Paul Levitz’ The Golden Age of DC Comics 1935-1956 is a history, told largely through illustrations, covering the years from the publisher’s founding through the near-demise of entire comic book industry. The endpoint for the golden age corresponds with the rising “moral panic” over the perception — fueled by J. Edgar Hoover’s pronouncement of a “youth crime wave” sweeping the US, and adults’ perplexed anxiety over the burgeoning youth culture — that juvenile delinquency was putting the very United States at peril.
Although DC may not have been the most egregious, and certainly not the sole offender, comic book content of the day provided abundant ammunition to those, including educators and the clergy, eager to point out deleterious influences on children. The accusing finger of blame need only point out, from examples included in Golden Age, bloody stabbings, gangsters popping off rounds from tommy-guns, topless women, and even Batman wielding a machine gun, in the first issue of his own title.
There was Hawkman clubbing a Japanese soldier with a spiked mace, Wonder Woman in chains and bondage mask and, in the first issue of Detective Comics, Slam Bradley swinging one Asian (who, like most non-Caucasians in American comics of this vintage, is rendered as sub-human) by his ponytail, into another. Later in the same issue, a scantily-clad woman is seen about to be whipped by the Asian villains. At least two images show bound teenage sidekicks (one, long-suffering Green Arrow pal, Speedy, in the ironically-titled More Fun Comics No. 85) being tossed from towers. And then, there was that panel of Bruce (Batman) Wayne sharing a bed with Dick (Robin) Grayson.
The comics’ depictions of crime (especially without consequence for the criminal), violence, crude language, sex, and nudity all were cited by the social watchdogs as negatively influential on America’s youth. A trip to the nearest newsstand was sufficient to observe the kids’ unfettered access to, and eager consumption of this material.
In the U.S. government’s usual superficial manner of addressing social crises, congressional hearings were convened. Testimony was heard and, again per usual, the cranks and those of questionable legitimacy were credited as expert and allowed to shape the findings, while industry insiders were badgered and ridiculed. Still, as witch-hunty as the Kefauver Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency became, and despite the fervent wishes of star witness for the prosecution, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, no legislation immediately resulted.
What did result was the comics industry’s attempt at self-regulation, the formation of the Comic Magazine Association of America and development of the Comics Code Authority (CCA), better known as the Comics Code. The Code identified 41 “problem areas” — including sex, violence, appropriate dialogue, ridicule of religious and racial groups, and depictions of crime — that were to be used as standards for appropriate content. A chintzy-looking CCA stamp of approval on a comics’ cover indicated compliance; non-compliant publications likely never saw the spinner rack or newsstand shelf.
This self-imposed regulatory system was in place, and unchanged, from its adoption until revisions in 1970. Despite these, and further relaxation of the Code in the 1980s, it was seen as so irrelevant and restrictive that Marvel (the only comics publisher bigger than DC) dropped out of the CCA in 2001. DC followed suit in 2011, and the Comics Code Authority was dissolved, in favor of self-regulation by each publisher.
For DC, this has taken the form of a ratings system, modeled after that used by the Entertainment Software Rating Board for video games. DC’s four ratings categories are:
• E = EVERYONE Appropriate for readers of all ages. May contain cartoon violence and/or some comic mischief.
• T = TEEN Appropriate for readers age 12 and older. May contain mild violence, language and/or suggestive themes.
• T+ TEEN PLUS Appropriate for readers age 16 and older. May contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes.
• M MATURE Appropriate for readers age 18 and older. May contain intense violence, extensive profanity, nudity, sexual themes and other content suitable only for older readers.
Similarly to the film ratings system, where most titles are classified PG-13 or R, the majority of DC’s comics are rated either T or T+. Also like the film industry, DC’s ratings can seem predicated on commercial considerations rather than accurately reflecting age-appropriate content. Just as G and NC-17 ratings are perceived as box office poison, for different reasons, E- and M-rated DC titles appear to be rare, vastly outnumbered by the “age 12 and older” T-rated books. (Most of the M-rated titles are from DC’s “suggested for mature readers” Vertigo imprint, not their main line of books.)
It’s more difficult than ever to assign appropriate age guidelines for print content, and harder still to advocate for censorship of any kind. Based on the manner of Disturbing Content published by DC, however, the need for some guidance is as obvious as the ineffectiveness of the Comics Code.
In this century, both in titles carrying the CCA stamp and those not, DC has gained notoriety for the frequency and severity of the violence in its books. An incident in a Code-approved issue of Green Lantern (No. 54, 1994) included a murder so repellent that the phrase “Women in Refrigerators (WiR) syndrome” was coined after the manner of a character’s death. Far from a single-use appellation, WiR has come to designate the use of rape and murder of female characters as plot devices, and has since been used as motivation for the action of numerous storylines. One of most famous, and reprehensible examples of a WiR-type incident motivating the (primarily male) characters is found in Brad Meltzer’s best-selling Identity Crisis (2004) miniseries, with the rape and murder of Sue Digby, wife of hero, Elongated Man.
While the rating system seems necessary, even well-intentioned, in practice it seems to be — like hot content warnings on fast food coffee cups — more about liability than responsibility. DC comics’ content has drawn controversy in the recent past with the 2011 “New 52” re-launch of many of the company’s top titles. Both the popular press and online comics community expressed concern about portrayals of sexuality (and sexism) and violence in some of DC’s revamped books. Among the most-cited are the “hypersexual” depiction of Starfire, a former Teen Titans character, and the re-introduction of DC namesake title, Detective Comics, whose first issue ended with the Joker’s severed, bloody face tacked to a wall.
And just last month, DC made headlines with a Batman story in which the current Robin — Batman’s illegitimate ten-year-old son, Damien — is subjected to a brutal, prolonged beating before meeting his grisly demise, skewered on a sword. The comics’ writer, Grant Morrison, has said that the character’s death “will illustrate how parents lose sight of their kids when they fight,” as Batman and the boy’s mother are doing when Damien dies. This seems like the kind of subtext that is likely lost on 12-year-old readers of the T-rated title, especially when faced with the image of a shish-kebobbed hero younger than themselves.
Given the outrage over, and outcome of the “golden age” anti-comic crusade, and the current national discussion over the effects of violent images on children, it’s surprising that a publisher of DC’s prominence isn’t erring toward the side of caution with its content ratings, if not its content, itself. Golden Age author Levitz may want to pass around copies of his book at DC’s offices, not only as a reminder of the quaint times when extreme violence toward kid sidekicks was nothing more than a mere toss from a bell-tower, but also as a warning about lack of restraint.