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How Stan Lee Saved Comic Books From Censorship –

 

Stan Lee has passed away. Those words feel all at once inevitable and completely impossible, all at the same time. Of course, he’s been in ill-health for a while now (and at the center of an elongated, sad elder abuse scandal), but he’s also Stan Lee. He’s an icon – a larger than life figure in the work of comic books, movies, and geekdom in general. He’s the progenitor of Marvel Comics – the creator of countless characters, the voice of the brand, and the relentless pitchman.

He was Stan the Man.

But still, his legacy is a little more convoluted and complicated than a simple hagiography would suggest. I make no bones about saying that Stan Lee is singlehandedly responsible for making Marvel Comics what it was and what it is today, but it’s also true that he received outsized credit for his contributions to each individual story and the creation of individual characters. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, in particular, deserve SO MUCH more credit than they’re given – and Stan Lee is a big reason why their input and creative work doesn’t receive quite the amount of praise and acclaim that it should.

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And of course there’s more – the man lived to be 95 years old. You’re going to make some mistakes and have some flaws in that amount of time, that goes without saying. In the end, he brought a lot more light and wonder into the world – and in one moment in particular, saved comic books from the ever-tightening grip of censorship at the moment a hero like him was needed the most.

The Comics Code Authority was the bane of every comics publisher’s existence for years – founded in the mid 1950s after outrage over horror and romance comics, the CCA would relentlessly push extreme censorship measures on every major publisher of comic books – preventing them from putting out anything even mildly gory or upsetting, in addition to bizarre rules around allowing officers of the law to ever be harmed by criminals, or for evil to ever triumph over good (even temporarily). Here’s the criteria the code operated under:

  • Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
  • If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
  • Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
  • Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
  • In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
  • Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, the gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
  • No comic magazine shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in its title.
  • All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
  • All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.
  • Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
  • Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
  • Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
  • Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
  • Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
  • Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Rape scenes, as well as sexual abnormalities, are unacceptable.
  • Seduction and rape shall never be shown or suggested.
  • Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
  • Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted in the advertising of any product; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.

As you can tell, it was…aggressive. And it left little room for nuance, creativity, or any semblance of interesting storytelling. And yet throughout the 1950s through the early 1970s, comics creators found creative ways around the CCA to include some subversive and challenging material – but on the whole, comics were continuously suffering under the iron grip of non-stop censorship.

To really illustrate what an unbelievably tight grip they had over the production of comic books, here’s a story from Stan Lee on the topic of them censoring a puff of smoke:

“I had done a story, a western story called Kid Colt: Outlaw.

There was one panel where the hero was shooting a gun. And all that the panel showed was the gun in the man’s hand, drawn in profile, the barrel of the gun, and a puff of smoke coming out of the tip of the barrel to indicate that the gun had been fired. And that was all you saw: a hand holding a gun with a puff of smoke. And I think maybe the word “bang” was lettered there. The story came back from the Code office and they said it was objectionable; we had to change it or they wouldn’t let the book go out. I said, “What’s wrong with it? It’s just a puff of smoke coming out of the gun barrel!” Here was their answer: “It’s too violent.” I said, “Why? How?” They said, “The puff of smoke is too big.” So we made a smaller puff of smoke”

Note: not sure exactly which panels Lee was referring to, but here’s a general sense of how utterly inoffensive Kid Colt was.

And that’s just how things were – until Stan Lee finally took a stand against it.

Granted, this wasn’t some kind of grandiose Spartacus moment where Stan the Man suddenly decided to stand up for the noble art of comic books all by himself – it was simply a time when he felt he had the strength and backing to finally tell the CCA to go f*ck itself. See, in the early 70s, the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare contacted Marvel about potentially making some comics about the perils of drug addiction, and Stan Lee agreed, adding in a drug use storyline to the ongoing Amazing Spider-Man series (issues #96-98).

The drug PSA storyline was almost overbearingly explicit and thuddingly obvious, even for a cheesy comic book – if you didn’t know any better, you’d think these were some promotional issues printed by the US Government itself.

The drug plotline begins with Spider-Man saving a “dope fiend” from jumping off a building while high, and (in an extremely meta moment) wondering aloud how he, as a mere superhero, could reach kids to warn them about the dangers of drugs…

Later, Peter’s friend (and son of Robbie Robertson) Randy meets up with Peter, MJ, Harry, and Norman Osborn to deliver a scathing indictment of society’s attempt to deny responsibility for drug culture

Soon it’s revealed that Harry Osborn has been abusing pills to deal with his emotional issues, primarily his jealousy over Mary Jane seemingly flirting with Peter (prior to their relationship, while Peter was still hung up on Gwen Stacy)

The storyline was meant to contrast against the dope fiend from the beginning of the story – to remind people that drugs weren’t simply an issue for poor people in the inner-city, but even rich, goofy-haired guys like Harry. The point being – everyone’s susceptible to the demons of drug use!

(also Harry’s dealer was some kind of horrifying mix of Donald Trump and Geraldo Rivera)

Eventually Harry comes close to overdosing, but is saved by Peter and rushed to the hospital, where he decides to never do drugs again!

The storyline wraps up with a conversation between J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson – over Robbie’s intention to tell the world about the dangers of drug addiction by highlighting how drugs can even affect rich kids like Harry Osborn.

…and right when you think J. Jonah Jameson is going to be a stand-in for the CCA and try to censor the story for his own selfish interests, he turns the tables and reveals himself to be the opposite – he’s the stand-in for Martin Goodman, the publisher who supported Stan Lee.

It was about as anti-drug as you could get, with very little nuance or gray areas. It was practically sponsored by the US Government.

And the Comics Code Authority STILL would not give it their stamp of approval, because of the depiction of drugs be used (even though “drugs” as a concept were not expressly forbidden by the rules of the code – just another fun way they would screw with publishers!). The context of it being obviously bad and negative didn’t matter at all, because the CCA abided by its own bizarre and arbitrary draconian code of rules that simply could not be bent.

So Stan Lee, in so many words, told them to go f*** off.

Again, he had the backing of the United States Government and a storyline that could function as an afterschool special to teach kids about the dangers of drugs, so Stan Lee felt his position was exceptionally strong. Here’s how Lee described it in his book, Amazing Marvel Universe:

“And when they were reading these [Spider-Man] stories, before they would put the seal of approval on the magazine, they said, ‘oh no, you can’t do this story.’ And I said, ‘why?’ They said, ‘according to the rules of the Code Authority, you can’t mention drugs in a story.’ And I said, ‘Look we’re not telling kids to take drugs, this is an anti-drug theme.’ [They said,] ‘Oh no it doesn’t matter, you mention drugs.’ And I said, ‘but the Department of Health Education and Welfare, a government agency, asked us to do it.’ and they said, ‘it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs.’”

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Lee was able to convince Marvel’s publisher at the time, Martin Goodman (who just happened to be Lee’s cousin-in-law), to push forward with the issues despite not having the CCA’s approval on the comics. The end result was that Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 were the first Marvel comics to ever be published without the CCA stamp on their covers….and they did well.

There was virtually no backlash – the sales numbers were solid and even got a positive write-up in the New York Times:

“We can’t keep our heads in the sand,” Mr. Lee said. “I said that if this story would help one kid anywhere in the world not to try drugs or to lay off drugs one day earlier, then it’s worth it rather than waiting for the code authority to give permission.”

The net result of Lee’s defiance was that the CCA was shown to be an emperor without clothes – defying the CCA may not only not affect sales numbers, but garner you positive press as well. This was something of an embarrassment for the CCA, who quickly worked to loosen up some of the more absurd restrictions, but the damage had been done. Publishers knew they could bend the rules and the CCA would have to keep abandoning its strict rules to still have any appearance of authority.

Speaking to IGN a few years ago, Lee reflected on the story, its effects on readers, and what it ultimately did to the CCA:

“…we sent those three issues out without the seal of approval, and we got mail from teachers, from religious leaders, and from government people, telling us how great they thought it was and that we should do more of that. After the Code people learned of that, they changed the Code and started to be a little bit more intelligent about what they objected to.”

Stan Lee – who helped create a world of the most popular superheroes of all-time, who tried to bring a little more light and wonder to the world, and who saved comics from insane levels of censorship. Excelsior, indeed.

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