the CBDLF has "used" the Seal. In fact, the organization often cites the Seal's history in their legal fights.
"We wrote a brief in Brown v. EMA, a California case that sought to prohibit violent content specifically by compelling the state to regulate the sale of video games according to the industry’s voluntary ratings system. Our brief, cited in the majority decision, pointed out the dangers of moral panic and the censorship it advocates by showing how our industry was harmed by the panic that led to the Comics Code," Brownstein said. "There’s a cautionary tale in what happened to comics for any new media coming under fire. We lost a generation of creators, and our business and creativity were set back for decades as a result of being forced to capitulate to the public’s calls for censorship. That’s something that no other creative field should have to navigate. The Code is a very powerful symbol of that fact."
The Comics Code Authority "stamp" of approval was established by the Comics Magazine Association of America 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.
"The Code was created as a means for the industry to survive a vicious witch hunt whipped up by moral panic," Brownstein said. "It was a self-preservation measure that the industry took to fend off a mob mentality that could have driven it out of business."
Without creation of the Code's "Seal of Approval," newsstands wouldn't have even carried comics anymore. So in a way, the self-regulating stamp saved comics from a certain death. But it also self-regulated comics in a way that encouraged only child-targeted material -- creating an expectation of comics always being "kid stories," a perception that permeates society even today.
"I think it’s fair to say that the Code did save comics, but it did so by introducing a regime of censorship that put creators and publishers out of work, and thoroughly infantilized what the medium had to say in a way that lasted for generations," Brownstein said. "In the days of the Code, the argument that comics had First Amendment value was a non-starter, and the path to survival was self-censorship. Those days are a brutal illustration of how creativity can be crushed by the forces of moral panic."
Today, most comic companies self-regulate in a different way, by putting ratings on the cover of their comic books. But Brownstein said that manner of self-regulating is completely different from the Seal's use.
"The Comics Code was a compulsory measure administrated by an external body that publishers had to adhere to in order to obtain distribution. The modern day publisher ratings are voluntary, self-guided measures that each publisher administrates internally to help provide guidance to retailers and parents about the content of their work," Brownstein said. "The difference between the Code and modern day ratings is the difference between an outside body governing what publishers can say before their content goes to market and the publisher itself putting work into the market with guidance for retailers and audience."
Brownstein said that in a way, the Code's existence helped spawn the CBDLF. "In the 1980s when a generation of creators and business people who grew up under the Code saw the forces of censorship massing against comic book stores for selling comics for adult readers and, instead of capitulating, said, 'never again,'" he said.
"Denis Kitchen and a cadre of artists, retailers and publishers banded together to raise money for what would eventually become the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund," Brownstein said. "As an organization, the CBLDF stands up for the field’s First Amendment rights, and works to fight against the stigma that comics are low-value speech. That has been an uphill battle, but, as you can see by looking at the modern comics landscape, we’ve made vast strides."
Brownstein said ownership of the Seal of Approval has benefits both on an education level, and on a modest fundraising level.
"We were lucky to be able to announce this assignment during Banned Books Week," he said. "Moving ahead, I imagine the seal will be an important part of our work as a sponsor of next year’s anniversary Banned Books Week. I anticipate in the long run this will be a good tool to raise awareness of the dangers of censorship and the power of free expression."
The Seal will also help with fundraising, since it can now be licensed for use on items for sale, including a current T-shirt from Graphitti Designs that sports the logo. "Certainly there are other opportunities to license the Seal, and we’ll be glad to work with folks who want to propose ways to help us raise money using it," Brownstein said.
And the symbol isn't all "bad," Brownstein admitted. "The Code has enormous sentimental nostalgia value for two or three generations of readers who read comics with the seal on the cover," he said. "When I was a kid, before I had any idea of the history, I knew that all the comics I bought had this seal on the cover and I associated it with the good feelings I had about comics. I think there are a lot of people who have warm feelings towards the seal for similar reasons. Being able to use the seal to introduce them to the CBLDF’s work protecting comics is a positive thing."
The CBDLF is hoping attention to their acquisition of the Seal will also raise awareness of its current "Be Counted" campaign. The organization is hoping to raise $100,000 by October 31st by encouraging comic readers to become members. CBLDF membership starts at $25 per year, and comes with a variety of benefits, including a Green Lantern membership card and addition to a member list at www.cbldf.org. Donors who give more can also receive gifts of time and items from creators.
"We’re asking people to make a tax-deductible donation for membership at whatever level they can afford, and to be counted as a member of CBLDF," Brownstein said. "I hope Newsarama readers will visit our website and learn about all the different incentives we’re offering, but more importantly, I hope they’ll make a contribution and be counted as members of the CBLDF. That money immediately goes into helping us pay for our current casework, defending an American who faces prison time in Canada because authorities are wrongly alleging that horror and fantasy manga on his computer is child pornography. It also keeps us strong enough to ensure we’re always here to keep the kind of damage the Code inflicted upon comics from ever happening again."Related Stories
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