Understanding the Racism Implicit in the Comics Code

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 21 February 2018

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.

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