- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Spider-Man and Captain America came from a world where good always triumphed over evil, where battles were fought against space aliens or mutants. They never went near the nasty, seamy side of life.
They had no choice the Comics Code Authority wrote the rules that way.
Now, with guns blazing, the standards are changing. In one new story, Captain America is caught on camera in a compromising situation with a mysterious woman.
Since it was created nearly half a century ago, the Comics Code Authority has been the industry's way of regulating itself by editing out obscene, violent or inappropriate material. Parents could tell the books their children were reading were safe if they had a logo on the cover that said, "Approved by the Comics Code Authority."
Last month, however, the comics world's largest company, Marvel, ditched the code by releasing a new line of comics with a rating system similar to the one used by the movie industry.
"We got tied up in our superhero underwear there for a while," says Joe Quesada, editor in chief for Marvel. "Marvel is growing up with the rest of the country."
Most of Marvel's comics including Spider-Man, X-Men and Incredible Hulk will still be suitable for most audiences. But three new titles Fury, U.S. War Machine and Alias are breaking with tradition by including profane language and more violence.
The new comics have sold out in their first two months, and Marvel says it has started to publish reprints.

The code was created in 1954, when comic books were read by many more children than they are today. A product of the McCarthy era, the code was adopted by the major comic book companies as a form of self-regulation to avoid sanctions from a Senate committee investigating the corrupting impact of comics on America's youth.
Under the rules, each dues-paying company submitted its books to the authority a board made up of comics publishers to make sure that page after page complied with the code.
It almost immediately cleaned up the comics industry. EC Comics, a popular publisher of pulp and crime comics, went out of business. The companies that remained moved toward such squeaky clean stories as the adventures of Superman.
"The code seal, in my estimation, saved our industry," says Michael Silberkleit, publisher of Archie Comics. "The government can get very tenacious if they think something out there is threatening the youth of America. We don't need that now. In the '50s, we did."
Through the years, the code gradually became less strict as society's standards changed, says Chris Bleistein, director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The language of the code was changed to drop such clauses as, "In every instance good shall triumph over evil," and "Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities."
Now, the code has three members left DC, Dark Horse and Archie. The times have changed, as well. The average comic book reader is 25, rather than school age, and many books are sold at comic book stores rather than newsstands, Mr. Bleistein says.
Only comics sold at newsstands, in such places as airports and convenience stores, are required to carry the code by retailers who want to ensure that they are safe for children.

The code has lost some of its relevancy as Marvel starts to bend the rules with such characters as Captain America, says Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of Alias, Ultimate Spider-Man and an independent comic called Powers. The final pages of Alias No. 1 show Captain America in what appears to be a sexual encounter.
It is not the intent of Alias to demean the icons, Mr. Bendis says. "The idea is to show a view of Marvel not from up high in the sky you're down in the streets," he explains. "If rock 'n' roll stars have groupies, superheros would have groupies."
But Mr. Bendis says that kind of material would never creep into Ultimate Spider-Man because he knows children are reading it.
"The rule is, if you have a story to tell, you should find a way to tell it," he says. "There's nothing in them [Spider-Man] that's offensive at all. There's complicated emotional ideas, but that can be interesting to a younger audience."
For example, Spider-Man aka 15-year-old Peter Parker has universal personal problems. Readers of all ages can relate to them, Mr. Bendis says. "He doesn't have any money, he's not popular, he's a dork."
Mr. Silberkleit says Archie Comics will always uphold the code as an industry standard. But Michael Martens, vice president of marketing for Dark Horse, says, "We're in the code simply to get our books into retail stores through distributors. We have nothing philosophically in common with them."
The code has fallen off the radar of such media-watchers as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. The Connecticut Democrat has offered legislation to penalize companies that intentionally market adult-rated entertainment directly to children. The legislation only targets movies, video games and music, spokesman Dan Gerstein says.
Many comic book fans do not pay much attention to it, either.
"It's just gotten more and more irrelevant," says Mal Murray, who works at Atlanta's busiest comic shop, Oxford Comics & Games. "People are rejecting the authority of some self-appointed board that tells them what is and isn't right to read. It's a relic."
Others say the code still protects comics from government regulation and ensures that books on newsstands are safe for children to read, even without Marvel.
"We're glad we have something in place that works and is respected," says Holly Koenig, executive secretary of the Comics Magazine Association of America, which administers the code. "Maybe that's why you haven't heard about us in years."

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