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Comics Code Authority visual history

2011 January 29

With the Comics Code Authority effectively ceasing to exist, recently, I’ve been meaning to note a few thoughts about the disappearance of the CCA seal.

I daresay that for the vast majority of American comics readership, for a long time, the code’s existence has been pretty much exclusively visual, honestly. The most “recent” instance of the code being noticed in any significant way, aside from publishers’ dropping it, may well be the Amazing Spider-Man “drug” issues published without CCA approval, nearly 40 years ago. Since then, so far as I can recall there has been little in the way of serious restriction on story content for code-approved books, or discussion thereof; thus, in the absence of any other presence in the comics “landscape,” the code basically was its cover stamp.

Cover of Fantastic Four #1 featuring big-honking Comics Code of Authority stamp

In 1961, you didn't have to go looking for the CCA stamp!

The code stamp definitely was a part of that landscape, in any event. I can’t say that it was significantly “iconic,” or even a landmark per se, but it was tremendously familiar. The appearance of the CCA stamp on American comic book covers predates the superhero renaissance of the early 1960s which, to a great extent, still defines the anglophone comics industry today; thus, prior to its recent disappearance, the code stamp was a minor but near-omnipresent visual element in the landscape of American comics as we know it, for as long as it has been around.

Cover of Peter Parker: Spider-Man showing reduced code stamp as of early 1980s

In the early 80s, the stamp was smaller but still had prominence of place

When I was a lad, a friend and I both made our own comics and both patterned the cover design after Marvel’s enduring, standard trade dress of the later 1980s, including the CCA stamp. The code stamp, a UPC box, a publisher’s logo and usually some sort of inset character graphic in the upper-left corner; these were the things, along with the familiar size and aspect ratio, which made a comic book cover look like a comic book cover, in the same way that lines of compressed type at the bottom make a movie poster look like a movie poster.

Cover of Transformers #36, mid 1980s

A Marvel comic book cover LOOKING like a Marvel comic book cover, around the time I began reading 'em regularly

At least, for a while they were. Much-older fans might have a different perspective, though the CCA stamp would probably still be a familiar touchstone for them; a 19-year-old born in 1992, however, would never really have known that old Marvel trade dress except as a historical design, and would have been little more than a child when Marvel dropped its association with the CCA and the CCA stamp vanished from its covers.

For that matter, though, the fact is that the CCA stamp has been in the process of vanishing for a long time. In olden days, it was a big, scallop-edged stamp and a prominent element on comic book covers. Whether or not many people ever really took much notice, covers from the early ’60s appear to be designed based on the assumption that the stamp should be noticeable.

What If... #97, from the 1990s

Where's the Comics Code Authority stamp (or indication that anyone is expected to care)?

By the 1980s, it was less “poster,” more “wallpaper.” Like wallpaper it was, as I’ve noted, always there, but it was definitely reduced in visual status. And then, though I can’t speak much for DC, I know that as Marvel began to deconstruct and play around with its cover layouts in the 1990s, the CCA stamp’s already-low level of visual importance seemed to fall even further. It managed to get smaller still, to a frankly ridiculous extent, and perhaps just as importantly lost its “home.”

Sometimes the stamp returned to its old upper-right location in much-reduced size, sometimes it was over on the left side. If a book had a wraparound cover, the code was often demoted to the back cover, which can’t really have been a good sign. Occasionally it was forgotten entirely. My impression, thinking back, is that in what proved to be its final years at Marvel the code stamp usually seemed like nothing more than an afterthought, a tiny little bug stuck-on wherever, and made as small as possible. At that point, any assumptions guiding the stamp’s place in cover designs seemed to involve irrelevance, rather than importance.

Hardly surprising then, in retrospect, that one day someone looked around and asked “why are we even bothering with this thing at all?” Visually, I think one can say that the writing had been on the wall for years, perhaps decades. The code, as I’ve noted, basically was the code stamp, and the stamp kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller…

One final thought related to the Comics Code Authority stamp which has been rattling around my brain for years. Looking back on its big, old-timey-looking scallop-edged form, I’ve occasionally thought what a natural device that version of the stamp would be for an “effect” on the right book. Indeed, given American comics’ frequent use of “homages” and “retro” concepts, it’s kind of surprising that the early-look code stamp has reappeared extremely rarely. (Marvel’s “Flashback” event is the only example I can think of.)

If I were planning some sort of young-reader-friendly comic book, particularly one with some sort of “old school” bent, I’ve thought how I would want to get CCA approval to use that stamp as big as possible in all its unabashed scallopy old-fashioned glory, just for the sheer wackiness of it. Ah well.

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