For the last couple of days I’ve been reading a book I bought this week, “Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1”. It’s a collection of Ditko’s early comic book work from 1953 to 1955. It’s a collection of “Pre-Code” comics.

For those who don’t know, the term “Pre-Code” means before the implementation of, in the late 1950’s, the “The Comics Code Authority”. The CCA was the industry’s way of self-censoring before the government put them out of business.

Just like today when do-gooders crusade against video games, television, music, or movies that they think are ruining the children of America in the 50’s the crusade was against comic books. And it was a very powerful and successful crusade that went all the way to congressional hearings. It nearly killed American comics.

A book I read this year, “Ten Cent Plague”, chronicles the history of the war on comics and lays out it’s human toll. People lost their jobs and never worked in the industry again. It’s not a happy tale.

I bring this all up because I’ve never had a chance to read many of the pre-code horror and crime comics that lead to people being up in arms. I’ve read many EC Comics which are the most famous pre-code horror and crime offerings but they are actually well done, generally tasteful, and mainstream. They stick to the same general rules as any mainstream horror novel of the time. I never quite saw how people could be so against them. But it was a different era and there were plenty of other comics to be against.

I can see how these “Strange Suspense” stories could get people riled up. These comics aren’t made for kids and there is some real grown up physically and psychologically scary stuff in there. It can be as simple as an innocent person trying to do right but suffering a horrible fate anyway to a guy getting stabbed and ending up laying there with a knife sticking out of him.

It’s interesting to read these Ditko stories because everyone involved was making up their own rules on the fly. People had been reading comics since the late Thirties and comics had started growing up as kids grew into adults. New things were starting to happen. You can tell that the creators expected adults to be reading these stories. Or at least eighteen year olds. The CCA put an end to that.

The Comics Code basically said that good must always triumph and in a bloodless way. And that’s how comics were made for decades. Those were the rules that everyone had to play by and though some good comics, even for grown-ups, can be made within those rules they narrow the scope of story telling and squelch creativity and growth.

That’s what censorship does. Stifles things. In reading these comics I can see pre-censorship minds at work. They are using stuff to scare us that wasn’t done post-censorship. Simple stuff but not kids stuff; ideas of hell, suffering, and monsters outside of any notion of human justice. Imagine how comics books could have grown, as the have in other parts of the world, if this censorship never happened.

Even today when the Comic’s Code isn’t much paid attention to it’s effect lingers. Not in what isn’t allowed but in the fact that creators may have rebelled against the code but they are not beyond it yet.

What I mean is that most of today’s comics that are aimed at adults don’t explore pre-code themes that were developing, as seen in these Ditko stories, but are still directly rebelling against what was not allowed for decades.

“Good must always triumph and in a bloodless way” has become “Good doesn’t always triumph and it’s bloody out there”. That is how I’d describe most of the adult aimed superhero/adventure comics I read today. They can be bloody and sometimes the bad guys win. I never realized how much the comics code influenced even today’s non-code books before reading this Ditko book. There was another sensibility starting to develop in the early Fifties that I didn’t know existed. It made me see the sensibilities of today’s creators in a new light.

It’s not that today’s comic books are on the wrong or bad path it’s just that the path is a lot more narrow than it could have been. That’s the effect of censorship even when it’s less than what it used to be. It defined good and bad and those definitions are still with us. Even those who like “bad” are still basically using the same definition as the Comics Code. Comics would do well to get off that narrow path. If only others were allowed of it back in the 1950’s.