Chokepoint: The Comics Code Authority and COVID-19

The most serious effects of the ongoing global pandemic arrived in the United States in March, 2020. Among the many businesses hit hard by the resultant economic crisis was the comic industry. New books stopped shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors at the end of March, and many local retailers closed their doors indefinitely. Forecasts of doom were widespread, and some worried that the pandemic might be the death knell for this business born amidst the Great Depression. In a May 2, 2020 article, Fortune magazine summarized the situation as one in which the comic industry was “drawn into a fight for its very survival.”

While the pandemic is by no means over, and some stores have gone out of business, the comic book industry is still standing. Through a combination of ingenuity, customer support, charity, federal assistance, and sheer tenacity, most retailers have reopened (or stayed open). This ongoing episode, however, is only the latest in a series of crises that the comic book industry has stared down in its more than eighty-year history. In thinking about the impact of the pandemic on the world of comic books -- an existential crisis, to be sure -- it is worth remembering that the industry has survived several such challenges before. Perhaps the most significant of all was the introduction of the Comics Code Authority in the mid-1950s. This essay considers these two crises in tandem, and considers the responses and effects of both (thus far, in the case of the pandemic), to contemplate how the past might inform our understanding of the current situation.

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Appearing on the front cover of comic books in early 1955, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) seal fundamentally changed the industry forever. Created by comics publishers to prevent government censorship of their products, the CCA's code emulated the actions of other media industries, such as Hollywood, that had elected to self-police content to satisfy critics. The CCA ultimately proved successful in keeping the federal government out of its affairs, yet it had detrimental, even catastrophic effects on the world of American comic books. Just twenty years after their first appearance on newsstands, comic books had faced -- and survived -- their first existential crisis. But at what price?

The CCA oversaw myriad detrimental effects -- some foreseen, others unanticipated -- that hampered the comics business for decades. The most immediate impact of the new policies was the neutering of comics, as the CCA’s guidelines devastated entire genres and prevented stories from engaging more complicated and mature themes. Unsurprisingly, the decline of crime and horror comics, and the focus on a young audience, drove many adult readers to other forms of entertainment. The vibrant diversity of the comic book world of the early 1950s was greatly restricted by the CCA's code; roughly half the number of titles appeared on newsstands in 1956 than had been available two years earlier. Devoted readers suddenly found stories to be less intelligent, less provocative, and less engaging. This, in turn, depressed sales, pushing smaller publishers out of business, and depriving hundreds of creators of work.

While the formation of the CCA in 1954 can be seen as a culminating moment in the evolution of the comic book industry, it is worth viewing it as the start of a longer-term period of transition. The new regulations may have addressed one pressing threat -- that of governmental regulation or censorship -- yet they also sparked longer-term financial problems from which comics would need many years to recover. These economic challenges were driven by larger cultural fears and social anxieties in Cold War America. Comic book sales rebounded by the 1960s, but they never again reached the circulation numbers that they had achieved before the introduction of the CCA code. Yet comics matured in the years that followed, as creators began to craft more complicated, introspective, and relevant stories for increasingly older readers. It took even longer -- arguably several decades -- to disabuse the American public of the belief that comic books were juvenile literature suitable only for children.

Just as many observers predicted the end of the industry in the mid-1950s as a result of the public outcry over comics and impact of the CCA, so too have there been similar forecasts of doom in the past 18 months. The ongoing crisis triggered by the pandemic is undisputedly different, yet some of the challenges are reminiscent of those of the 1950s. The most compelling comparison is a question of economic survival in the face of an existential threat. In the early phase of the pandemic in North America, comic book retailers grappled with a lack of new product hitting shelves, as Diamond ceased distribution for almost two months in the spring of 2020. These weekly shipments are the lifeblood of most stores, and their absence challenged retailers to find new ways to generate revenue through gift certificates, pre-orders, merchandise, and back issues. Even when Diamond shipments resumed in May of 2020, social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders continued to keep patrons out of many stores. These state and local directives again required retailers to innovate in order to satisfy the needs of their customers. Publishers, most notably DC, have trimmed their number of titles and fired many creators as a result of these cuts. The pandemic has also prompted the cancelation of conventions across the country and delayed the release of films, both of which would boost sales and create greater popular interest in comic books. Finally, millions of Americans have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which has meant a significant reduction in dispensable income for many comic readers. When family budgets are squeezed, funds for recreational and entertainment activities are often the first to go.

Considering the similarities in the economic challenges of these two crises, one might ask how the responses compare. In the 1950s, comic book publishers chose to dramatically cut the number of publications, maintain traditional lines of distribution, and focus on keeping only a portion of the industry’s readership. These decisions were likely driven by the cultural opprobrium that comics faced in the 1950s, but it also resulted in a target audience that was transient. There was a tacit recognition that the core audience was children, who were expected to “age out” of comics once they entered adolescence. Recent reactions to the pandemic share similarity largely in the move to reduce the number of releases as a cost-saving measure. Beyond this, the industry has innovated in several remarkable ways, highlighting its resilience and ingenuity. To support creators and new books, devoted readers have embraced crowdsourcing efforts such as those on Kickstarter. There have been several large-scale charity initiatives to help comic retailers, and many other smaller efforts at the local level. These demonstrations of support underscore a sense of community and shared commitment to the comics medium that did not exist in the 1950s. Unable to have customers in their stores, retailers have reconfigured distribution by operating small shipping services in their stores and offering curbside service. Publishers, too, have rethought the delivery of content, most notably through digital platforms. Finally, comics have enjoyed a small boost as a result of the lack of new Hollywood releases in the theaters. Most observers would likely agree that, if anything, the pandemic has increased the demand for escapist fare. This development harkens back to the publication of the first comic books amidst the Great Depression more than eighty years ago.

Perhaps the most notable difference when one compares the responses -- and arguably the most intriguing development so far in the face of the pandemic -- has been the shift in the way comics reach their readers. In the 1950s, comic books simply continued to move from the publisher to the newsstand through distributors, as they had for two decades. There was no meaningful change to the distribution of comics as a result of the CCA. The monumental distribution shift to the direct market, which sparked the rise of new comic book specialty shops catering to the interests of dedicated fans, would not begin for another two decades. The pandemic, however, has exacerbated long-simmering tensions between publishers and Diamond, which is prompting monumental shifts (albeit behind the scenes) in how comic books reach the shelves. Diamond, which had enjoyed exclusive distribution deals with the largest comic publishers, Marvel and DC, has lost both of those arrangements in the past year. First, DC Comics announced in April of 2020 that it would switch from Diamond to two other distributors (UCS and Lunar) for comics sales in the United States. After only six months, DC announced the end of the relationship with UCS, but continues to work exclusively with Lunar. Then, Marvel announced in March of 2021 that it would distribute its new products (comics, trade collections, and graphic novels) with Penguin Random House effective October 1, 2021. Diamond will continue to offer Marvel products as a third-party wholesaler, but for many smaller stores the discounts offered by Penguin will be greater. Admittedly, the pandemic was not the sole factor responsible for these developments, as the acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T a few years ago has continued to spark senior management changes at DC. Yet it likely provided the motivation for both publishers to make such major changes in how their books reach readers. Thus, as the CCA initiated a long-term transition in regard to content, so too could one say that the pandemic has sparked a larger, sweeping change in terms of distribution.

What remains to be seen are the effects of these monumental distribution changes on the comic book world. Diamond has essentially been the one-stop shop for comic book stores ordering new product for more than two decades. How will working with multiple distributors complicate the lives of comic book store owners? How will it affect the discount these stores receive, and, thus, their bottom line? What will happen to Diamond in a world where it does not enjoy exclusive distribution rights for the two biggest comic book publishers in the world? Many have viewed Diamond’s recent actions as clumsy and uncertain; it will have to quickly reevaluate its business model to survive and prosper. While these questions may sound pessimistic, there are some opportunities to be found in this transition as well. Does the arrival of new distributors mean improved service, shipping, and financial terms for store owners? How will newfound competition in the comics distribution world bring benefits for customers and innovations for stores and publishers? Could the Marvel relationship with Penguin Random House provide new avenues for the sale of comics and graphic novels (which poses its own challenges for comic book store owners)? As the pandemic subsides and things return to normal, these will be interesting questions to consider.

Recognizing that the CCA had a legacy that lasted for decades, it is worth thinking about how the path forward for comics in this crisis will compare. On this score, there is mostly good news. Whereas the formation of the CCA was spawned by widespread social and cultural opposition to comics, nothing of the sort is true today. Phrased differently, the challenges of the 1950s were caused by problems perceived to be internal to the comic book business and linked to larger social anxieties of Cold War America. The case today is wholly different. The pandemic has nothing to do with comics and, notably, comes at a time when comics-inspired mass entertainment has conquered popular culture. Furthermore, as noted above, the introduction of the CCA is arguably best understood as the start of a long-term period of transition in the world of comics. The changes underway now in distribution are much less visible to consumers, although their impact may prove to be quite significant in the years ahead. At this point, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems that the worst of the pandemic crisis has passed. Indeed, the effects of the pandemic should subside much more rapidly than those caused by the introduction of the CCA. Comics sales broke records in 2019, and while 2020 saw depressed sales among retailers, there is no reason to think that this trend will continue beyond the pandemic. Notably, graphic novel and manga sales increased significantly last year despite the global health crisis. In short, the pandemic will likely leave an indelible mark on comics, but it will not cast the same sort of long shadow that persisted over the industry after the creation of the CCA.

The pandemic has significantly disrupted the world of comics and taken a toll on virtually everyone involved in the industry. Yes, some stores have closed permanently. Yes, many stores that have remained open have seen a decline in sales. Yes, some creators have lost work. These are the troubling effects of a global health crisis that continues to affect virtually every aspect of our lives today. Yet this is not the new status quo; rather, it is a period of crisis that must be survived. If anything, the last year underscores the resilience of the comics business, the malleability of the comics medium, and the adaptability of comics professionals and retailers who make it work. As a quick refresher in comics history has reminded us, crises generate disruption and anxiety, but they also create opportunities. As we move into the second summer of the pandemic, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. The industry will be forever changed by the pandemic, but there is good reason to believe that comics will emerge from the crisis stronger, more focused, and with a greater sense of community and fan loyalty than ever.