Chicago Spanking Review

The Effects of the Comics Code on Spanking in Comics, Part 1:  Introduction

---> Articles Section

By Web-Ed

comics code authority seal

The seal of the Comics Code Authority.


In September 1954, after years of unrelenting criticism and accusations that it was turning children into Juvenile Delinquents, the comics industry implemented the Comics Code Authority. In order to put the Code's Seal of Approval on the cover of a book, the publisher had to conform to certain standards which were intended to correct some of the perceived excesses of the time. A very brief recitation of the events that led up to this point, including the publication of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, may be found in the discussion of the spanking in Frontier Romances #1. The purpose of this article is to explore the impact of the Code on adult spanking in comic books.

cover of vault of horror #35

A charming domestic scene on the front cover of The Vault of Horror #35 (February-March 1954), art by Johnny Craig. Since the Code did not allow the word "horror" to be used in a title, this book was doomed.   © William M. Gaines

Let's begin with a brief overview of the general effect the Code had on comics at the time. First, it prohibited staples such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies, and even the use of the words “horror” and “terror” in a title. These and other restrictions meant that the highly-popular Horror comics had to be either completely revamped into mystery-suspense books or discontinued entirely. At EC, William M. Gaines, who had testified before a Senate subcommittee and fought against the code, was forced to cancel his entire Horror line. Because the profits from those titles had allowed him to publish the highly-acclaimed War and Science-Fiction “New Trend” books, once they fell the rest of the New Trend quickly followed, especially when some distributors wouldn't carry the books.

Right away, then, the Code was responsible for killing off what was probably the most artistically successful line of commercial comics this country has ever seen. While I personally always loathed pre-Code Horror Comics, I must agree with EC editor Al Feldstein that in adopting the Code, “the comics industry castrated itself.” Gaines tried briefly to continue publishing four-color comics with his “New Direction” initiative, but it failed within a year, and EC was saved from total extinction only by converting one title, MAD, from a four-color book to a black & white magazine, in which form it was not subject to the Code's restrictions.

cover of Heart Throbs #45

Lots of tears - in fact two of the girls on the front cover are clutching hankerchiefs! - but no sex in Heart Throbs #45 (October 1956, artist unknown). This was very near the end of the line for Quality Comics. Note the Code Seal prominently displayed so that no one, whether distributor, retailer, or buyer, could miss it.

Coming closer to the subject of spanking, Good Girl Art (i.e. drawings of sexy women) was completely devastated by a provision requiring that

"Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities."
In other words, no more "headlight" comics or scantily-clad jungle girls. Another Code provision really wiped out any artistic potential for the Romance Comics genre:

“Passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.”

In other words, sex was out, and before long girls who were naturally curious about this aspect of love were forced to seek romance stories elsewhere. Romance Publishers Harlequin and Avon filled this need in the form of novels, and even “mainstream” publishers got into the act (for example, Peyton Place was published in 1956). Although other factors contributed to the decline in comics readership during the 50's and 60's, this kind of self-imposed limitation obviously hurt the once-thriving Romance genre, which went pretty much extinct by the end of the 70's when even Charlton and DC gave it up. There were, however, some spankings in Charlton Romances during the 60's and 70's, a subject to which we'll return later.

Speaking of Charlton and DC, these two companies were able to survive the Code. Charlton was a low-cost house, paying some of the worst page rates in the industry, and while DC paid as well or better than anyone, their generally conservative publishing approach seldom ran afoul of the Code in its early days. By 1956 they had actually started the Silver Age of Comics with Showcase #4. Both companies were also helped by acquiring properties of houses that didn't survive, with DC taking on the Quality characters and Charlton acquiring those of Fawcett (except for the Marvel Family), Fox, and Fiction House.

cover of tales to astonish #3

A not-too-scary monster fills the front cover of the Code-approved Tales to Astonish #3 (May 1959), art by Jack Kirby and Christopher Rule.

Marvel (still known then as Atlas) was another story. Comics distributors had been on shaky financial ground even before the Code, but just how shaky was revealed only after publisher Martin Goodman closed down his Atlas distribution arm, which while it had been in operation had enabled him to avoid some of the financial pressures that Gaines at EC could not. This was in 1957, and Goodman figured that with sales low he'd be better off letting American News Company distribute his books. But this turned out to be a rare miscalculation on Goodman's part as ANC itself soon fell despite being the largest distributor (the reasons are complicated, but the Code certainly didn't help) and Goodman suddenly had no way to get his books to the newsstand. Editor Stan Lee had to fire everyone, and was left sitting alone in a small office.

Then there were the administrative costs of the Code. I've never read any claim that this hurt the industry, but the Code office had a budget of something like $100,000 per year, and that money came right out of the publishers' bottom lines. Probably most seriously, once ANC fell the remaining distributors would not necessarily carry titles that sold below a certain minimum, and under these conditions the smaller houses simply could not survive.

How much of all this was the Code's fault is debatable. Other factors, such as the new medium of television, had clearly hurt the industry, but when profit margins are already small you can't afford any sudden hits, and it's clear that the Code was injurious the content and therefore the sales of comic books. Goodman, by the way, finally managed to save Atlas by the ingenious strategy of having DC distribute his books. Yes, it's one of the little-known facts of comics history that there would have been no Marvel Age of Comics had they not been distributed in their early years by rival publisher DC!

At left we see a post-Code issue of Tales to Astonish, which in a few years would be featuring Ant-Man and The Hulk. But those characters hadn't been created yet, so at this time the book featured rather tame menaces like the giant space man seen here. Notice that there's no blood, or gore, or even anybody getting trampled.


It's important to understand how the Code worked in practice. It wasn't sufficient for a publisher to agree to abide by the Code's standards; every book had to be submitted to the Code Office for prior review. While the Code did not have the power to prevent publication, if the publisher wanted to put its seal on a book's cover, that book had to be submitted for review. If the Code objected to something, it had to be changed and re-submitted for approval. Nonetheless, I do not consider this to be censorship, although that term is often used by other commentators. "Censorship" properly defined means forcible (government) suppression only, and a publisher could ignore the Code if he wanted to (as for example during the famous instance in which Stan Lee bypassed the Code to publish Amazing Spider-Man #96 in 1971). In its early days, however, the Code was extremely powerful because the few remaining distributors who survived after ANC's collapse in 1957 might refuse to carry a non-Code approved book - too powerful, in my view.

Most of the time, no photostats or other evidence of the “before” version was left behind once alterations had been made to it, making it difficult for us today to assess the Code's full impact. Many examples have been compiled by researchers over the years, most of which don't concern us here because they don't involve spanking (interested readers may refer to the resources listed in Part 4 to find some of them). Sometimes the changes are apparent if it was a pre-Code version that was being reprinted or if there were some other internal evidence of the change. I have next a non-spanking example of the latter case with a super-hero comic that was obviously altered on the insistence of the Code. I believe I am the first researcher to recognize this one as a clear case of Code involvement.

Wertham reviled what he called Crime Comics (nearly everything, including super-heroes, was a “crime comic” to him); in probable consequence, much of the Code concerns crime and violence. From General Standards, Part A, #7:

"Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.”
panel with ghost in jimmy olsen #52

Our example is taken from Jimmy Olsen #52 (April 1961) which I was rummaging through recently in my never-ending search for more comic-book spankings. This is basically a haunted house story, the details of which do not concern us here. In the first panel, a "ghost" bursts in on Jimmy. It's hard to see because of the coloring, but there's a knife in the "ghost's" right hand.

close-up of the hand showing the knife

Here's a close-up of the ghost's right hand, showing the knife. The knife appears to have caught the attention of the Code office, but perhaps not in this panel as we'll see when we look at the next one.

panel with ghost in jimmy olsen #52

Apparently the Code thought that a man running at Jimmy with a knife constituted an example of "excessive and unnecessary knife and gun play," because in the next panel, the knife has disappeared! The "ghost's" right hand is gripping nothing but empty air.

panel with ghost in jimmy olsen #52

The following night, the same thing happens. For the second time, the knife was removed from the "ghost's" grip, but somebody forgot about the shadow it cast on the wall.

close-up of knife's shadow

Again, a close-up of the hand shows that shadow cast by the now-invisible knife. The Code must have missed the knife in the first panel where it was hard to see, either on the first go-round or after the changes had been submitted for approval. The fact remains, however, that the Code insisted on a change being made, and they usually got what they asked for.

In Part 2, we'll look at some startling statistics that document the decline of spanking scenes in the latter half of the 50's, and finally get around to the three known instances during that decade in which M/F spankings were suppressed either by a nervous publisher or by the Code itself.

return to articles page button On to PART TWO
return to articles page button Back to ARTICLES page
return to home page button Back to HOME page