The Comics Code Authority is a much-maligned list of rules that comic book retailers adopted in the 1950s to stave off social criticism and possible government regulation. It is often blamed for “ruining the comics industry” at a time when more adult-oriented crime and horror comics were gaining in popularity, turning it into “kids’ stuff” not worth anyone’s time.
But a recent Google+ post gave me some food for thought: the Comics Code may have saved the comics industry by forcing creators to be more kid-friendly. This meant that the stories *had* to be fun and interesting, because they wouldn’t hold children’s attention otherwise.
Look at today, where there is no such code. Darkness suffuses every aspect of our entertainment, and we don’t like it; we merely accept it because that’s all there is. Look at how audiences — male and female, liberal and conservative, feminist and non-feminist — adored the Wonder Woman movie because it *wasn’t* dark and cynical. While important legal victories like the Miracle decision and Brown v. EMA have rightly kept the government out of these decisions, the lack of a “Comics Code” means that artists could pursue the things that make themselves feel “smart,” whether they entertained or not. It paved the way for Nazi Captain America, unceasing grimdark movies and TV, and ham-handed message fic. As limiting as the old rules were, they at least prevented comics from getting too dark.
A good argument can be made that we do have an unwritten code known as Political Correctness (PC.) PC, like the Comics Code, prohibits specific content, but it goes further by restricting content by the race and religion of the creator and/or characters, often applying more stringent rules to white males.
However, there are plenty of reasons why a Comics Code-style regime, whether explicit or implicit, is ultimately unnecessary and counterproductive.
One is that it creates a sense of being stifled. You’re creating content not for your audience, but to satisfy a censor who probably has no appreciation for the content. Your best bet is to flatter the censor’s biases, even if it harms the story as a whole; thus, you act as the censor’s unpaid ghostwriter.
Two, there is a market for grimdark works, and those who like them are not bad people for doing so. Just because one group of people doesn’t like certain types of stories doesn’t mean no one should be able to publish them. A diversity of works should be allowed, each sinking or swimming on its own merits; one genre or approach should not dominate all fiction.
Three, the Comics Code and its PC successor are obsolete in light of the internet. In the past, when traditional publishing was the only way to get wide coverage, one’s work needed to be as inoffensive as possible to get as many customers as possible; this economy of scale was the only way to make publishing profitable. But with internet-enabled technologies such as e-books and print-on-demand, one no longer needs to appeal to the broadest cross-section of society to make money. In the past, one could argue for voluntary censorship regimes by saying that one needs to be profitable, but today, successful authors can target specific niches and turn a profit. Thus, the only purpose of censorship regimes today is political control of artists.
Thus, the time for voluntary censorship has come and gone. We are in a new world with new rules, and we must either adapt or die.