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Nyberg, Amy Kiste. Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. 208pp. ISBN 0878059741 (cloth), 087805975X (paper).

  • Introduction . . . vii
  1. Comics, Critics, and Children's Culture . . . 1
  2. Censorship Strategies . . . 22
  3. The Senate Investigation . . . 53
  4. "The Whipping" [Shock SuspenStories 13 (Tiny Tot Comics [EC], 1954] . . . 66-72
  5. Fredric Wertham and the Comics Crusade . . . 85
  6. Creation and Implementation of the Comics Code . . . 104
  7. Evolution of the Comics Code . . . 129
  • Conclusion: The Significance of the Code Today . . . 155
  • Comics Code (1948) . . . 165
    Comics Code (1954) . . . 166
    Comics Code (1971) . . . 170
    Comics Code (1989) . . . 175
  • Notes . . . 181
  • References . . . 185
  • Index . . . 201

Reviews in Print:
  • "Procedures and Dismissals [review]." The Comics Journal 209 (December 1998): 36-37.
  • Rogers, Mark C.  [review.]  International Journal of Comic Art 1.2 (Fall 1999): 242-43.

Reviews On-Line:

Review by Charles Hatfield:

Ignore the dayglo colors of the cover and read this book for a solid, fact-filled historicist study of comics censorship and the US Comics Code Authority in particular. The book's novelty rests both in its argument and its detail; scholars should familiarize themselves with both.

On the side of argument, Nyberg reads Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent (1954) within the context of his entire career, and argues that he has been widely misinterpreted, in two respects: one, Wertham did not hold a monocausal view of juvenile delinquincy (i.e., that comics = sole cause of delinquincy), a point which he often insisted on yet which was often ignored; two, Wertham's vision of a "social psychiatry" did not rest, as has often been claimed, on a naive "media effects" methodology, but in fact on a vision of radical social reform, flying in the face of the individualistic focus of mainstream psychiatrists.

The Wertham that emerges from Chapter 4 is complicated, a portrait synthesized both from a reading of many of Wertham's other works and from latter-day revisionists (e.g., James Reibman, a notable Wertham apologist of late). Yet the catalytic source here is clearly James Gilbert's portrait of Wertham in A Cycle of Outrage (1986), a book which should definitely be read alongside this one for a rich sense of 1950s cultural context. Nyberg extends Gilbert's sympathetic yet critical take on Wertham; where she excels is in defining his project of a "social psychiatry," an idea that emerges more clearly here than in Gilbert. (Wertham's "clinical method" of social argument, as Nyberg points out, anticipates current ethnographic methodologies in cultural studies.)

Also on the side of argument, Nyberg rejects (Ch. 5) the comics fan folklore which insists that the adoption of the Code was the single blow which crippled the industry in the mid '50s. Citing James Baughman's work as support, Nyberg points to TV's marginalization of other media as one other cause; more importantly, she briefly describes the distribution crisis of '55, in which the demise of American News Company left many comics publishers w/o national distribution.

On the side of detail, Chap. 1 gathers a wealth of information about early criticisms of comics (popular and academic), prior to the anti-comics movement of the early '50s. Nyberg succeeds in highlighting the writings of key figures in this early, mostly pre-Wertham discourse, such as Sterling North and (in the pro-comics minority) Harvey Zorbaugh, editor of the Journal of Educational Sociology. Names like Josette Frank and Lauretta Bender (all but forgotten now) stand out. There is a wealth of detail here, but Nyberg organizes it into a series of concerns, trends, and contrastive positions; the result is, if not a narrative of early comics criticism, then at least a clear exposition of dominant trends.

Some of this early material was familiar to me from an unpublished bibliography & interpretive essay by media scholar Matt McAllister, which really ought to be published. For ex., McAllister's essay got me to seek out Zorbaugh-edited issues of JoES from 1944 and 1949. Nyberg's analysis of dominant trends replays to some extent what I learned from McAllister, but McAllister was not her source: there's much evidence here of excellent historical spadework, well organized into readable form.

Also on the side of detail, censorship activities (both legal and volunteer efforts) are described minutely, with precision, suggesting a ton of primary research; in addition, the ins and outs of legislative committee hearings, and meetings of the Comics Magazine Association of America, are fully described. (The use of the CMAA's archives marks one important novelty of this study.) There's a lot of circumstantial detail about how the Code Authority office was run, by whom, and how the traffic was managed, and what it cost.

The detail alone justifies spending time w/ this book; such details often suggest how contingent, and how complicated, the history of comics publishing has been (never a settled, business-as-usual industry, fan assumptions to the contrary notwithstanding).

A number of nagging questions are raised by the book. For one, Nyberg implicitly upholds the superhero genre's preeminence in comics: "Except for a brief time in postwar America, the superhero genre has dominated comic book publishing" (16). Yet her own writing seems to contradict this, pointing several times to the waning of the superhero's popularity and the predominance of other popular genres. Also, the text does not consider the degree to which the superhero revival of the 1950s-60s was, not simply a matter of publishers searching for novelty, but a byproduct of the Code's strict moralism.

Also, Wertham is held to be a fellow traveler of the Frankfurt school of mass culture criticism (86-87), a view partly inherited from Gilbert which seems to make intuitive sense but which begs for further documentation and debate.

The book's one shortcoming, if I may say so, is the lack of attention to the way the content of non-Code comic books (esp. in the underground comix era) commented on and flouted the conventions of the Code. In many ways, today's comics culture, via the undergrounds, is a result of aggravated response to (resistance to) the Code and everything it represents. Many underground comix referenced the Code, and mocked it, using the Code Seal insignia and Code precepts in a satiric way. From this rebellion springs the civil libertarian POV of today's alternative comics scene, a movement insufficiently dealt with here as Nyberg concentrates on the internecine frictions within the CMAA. (To the extent that her focus is on the CMAA, her POV vis-a-vis superheroes begins to make sense.) To not deal with these cultural/content repercussions of the Code, even in a study explicitly marked as historicist in a traditional sense, is to leave a frustrating gap in the Code's cultural history.

More broadly, Nyberg's cursory treatment of undergrounds (prerequisite to the direct market, which she highlights at some length in Ch. 6) leaves a gap in the history of the cultural pressures which led to relaxations of the Code in 1971 and 1989. For the uninitiated, the crucial link between undergrounds and the later direct market would seem unclear. It is on these issues, which enlarge comics culture beyond the NY-based CMAA establishment, that Nyberg most needs to be complemented by other, counter-valent studies.

Some will take issue with the book's claim that self-censorship was a justifiable course of action in the mid-50s; we all should ponder the book's conclusion, which argues that some sort of Code remains a necessity unless and until "the comic book is able to recreate itself as a legitimate art form" (163). I would argue that the Code has become more pernicious as it has become more liberal (hence less meaningful); it is now worse than useless as a guide for parents, etc.

But on the whole Seal of Approval represents a welcome break from the Code-phobic and highly distorted fan histories which have had to serve up to this point. Nyberg by no means acts as apologist for the Code, but is able to approach the subject with clarity, attention to detail, and a refreshing lack of cant. Recommended for anyone and everyone w/ abiding interests in US comic book publishing and comics censorship both in the US and abraod.

Check out the extensive bibliography, a distinct bonus.

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This Page Last Updated 17 October 2006.