Okay, so let’s get something out of the way: Of course the CCA Comics Code was bad. It was bad, horrible, atrocious, and decidedly not good. The Code was a self-imposed form of censorship that was instituted by the comics industry in the face of widespread moral outrage, and a real possibility of governmental censorship, in the mid-1950s. It drastically constrained the kinds of stories comics creators could tall, and the ways that these stories could be told. Censorship is bad, hence the comics code is bad. So why the fuss? Isn’t the answer just this simple?
Well, there is no doubt that the previous paragraph is completely and utterly correct, as far as it goes. But there are some issues that are deserving of further scrutiny. Sometimes bad things have good consequences. And while I would never suggest that the good consequences of the Code outweigh the obvious bad consequences, I think that some of these, admittedly inadvertent, good consequences deserve greater attention.
First off, as already mentioned, the Code imposed severe restrictions on the kinds of content that could be overtly included in a comic. But, as is often the case, this didn’t necessarily mean that such content wasn’t included – it just meant that it was hidden or coded. And, as is often the case in art, the efforts and creativity that was brought to the task of encoding or hiding ‘forbidden’ content sometimes brought with it real aesthetic gain. Various movements in comics (OuBaPo), literature (OuLiPo), and elsewhere are explicitly based on this premise: that great art can be the result of engaging with, and overcoming, various sorts of constraints. We should remember, however, that these constraints need not be self-imposed or voluntary in order to spur artists to greater heights. On the contrary, sometimes great work comes out of dealing with constraints that are the result of an injustice (like the Code).
Potential examples within mainstream superhero comics aren’t hard to come by: The queer subtext of Chris Claremont’s X-men runs (and pretty much any X-title he gets near enough to sneeze on) might not be the subtlest thing on earth, but it’s likely more interesting than what would have resulted if he had been allowed to have various X-women snogging on the cover of every issue. Likewise, John Byrne’s often brilliant satirizing of the Comics Code in The Sensational She-Hulk and elsewhere really wouldn’t have any point if it hadn’t have occurred in a book carrying the CCA Code.
It is also worth noting that the Comics Code was institutionalized in 1954, when superhero comics appeared to be on the way out, and other genres (notable, but not only, horror and crime) were gaining more and more steam. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that part of the point of the code was to put the horror and crime comics out of business. But the code also allowed superhero comics to eventually regain their preeminent role in mainstream comics. Part of this likely has to do with the publishers of other genres shutting their doors, and the resulting decrease in competition. But is it possible that the code provided superhero comics, and their creators, with exactly the sorts of constraints that were needed to push them to create better, more creative, and more successful stories? I don’t have a good answer to this question, but it seems worth thinking about.