Understanding the Racism Implicit in the Comics Code

Recently I shared this post on Facebook. In it, the author explains the absence of black comic book characters before Black Panther. In particular, the role the Comics Code Authority played in banning Black superheroes.

A friend of mine posted this and a response on that post took umbrage with the assertion that black superheroes were censored and banned from comics.

You see, Black Panther premiered in comics in 1966 and was the first Black superhero in mainstream US comics. Prior to Black Panther, Black superheroes were largely banned and censored from US comics by the industry’s governing body, the Comic Code Authority (CCA). It’s not that there wasn’t interest or a market for Black heroes; it’s that they weren’t even allowed to be published and distributed in the first place.

The person's argument was that since the Comics Code didn't literally ban black superheroes, the statement is incorrect. However, such an argument is overly narrow and ignores the cumulative effects of the code and the context of the society at the time. Often this can be explained by understanding the difference between "de jure" discrimination and "de facto" discrimination.

In "de jure" discrimination, the law or regulation literally and explicitly discriminates against a group. A textbook example would be Jim Crow laws that discriminated explicitly against people of color. (In this case, the Comics Code Authority was a voluntary industry regulatory body. While it did not have the force of law, it had a fair bit of power and clout in the industry and many distributors would not carry titles that did not have its stamp of approval.)

Since the Comics Code does not mention skin color, it is not an example of de jure discrimination. It's not particularly surprising that the code didn't explicitly include racial discrimination, especially since the civil rights movement gained a major victory in the same year the authority started, 1954.

However, I'd argue that it was an example of de facto discrimination against people of color, as evidenced in the story surrounding the publication of "Judgement Day" by Entertainment Comics (EC) in 1956.

[A] human astronaut visits another planet and comes to learn that its robot inhabitants live under a rigid racial-caste system. In the final pane of that comic, the astronaut removes his helmet, and the reader finds out that the astronaut is black.

According to the story, Judge Charles Murphy refused to approve the comic if the astronaut was black. There was no way to appeal his decision and not getting his approval meant that the comic would not be carried by a number of distributors and, thus, the ability to earn money (sort of a requirement in a capitalist system) would be incredibly limited. Since the demand from Judge Murphy was not covered by the code, they attempted to argue with him. He eventually said he would approve it if they removed the sweat from the face of the black astronaut. (Note: While this is a common explanation of what happened, other explanations exist.)

EC eventually published without revisions but they also went out of business soon afterward. According to other stories, Judge Murphy specifically wanted them to go out of business and reviewed every submission from them himself.

So how does this request to change the race of the astronaut from black result in the argument that the CCA banned black superheroes? Well first, here Judge Murphy specifically attempts to prevent the publication of a black hero. He wants the race changed. In addition to this rather explicit attempt, it has a chilling effect on others attempting to publish black heroes. Especially when you consider the types of evil many superheroes were attempting to fight at the time. Fighting back against oppression was important for many creators at the time, especially in the postwar era.

But there are also elements of the code that made it even more difficult to have black superheroes at the time. As the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in their fight against oppression and particularly discriminatory laws and police, the code required "[p]olicemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority." Likewise, at a time when activities of people of color were being criminalized without cause, the code required "[c]rimes 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." Remember, at the time the code was created, lunch counter sit-ins were considered crimes. These aren't the only items in the code that have effects on stories of marginalized folks, particularly blacks.

So the end result of the way the CCA used its authority combined with the practical reality of many parts of the code themselves, means that many black heroes and stories would likely not pass muster. The actual result is that black heroes (among other things) were banned and censored by the CCA. Trying to make the distinction between whether the code was supposed to lead to this outcome or not is irrelevant since the outcome is more important than the intent.

Additional info:

Crafting Wilderness Maps

As you might remember from my much earlier article about creating homemade dungeon tiles, I love to find ways to combine art playtime with gaming. Over the past couple of years, I've been spending a bunch of time watching papercraft and art journal YouTube videos and recently had the time and supplies to try out something new, papercraft wilderness maps.

D&D wilderness maps tend to be hex based instead of the squares typically used for dungeon/battle maps. Hex maps have a long history in war games as well as a number of board games and computer/video games.

I had been trying to figure out a way to create hex maps using some of the mixed media techniques I learned. Recently I've been able to dig out my Gelli Plate for the first time and I had a bit of a eureka moment. For those who are unfamiliar, Gelli Plates are a gel printing surface used to create monoprints, essentially one time prints. Every print from the plate will be unique. While a variety of media can be used on the plates, I've been using craft acrylic paint. You can also use a wide variety of print surfaces.

The key about Gelli plate based monoprinting is creating layers. In its simplest form, this is done by applying thin coats of paint to the surface of the plate and then putting down the surface to be printed. The paint will transfer from the plate to the paper. While this will provide some visual texture, there are other ways to add texture including using soft tools to make marks in the paint, or as you'll see in the examples, using stencils.

One of the reasons I decided to use this particular technique is that the variances in the print can provide visual interest while reducing the possibility of overthinking things or seeking perfection. Most of the time the plate is a rather blunt instrument.

For this example, I decided to use the pages from a law textbook a neighbor threw away. I decided to create green (for forest), blue (for water), and yellow (for developed land).

I used stencils to provide some patterns on the pages, doing two presses per stencil use. The first press got the paint not covered by the stencil. After removing the stencil, I took a second print which got everything left behind. Here's an example of both pulls on the same piece of tissue paper.

The printing process took about half an hour. I then let them dry. The next day I had some time to test out cutting the hexes. It's possible to cut them out using scissors after drawing a grid, but I recently got a craft die cutting machine and wanted to test it out. I bought a hex die (affiliate link) that fit the machine and cut the pages down to size. Here are some example hexes I cut out:

The top image in the collage are the hexes cut out of the monoprint examples. Notice how some of the text still shows through and the variations in the color, whether through variations in coverage or through the application of the stencil, produce some visual interest. However, given how lightweight the paper is, I might suggest adhering the paper to something thicker before cutting out or cutting out and then gluing down to a thicker medium. I also give some examples of using card stock (in this case, just manilla) and foam sheets (the material I used in the original homemade dungeon tiles post).

In this case, the die is a 1/2 inch one, the smallest I could find during my quick search. However, they do make larger ones. I saw 3/4 inch, 1 inch, and 2 1/4 inch. It looks like they are commonly used by quilters.

One thing to note is that I just did this particular round of examples as a test of how it might come out. This means I didn't concentrate too much on how to make a more "natural" map. So each hex is only one color. In the future I'd love to explore how to do hexes where the colors meet within the hex. I'm also interested in looking into how I can use some of my other dies to perhaps mimic that by cutting the hexes into smaller pieces but not in a straight line.

If you're interested in trying this out but don't have the supplies, talk to your friends to see who likes to scrapbook, quilt, art journal, create mixed media, or create cards. They may have a die cutting machine such as a Sizzix BigShot (what I used) and/or the Gelli Plate. Who knows, if they don't already play, you might be able to convince them to experience the map you create first hand, as a player.

More Like This: The Hidden Halls of Hazakor

I recently backed the Kickstarter campaign, The Hidden Halls of Hazakor, and had the opportunity to interview the designer behind the adventure. I'm enjoying the previews thus far and wanted to share with all of you. At the moment, the campaign has 5 days to go and is almost 95% funded.

What is The Hidden Halls of Hazakor?

This is a starter adventure for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, covering a lot of the same “beginner Dungeon Master” ground as most starter adventures do. But it’s also written specifically with a focus on young beginner Dungeon Masters (an age-12-and-up kind of thing), with the intent of helping those young DMs not got overwhelmed by the experience of running their first games.

Why did you pick 5e D&D?

I went with D&D partly because it’s my go-to game for both work and play. But also partly because as a ruleset, I think 5e has a pretty solid foundation of being welcoming to new players. I love a lot of other games as much as I love 5e, but as part of the idea of doing an adventure to help get young DMs and young players into the game, one wants those DMs and players to then be able to easily keep going with the game. I find that fifth edition has a pretty optimal sense of being self-contained and approachable, and I think that makes it a good fit for younger players.

Why concentrate on writing an adventure for young DMs?

When I first wrote the adventure that has since morphed into “Hidden Halls of Hazakor,” I did it for the RPG club I was running at my daughters’ middle school a few years back. So at the time, it was a reaction to seeing kids in the club trying their hand at running games for the first time. I saw a lot of the same sorts of problems, and the same sorts of questions coming up — but I also saw pretty much every kid dealing with the same general anxiety about how running a game should feel, and how to keep the other players entertained, and what to do if things went off the rails. I remembered how those were all the same uncertainties I experienced when I ran my first D&D games, so I put the initial version of the adventure together quickly as a response to that. I wanted something that would be easy for a first-time DM to get a handle on, and that could incorporate advice for dealing with the broad range of issues that the young DMs in the club were dealing with.

What are some of the areas you want to concentrate on for new DMs?

In a general sense, I wanted to front-load an adventure with as much of the information and tips that come from the experience of running games as I could. So much of being a good DM comes down to the experience of having run games. It’s very much a learn-by-doing scenario on many levels. And that’s daunting enough when you’re a teenager (as I was when I first started gaming) or even as an adult. But when you’re a kid of a certain age, it can be downright scary to suddenly find yourself in a position when you’re responsible for making sure four other people are having fun for three hours a week. And judging from my own experience, at least, that fear can get downright existential when you’re a kid coming from that feeling-like-an-outsider/not-really-that-confident mindset that draws a lot of us into gaming in the first place.

So “Hazakor” first and foremost tries to provide an adventure framework that’s relatively straightforward — a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. Then as that adventure unfolds and things happen, the book explains to the young DM “Here’s how to think about what’s happening.” Talking about different ways to improvise comes up a lot, both in the performance sense of playing NPCs and the more esoteric sense of dealing with the players doing things that are unexpected. Because for a lot of DMs (first-time or otherwise), that remains the hardest thing to get a handle on. And that sense of how to deal with things changing in mid-game extends into a lot of the specific advice any DM can get or give, from thinking about how the environment can alter the conditions of combat, to how to deal with players intentionally trying to wreck the fun for other people, to how to deal with characters dying.

Halls of Hazakor SketchesHalls of Hazakor Sketches

I love the artwork you've released so far for the game, but I may have noticed a theme with it. Want to talk about your philosophy behind the art?

Thank you, and you’re in good company. There’s been a ton of positive feedback about the project so far, and pretty much everyone who’s commented leads off by talking about how much they love Jackie Musto’s illustrations. The underlying idea for the art was first and foremost to provide the main entry point to making running a game feel accessible for a young DM, and to make the adventure feel as welcoming as possible. There’s a fair bit of humor in the adventure, and I approached Jackie initially on the basis of knowing that her style would really suit that tone. I wanted the characters to look young because I wanted young DMs and players to be able to feel a sense of connection to them. And I wanted them to represent a balanced mix of genders and a broad range of ethnicities and cultures because that’s what I want to see in the fantasy I play and read. And though I certainly expected that Jackie would be on board with that, I couldn’t have predicted how amazingly her art would bring all those different parameters to life.

I’m extremely privileged, both in a general socio-cultural sense and in the more specific sense of being a person who gets to work in tabletop games and in fantasy fiction for a living. And I’m finding that the older I get, the less patience I have with fantasy that refuses to break out of the faux-European-Medieval tropes that have driven the genre for way too long. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a lot of amazing non-Eurocentric fantasy out there, because that clearly isn’t the case. But I think that fantasy in general, and gaming in particular, has a real “fallback position” problem, wherein our first instinct as readers, as players, and as creators is to think about fantasy in terms of the fantasy we already know. And there’s an undeniable bit of a white-male feedback loop in the fantasy that many of us already know, and I’d really like to see that broken.

Where can people find out more about The Hidden Halls of Hazakor?

The Kickstarter campaign page has pretty much all the info on the project, its background, and the questions people have been asking about it. And for anybody who wants any more information, I’m on Facebook and Twitter pretty much anytime.

Game Journaling: Towns

One of the things I'm looking forward to with the gaming journal is the ability to plan my campaign anywhere and anytime, something that is particularly important with a little one. A key part of planning for me has to do with locations, particularly towns.

Here's an example spread for town planning. For the town map, I printed Dyson Logo's New Cresthill map onto a shipping label (Avery 8168) and placed it into my gaming journal. I then figured out a few key elements to be filled out at a future date (when I have some time) and an area for an index. I also colored in the map with some colored pencils.

Example TownExample Town

Some notes for future iterations:

  • I tried both watercolors and alcohol markers on a duplicate of the map but neither worked great. The paper soaks up the wakly to move watercolors around and it seemed to be really thirsty when it came to alcohol markers and it was often causing them to run dry for a moment with any extended coloring.
  • If I want the effect of alcohol markers, I think I would print these on marker paper, color them in, and then use an adhesive such as the Tombow Adhesive Tape Runner.
  • Adding a lot of maps will cause the journal to get wider in that area. I might try to change up where I put the maps so the top of journal doesn't get wider than the bottom or put two maps on one page and use the facing page for the notes.
  • Putting maps in the journal without any information would be a great way to seed future brainstorming sessions.

Some sources for maps:

Game Journaling: Character Sheets for D&D 5e and BubbleGumshoe

In my last post, I talked about the basics of bullet journals and the utility of the concept when it comes to gaming. I even showed examples of how to layout helper charts for running a BubbleGumshoe game. This time, let's explore how we can use any dot grid journal for keeping character sheets.

Just a quick reminder, I use the Rhodia Webnotebook. Each journal manufacturer may have different page measurements as well as placement and spacing on the page.

D&D 5e

One challenge I want to set for myself soon is to make a bunch of characters. I want to make a portfolio of these, so keeping them in a gaming journal makes a ton of sense. If I didn't have a separate journal for gaming, I'd be tempted to keep them in my primary bullet journal because I would have it handy whenever I wanted (no more "where did I put that sheet?" as I look at a pile of at least dozens of sheets).

For the first one, especially since it's meant to be an example, I largely just reworked the character sheet presented in the back of the player's handbook.

D&D Character Sheet StatsD&D Character Sheet Stats
D&D Character Sheet Character InfoD&D Character Sheet Character Info
D&D Character Sheet SpellcastingD&D Character Sheet Spellcasting

Supplies Used:

  • Watercolors (Van Gogh student set)
  • Sakura Pigma Micron pens (.005, .01, .02, .05)
  • Copic Multiliner in Cool Gray
  • White Gelly Pen
  • Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen
  • Prismacolor Color Pencils
  • Scotch Washi Tape
  • Tombow Adhesive Tape Runner

One key is that the washi tape on the right hand side can make it super easy to find your character sheet in the future and gives you an additional opportunity to customize for your character.

Of course, this is just the basic character sheet. One of the benefits of the dot journal is that you can customize however you wish. For instance, I might rework this to do the spell casting sheet as the second page if I had a spell caster. I also would come up with trackers for various character classes, such as anything that is limited to a certain number of times between rests or tracking consumables.

After I shared my work in progress, my friend, Chelsea Kerr, rushed to create a version of her own. Here's her version.
D&D Character Sheet by ChelseaD&D Character Sheet by Chelsea

You can find Chelsea online on Twitter @chelseachan.

BubbleGumshoe Character Sheet

After I made the D&D character sheet, I had a cute (to me at least) idea for how to do a BubbleGumshoe character sheet. I thought about some of the items that a high schooler might have in their backpack. (I couldn't find a plain old ballpoint pen in my bag of tricks, but it would have been a great addition).

BubbleGumshoe Character SheetBubbleGumshoe Character Sheet
BubbleGumshoe Character Sheet SecretsBubbleGumshoe Character Sheet Secrets

Supplies Used:

  • Highlighters
  • Small colored notepaper
  • Sakura Pigma Micron pens
  • Sharpie Art pens (from the set of 12)

Where to get inspiration

If you're looking for more inspiration on how to draw your character sheet, here are some great resources:

If you create your own, feel free to share them with me via Twitter, Instagram, or via the contact form on this site.

Character art:
D&D: "Half-Elf Paladin" © 2012 Brian Patterson, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:
BubbleGumshoe: From example character sheet available on Evil Hat's website.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

Resources for FAQs



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