Comics histories sometimes reduce the Golden Age to the Superman Age: an era of lily white, squeaky-clean, manly-man heroes punching bank robbers and selling World War II propaganda. But the raucous variety of early comics is much more complex. For a weird, wild, 15-year span beginning in the late 1930s, the comic book racks of America's newsstands were bursting with four-color contradictions. Images of half-naked, subjugated women appeared side by side with comics featuring independent heroines, like Women Outlaws.
The comics world at this time was a cacophonous bazaar of stories: sometimes thrilling, sometimes confusing, sometimes revolting. But that bazaar was swiftly and mercilessly dismantled in 1954 by the newly formed Comics Code Authority. It was replaced with a viciously policed shopping mall whose effects resonate today.
Conventional wisdom holds that comics today are conservative, reactionary. In recent years, outlets from The Guardian to The Atlantic have published articles on sexism in comics, and fanboys foolish enough to express their fear of a black Spider-Man are likely to be taken to task loudly and publicly thanks to the active presence of antiracist fans and fans of color on social media. Long made by, read by, and starring only white males, the story goes, comic books need to be dragged — or must not be dragged, depending on one's ideological bent — into the 21st century. We marvel at the increasing popularity of comics, as if collectively witnessing the first sunlit steps of a pale, housebound man who has lived in his mother's basement for decades. What is rarely discussed, though, is how comics ended up in the basement in the first place.
While they had some experimental antecedents, the first true comic books appeared in the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression. At first, most were collections of reprinted strips from newspapers. But publishers soon saw that there was money to be made with original material. New titles cropped up monthly and, by the time Superman appeared in Action Comics in 1938, the era that comics fans and historians have dubbed the "Golden Age" was in full swing. Somehow, in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis, comics had managed to become a boom industry. And it wasn't just adolescent white males driving this boom. We know from advertisements, comics letters pages, and old photos that comic books in the Golden Age were bought and read by a wide variety of Americans in terms of gender, class, and race. By the 1940s, Americans from all walks of life were going comic book crazy.
The early comic book industry had the shifting, molten surface of a new, unfinished world. Golden Age writers and artists were inventing a new form as they went, and they were doing so for little money, and under grueling deadlines. Quantity was often emphasized over quality, and editorial supervision was in most cases nearly nonexistent.
The comics themselves exhibited wild stylistic variety. A single issue of Keen Detective Funnies could contain one story with gorgeous Art Nouveau-ish illustration, and another with glorified stick figures. The comic books of the Golden Age were also significantly more diverse in terms of genre than today's comics. On newsstands across America — in an era when the newsstand was an urban hub and an economic juggernaut — comic books told tales of True Crime, Weird Fantasy and Cowboy Love, Negro Romance, and Mystery Men. And Americans bought them all.
Even as Amazing-Man and Blue Beetle were rescuing helpless, infantilized women, badass superheroines like the Lady in Red, the Spider Queen, and Lady Satan were stabbing Nazis and punching out meddlesome, sexist cops.
During the Golden Age, the same newsstand might be selling comics with ape-like, rubber-lipped caricatures of black people next to the black-owned and created All-Negro Comics.
And the same issue of Funny Pages might contain both "savage redskins" and Mantoka, the native superhero who battles "white man's treachery."
In the early 1950s, as women who'd worked on the home front during wartime were being "encouraged" out of the workplace, and anti-communism was at its height, moral panic over comic books hit a fever pitch. Cities including Oklahoma City and Houston enacted bans of horror and crime comics. Spurred in part by the sensationalist book Seduction of the Innocent (a ridiculous sort of Reefer Madness for comic books), the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency turned an angry eye toward comics, and most publishers felt that heavy-handed regulation — perhaps even outright banning — was imminent. Comic book publishers, in consultation with right-wing politicians, formed the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship group, in the hopes that this would forestall government intervention in the industry. New York Magistrate Charles F. Murphy, a "specialist in juvenile delinquency" (and a strident racist), was chosen to head the Authority and to devise its self-policing "code of ethics and standards."
What Murphy came up with was, in essence, a framework for forcing comics' compliance with a uniquely American puritanical fascism. Some of the Code's more illustrative points:
"Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal."
"Romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage."
"Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden."
"Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority."
"All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted."
And, perhaps, most amusingly:
"Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and, wherever possible, good grammar shall be employed."
The Code also contained the surprising provision that "ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible." Given the countless depictions of monkey-like Japanese and minstrel-show black people in Golden Age comics, one might think this provision a good thing. But Murphy soon made it clear that this provision really meant that black people in comic books would no longer be tolerated, in any form. When EC Comics reprinted the science fiction story "Judgment Day" by Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando (which had originally been printed to little controversy before the Code), Murphy claimed the story violated the Code, and that the black astronaut had to be made white in order for the story to run.
EC defiantly ran the story anyway, but Murphy had made a target of them, and the company was essentially forced out of the comics business. The message was clear: If comics were to be tolerated in this new postwar order, they had to be purged of assertive women, of people of color, of challenges to authority, and even of working-class, urban slang. And so the Comics Code hacked and mangled comics until they fit into the patriarchal, conservative, white suburban social order that was taking over every other sphere of American life.
Distributors agreed not to carry comic books that didn't abide by the Code, making it functionally as effective as law. And, indeed, with some slight modifications here and there, it functioned as the law of land for mainstream comics for almost 50 years. These days, there's a broad consensus that the Comics Code — which has been endlessly discussed and condemned by comics historians — was disastrous, and that it damaged comics. But nearly all of the critiques of the Code focus primarily on its dire consequences for white men's artistic freedom, or the disservice done to readers in coddlingly denying them explicit sex and violence. What's less discussed is the fact that independent women, and people of color, and all sorts of stories that didn't fit with the compulsory patriotism and cop-worship of the 1950s, essentially vanished from comics for decades. This is a loss that comics are still wrangling with. What was left didn't interest adults nearly as much, and comics slowly began to become less ubiquitous and more associated with pasty adolescent boys.
It would be preposterous to claim that the Code destroyed creativity in the comics industry. Comics in the decades that followed the establishment of the Code — the Silver Age when Marvel Comics debuted and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee revolutionized the art form — had no lack of masterpieces. But, while a handful of writers and artists in the subsequent decades found sneaky ways to tell subversive stories within the confines of the Code, there can be little question that for decades the Code put a severe limitations on what kinds of masterpieces could be produced.
The dark comics of the 1980s — Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns — that are often said to mark the emergence of the (post)modern superhero are almost always treated as eviscerations of the saccharine Silver Age. But they were in many ways simply a return to the grittier, more "adult" comic books that existed in the golden age. Only now the sorts of stories that had once been accessible to nearly everyone were given "for mature readers" labels, and they were only sold in specialty stores.
Still, these titles proved to be the first signs of changing times. Long considered outdated by publishers and fans alike, the Code's influence began to wane in the 1990s. The new comics publishers that began to crop up didn't submit their titles for review by the Code. And distributors, who had always been the real enforcers of the Code, no longer seemed to care. Partially because comics had become so marginalized, and partially because other mainstream media had grown so salacious and violent by comparison, comics weren't emphasized in the culture wars of the 1990s. With the threat of government intervention in the industry effectively gone, the Code lost its power. It was completely abandoned by the early 21st century.
But rather than returning to their gloriously weird and subversive pre-Code roots, mainstreamed post-Code comics have — with notable exceptions — mostly taken the retreat of self-censorship as an opportunity to revel in cheap violence and exploited female bodies.
With the Comics Code gone, comics have reveled in heroes who gleefully kill "thugs," grisly images of women in refrigerators, and superheroine-as-Maxim-model covers. But the independent women, the queer perspectives, the radical questioning of the status quo that were stifled by the Code? Comics have been slower to embrace these. And the films, TV shows, and video games based on comics have followed suit (the overwhelming majority of which fail even the Bechdel test).
It doesn't have to be this way. The Comics Code is dead, and comic book narratives are in the mainstream of American culture again. If comics are to retain the wide audience they have taken so long to regain — and if they are to enter into a new Golden Age — they must do better. And there are glimmers of hope. The past couple of years have seen an Arab Green Lantern and a Muslim Ms. Marvel. Writers like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue DeConnick are shifting the way superhero comics deal with women. And minded fan campaigns like We Are Comics are reclaiming the long-lost sense that comics are for everyone.
Let's do more to reclaim that sense. Let us leave the Golden Age's jingoism, racist caricatures, and exploitation of women on the dustheap. But let us also remember that comics used to do different things than they do now, and that some of those things were wonderful and worth reclaiming.
Saladin Ahmed has written about television, fiction, and video games for Salon, NPR Books, and The Escapist. His fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, which George RR Martin called "old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery adventure with an Arabian Knights flavor," was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and British Fantasy Awards, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He lives near Detroit with his wife and twin children.