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Published on September 16th, 2014 | by Swamp Thing

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Bondage In Comics: A Broken Code

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In Part 1 and Part 2 of this look at the birth of the Comics Code Authority we covered why it came into existence and how it impacted on the portrayal of female bondage in comics through the 1950s and 1960s. That brings us to the 1970s, and to paraphrase Winston Churchill that decade may not have been the end of the CCA, or even the beginning of the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning. By the late 1960s there was a significant underground comics movement that actively defied the strict limitations of the CCA, and the popularity of television had given the guardians of morality a new target.

The Times, they are a Changing.

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The early 1970s saw a boom in bondage covers, particularly on DC’s output. Most of those covers were the work of artist Bob Oksner.

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Marvel were more restrained in their use of restraints during the 1970s but they did turn up more frequently as the decade progressed.

The first long-overdue changes to the code came in 1971. There was a relaxing of the restrictions on horror comics, and a change to the rules about the depiction of narcotics use (mostly because of a three issue Spider-Man story that Marvel published without code approval). It was about this time that DC went slightly bondage mad. After more than a decade of keeping female bondage discretely buried, the early 70s saw a rush of restrained damsels emblazoned on the covers of several titles. The most regular bondage babe titles were Wonder Woman (of course) and Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane. Supergirl also found herself on a few Adventure Comics bondage covers around this time. Unlike previous ‘damsel in distress’ bondage images of the 40s and 50s, these early 70s covers were blatantly sexual.  The Lois Lane covers in particular were in danger of turning Superman’s girlfriend into a bondage porn star. Lois Lane #120 from 1972 has poor Lois spread-eagled on a dartboard, gagged and wearing extremely skimpy hotpants, There are 5 darts shown in the hands of the villains, and each one is aimed directly at Lois’ crotch. It’s sexual. It’s misogynistic. It’s got a CCA seal on it. Spread legs and phallic imagery got CCA approval several times during 1972 and 1973, along with snake bondage, self-bondage and girl-tied-to-girl bondage. All were DC titles. Marvel were more restrained in this period, restricting their bondage covers to their sword-and-sorcery titles like Conan and avoiding the overtly sexual overtones. So what was the reason for this sudden rush of graphic bondage covers from DC? The answer is surprisingly simple: Bob Oksner. His name appears as either penciller or inker on all of the covers in question. Those familiar with Oksner’s work will know that he liked his female characters to display unfeasibly long and shapely legs protruding from indecently short panty-revealing skirts. In the early seventies he went through a phase of drawing those shapely legs tied together (or more likely apart). Ropes, snakes and tentacles were used to restrain wrists, spread legs, arch backs, accentuate breasts and generally pose the subject as provocatively as possible. It was true that there were more graphic images on view on the covers of some of the non-code titles, but this was the first time that this kind of blatantly sexual bondage image had been given CCA approval. There had been a similar “dartboard” cover on Wonder Woman #156 in 1965, but the title character’s pose and the arrangement of the darts made for a very different final image when compared to the Lois Lane version. It was clearly a change to the interpretation of the wording of the code, as previously such images might have fallen foul of the rules regarding “suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture”. After the success in getting these covers past the CCA, DC returned to the bondage theme a couple more times in the 1970s, most notably with Wonder Woman, Batman and two classic Adventure Comics Spectre covers, but never with the regularity or the overtly sexual overtones of those Oksner covers. By the mid-70s Marvel were also sneaking in a bondage cover or two on titles like Werewolf by Night and The Monster of Frankenstein (both CCA approved titles). Bondage on the cover of a werewolf comic in 1973 may not sound that shocking, but it has to be remembered that between 1954 and 1971 the CCA had banned the appearance of werewolves in comics at all. The same applied to Frankenstein’s monster, vampires and ghouls. The 1971 revisions to the CCA let those horror stalwarts back out of their cages, but only if stories involving them were dealt with in a “classic literary fashion”. Zombies, however, were still excluded from the party.

Son of Misogynistic Bondage

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This infamous cover from 1970 was more graphic than anything that had appeared in the 1940s but the scene itself is based on one cited in Seduction of the Innocent.

They may have been pushing the code as far as it would go, but the ‘approved’ titles were still tame compared to their non-code contemporaries. The 1970s also saw a few crime and horror comics emerging from the ashes of their pre-code ancestors, but the lack of a CCA seal kept distribution low. Though with the comics industry concentrating on Superhero titles through the 60s and 70s there was a gap on the newsstands where the crime comics used to sit. That gap was filled by the magazine format crime titles. From the mid-60s through to the the 1980s there was a boom in the “real crime” pulp magazine sales. Descendants of the crime comics of the 40s and 50s, the magazines followed their ancestors lead in using misogynistic bondage and torture scenes for their covers. Unlike the comics, the magazines usually used posed photographs rather than paintings. By the 1980s some of these covers also included full nudity, shifting them into the realms of bondage porn.

The CCA guidelines were modified several times through the 70s to take into account changes in the attitudes of the day, but it was the 1980s that were to bring the biggest changes and with them the beginning of the end for the comic’s code.

Suggested for Mature Readers.

With the continued growth of the direct market for comic sales, by the 1980s it was becoming easier for titles without the CCA seal to find an audience. New titles from independent publishers were appearing, many aimed at a more mature readership then would have been considered traditional. A new breed of writer was emerging at the same time.  These new writers targeted this older and more sophisticated comic readership with stories that couldn’t be tailored to suit the CCA. Writers like Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez with their groundbreaking alternative comic Love and Rockets. Writers like Alan Moore, whose work on Swamp Thing for DC was instrumental in DC’s introduction of their ‘for mature readers’ by-line, which in turn spawned their Vertigo imprint. Vertigo allowed DC, still a member of the CMAA, to publish titles without the CCA seal. It was a slightly ironic situation that publishers supposedly loyal to the code would go to such lengths to get around it. Marvel had pulled the same trick with the Curtis magazines of the 1970s.

Women in Crime bondage cover

The 60s and 70s saw a rise in popularity of the reborn detective magazines. Posed bondage photographs were the norm for the covers, with several titles eventually becoming BDSM adult magazines.

By the end of the 1980s, comic readers were actively seeking comics that didn’t carry the CCA seal as that was an indication of more mature or adult content. In 1989 further changes to the code were introduced, mainly in response to DC threatening to drop the code completely as it was archaic and lacked relevance to a modern readership.

The CMAA struggled on with this revised code through the 1990s, but with fewer titles bothering with the CCA seal and the vast majority of comic sales taking place through the direct market route, the writing was writ big on the wall. It was also becoming apparent that the code was making it harder for U.S. comics to compete with foreign imports that did not fall within the CCA’s remit. Material from Europe, and more particularly Japan, gave readers the more mature content that U.S. titles couldn’t match. Conceived as a tool for preventing children from seeing things that some adults deemed to be harmful, the CAA’s only purpose now seemed to be in stopping U.S. comic publishers from providing a more adult readership with material they could readily get elsewhere.

The Naughtier Nought-ties and Wanton One-ties.

Bondage Girls at War

The “anything goes” approach to comic content has seen an increase in strictly “adults only” titles, bringing comics into the realms of pornography much as the Tijuana Bibles had done in the 1920s and 30s.

The most significant blow to the CMAA’s self-regulatory code since its inception in 1954 came in 2001 when Marvel withdrew from the CCA. That left only DC and Archie comics adhering to the CCA guidelines. In January 2011, DC withdrew from the CCA and Archie soon followed, effectively bringing the CCA’s fifty-seven year story to a close. Few mourned its passing. Self-regulation had seemed like a good idea in 1954, but the CCA had been too blunt a tool. In the end it had been censorship for censorship’s sake. The decimation of the comics industry in the 1950s had done nothing to reduce juvenile delinquency. Some extraordinarily talented writers and artists had been forced out of the industry they loved for no reason, and young readers were almost deprived of one of the few forms of literature they were prepared to read voluntarily.

Though let’s to be positive for a second. The CCA was responsible for the growth in popularity of the Superhero genre in the 1960s, and that in turn might be the only reason the comics industry still exists at all. Nor should it be forgotten that although the CCA was the wrong tool for the job, there was a job that needed doing. By the 1950s the lack of effective regulation of comics content meant that publishers were trying to entice the increasingly lucrative adolescent teenage market  in publications that had historically had a much younger readership. Love it or hate it, regulation is not always a bad thing. Nor does it have to equate to censorship. Just because material is not suitable for a publication aimed at a nine yeear old doesn’t mean that the same material cannot then appear in a comic clearly designed to be read by an adult. The CCA had made the same assumption as Wertham had in Seduction of the Innocent that  all comic readers were children, and the CCA guidelines were based on that assumption.  It was a strange decision by the CMAA as by  going down that road they were backing away from the market they had been so actively targeting, but then much of the creation of the CCA had been a knee-jerk reaction to the threat of external legislation. The problem was that the industry then spent forty years trying to make an unworkable solution work rather than admit that the CCA had been badly conceived and implemented too quickly. Whatever purpose it had served in the late 1950s, the CCA had become vestigial by the mid 1980s. It should have evolved into something useful or been amputated back then.

So here we are, all up to date. There are a huge range of comic titles out there now, many with adult-orientated content that would have been classed as porn back in Frederic Wertham’s day. He departed for elsewhere in the multi-verse in 1981, so he’s been spared the irony of seeing those comics listed in Seduction of the Innocent becoming sought-after collectibles because of their appearance in that damning tome.

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This Toronto FanExpo cover of Grimm Fairy Tales #76 was limited to 500 copies.

As for bondage in comics, it’s still going strong. Titles such as Grimm Fairy Tales and Gen 13 use erotic bondage images on their covers as a matter of course, though the most graphic images tend to be reserved for the ‘alternative’ or ‘limited edition’ covers. Unlike their CCA approved cousins from the 1970s though, the contents of these modern comics is as strong, if not stronger, than the covers might suggest. Bondage still plays its part in comics from the mainstream publishers as well, with Wonder Woman bound to lead the way once more. Self-regulation has been decentralized and is in the hands of the individual publishers. How that will work out we’ll have to wait and see, and for the moment the guardians of public morality have bigger concerns than comics. There’s little doubt that the audience for comics has changed and evolved. There’s also little doubt that the limits of what is considered to be “acceptable” for younger audiences has changed since the 1950s. As an example, in 2007  BBC2 showed Hammer’s Quatermass Xperiment, uncut, at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. This film had an X rating on release in 1955  (hence Hammer’s decision to drop the ‘E’ off experiment, to emphasize just how “adult” the film was) and back in the 70s and 80s it was part of BBC2’s late night horror’ double-bills. By 2007  it was considered suitable for Saturday afternoon family viewing on terrestrial television.  Presumably its next appearance will be on CBeebies. This post-9/11 society where anything and everything is only a click or tap away, and real rather than imagined horrors can be viewed live and uncensored on youtube has undergone an inevitable shift in attitudes about what is truly frightening. Applying that same shift in attitudes to comics and magazines would result in today’s top-shelf pornography becoming tomorrow’s Beano .The merits or otherwise of age certification on comics is a debate that is never likely to go away, and over the years it’s caused several high-profile spats like the one which saw Alan Moore’s departure from DC when they introduced their “mature readers” byline.  With the CCA gone, what alternatives are there? Few would consider the modern comic as being entertainment for children. Does that fact absolve the industry of any responsibility to ensure that content is appropriate for the prospective reader? Or at least warn that reader what might be lurking inside the comic he’s just picked up? When you’re not expecting it, it can be a bit of a surprise to be confronted by the image of a naked woman in bondage being fucked in the ass by a giant cock-shaped alien tentacle.

In the same way that it can be a bit of a surprise to read it when you’re not expecting it. Sometimes it’s not censorship but enough information for us to manage our expectations that’s required.

Or could it be that nobody minds a little smut, bondage and violence in their comics these days because since the demise of the CCA the comics industry has finally managed to turn us all into sadistic perverts?

For those wanting to read what all the fuss was about, ‘Seduction of The Innocent’ is still in print. Amazon UK and Amazon US both have it.  If you fancy having an original 1954 first edition (1955 in the UK), try Abebooks UK or Abebooks  US.

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing

The Nigel Cole is an ancient Welsh biomass, consisting mostly of hair, tea and cheese. Usually dormant, it does have periods of intense activity. It wrote the comedy fantasy novel "Last Exit Before Trolls Book 1: Swimming with Toasters".

This occurrence of The Nigel Cole did not direct the films "Calendar Girls" or "Made in Dagenham". Nor should it be confused with the similarly named and almost as hair-covered Northern biomass The Cheryl Cole.
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