Editor’s Note: Sequart contributor and Spider-Man sage Mark Ginocchio has a new book out! Not shockingly, its focus is on the ol’ Web Head himself. Below is an excerpt from the book. If you like what you read, Mark’s book has 99 more tidbits for you to devour! (There’s a purchase link after the excerpt.)
#40 Spider-Man Beats the Comics Code
Stan Lee has long been known as a pioneer in the comic book industry, pushing the boundaries of what was traditionally accepted from a superhero series. So it should come as no surprise that when faced with publishing an anti-drug Spider-Man story in 1971 that would have defied the stodgy Comics Code Authority (CCA) and risked being banned by retailers, Lee opted once again to push boundaries, despite the potential backlash.
The Comics Magazine Association of America first established its code in 1954 after the industry came under attack from a variety of psychologists and public officials who claimed comics had a bad influence on children. The code, which was marked by a seal insignia on the cover of an approved comic book, limited any references to sex, drugs, gore, violence, or the occult. Comics that didn’t receive approval from the authority risked being blacklisted by retailers, and publishers could have potentially been expelled from the association.
While Marvel and Lee followed the code’s stringent rules without any pushback throughout the first half of the ’60s, the rise of psychedelic drug culture in the United States as the nation entered the ’70s necessitated a closer look at the authority’s “nonsensical” draconian restrictions. A few months before the three-part story in Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 was published, Lee received a letter from the U.S. government asking Marvel to leverage its influence on teenagers by publishing an anti-drug story. Lee and artist John Romita Sr. weighed the risks of pushing forward with their story and decided to go for it. “This was a story that we knew needed to be told, but we weren’t real sure how it would be received,” Romita said.
While the drug references sound tame by today’s standards, for 1971, the comics were quite daring and edgy. The storyline depicts Harry Osborn, Peter’s college buddy, abusing some kind of anonymous pills after he is rejected for a date by Mary Jane Watson. In one panel, illustrated by Gil Kane, that feeling of losing one’s mind is captured when Harry is shown saying:
“I’m drowning—falling—dying inside! Nothing seems real….”
Rather than skirt the CCA altogether, Marvel did submit the issue for approval. But as legend has it, the usual code administrator had fallen ill, leaving the job of okaying the issue to a replacement. The replacement said “no” and for the first time in industry history, a mainstream comic book was published without the code’s seal of approval on the cover.
Marvel’s rebellion made the company come across as conquering heroes in the public’s eye. The Marvel offices were flooded with positive fan mail, and the CCA and its code were perceived as being old-fashioned and out of touch. And at a time when comics were still considered funny books for kids by the “legitimate” media, the New York Times actually reported on the comics code controversy.
As a result of Marvel’s stand, the CCA relaxed its restrictions on publishers, allowing them to tackle some of these more complex topics. The CCA’s reversal also opened the door for the major publishers to once again publish comics about long-banned occult creatures like werewolves, vampires, and other monsters. Additionally, Marvel’s defiance opened the doors for other publishers to create their own stories that seemed ripped from the daily headlines, most notably the Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow story, “Snowbirds Don’t Fly,” which shows Green Arrow’s ward, Roy “Speedy” Harper, becoming hooked on heroin.
This excerpt from 100 Things Spider-Man Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, by Mark Ginocchio, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/100spiderman.