Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code Paperback – Feb 1 1998
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Unlike Hadju's book, "Seal of Approval" is written by an academic (Nyberg is a professor at Seton Hall) and it shows. It's a very balanced historical overview coupled with an analysis of the Code and its various iterations over time. It speaks to the cultural context to the original Code but also to the way the companies governed by the Code adapted themselves over time, as well as the fact that not all publishers were governed by the Code and yet some managed to stay in business (Dell being the most significant). It's very well-researched (15 pages of bibliography) and it's definitely worth picking up.
The strongest part of this book is the way that it puts the crusaders in their social, cultural, and professional context. Fredric Wertham, who seems to have been the Jack Thompson or Carrie Nation of this issue, is often caricatured as... well... just like Jack Thompson or Carrie Nation. In Nyberg's presentation we learn that Wertham was a social scientist of some note before he got to this issue. He may well have gone off the deep end when he got to comics but it's interesting to see how he got there and explains why he got the exposure he did
The most cogent criticism I'd give of the book is one that's common to books written by academics: except for social scientists who are used to doing interviews most academics don't like to get out and deal with people in their work and so they end up relying on source materials where source interviews might be more helpful. I don't know whether Nyberg did do interviews or not, but the sections on how the review process actually worked over time and still work today read like they're assembled from materials. They could have used some perspective on how the business actually is done. As the guy who often does content review for Microsoft games, I know that a policy manual is tough to work with because of the edge cases and the subjective nature of reviewing, and if you went only from written documents you'd miss the flavor of the exercise.
But seriously, this is a good book on its own merits.
As a source for consideration about whether and how the games business might develop "Seal of Approval" is also helpful. Although not perfect for the reasons I mention, the sections dealing with life under the Code and the changes to the Code over time have been instructive. Nyberg isn't Niall Ferguson either but I'll be recommending this book to colleagues anyway.
Ostensibly the story of a crusade against inappropriate material in comic books, this book hints at the deeper story of America's periodic fascination with censorship.
In a thoroughgoing fashion Professor Nyberg (of Communications) tells the story how comic books came to the main entertainment source for children through the end of the depression and until television in the early 1950s came to replace them.
In that brief window that existed between his election to the Senate (in 1948 from Tennessee) and the rise of television as a maintstay of children's entertainment, Estes Kefauver -- the once and future presidential candidate -- set up very public hearings to essentially scare the comic book industry into "cleaning up its act" and eliminating supposedly inappropriate material.
If this scenero sounds familiar, then the reason is because similar public outcries attended the first newspaper comics, early cinema and then later the talkies themselves (in that last particular resulting in the creation of the Hayes Code which was actually the model for the code eventually approved by the comic book industry).
Along the way, William Gaines (later of Mad Magazine) stood alone in the wilderness crying against censorship. His humble point was that cutting edge stories could still serve greater artistic and cultural purposes. One such story was called "The Whipping." In it, a white father was dead set against his daughter's involvement with a young hispanic man whose family had moved into the community. Taking the law into his hands, the white father and several of his friends supposed stole the young man from his family, put him in a bag and began to beat him until supposedly he died. Of course, the bagged figure turned out to be none other than the white man's own daughter...killed by her father's own hatred.
While history can now easily side with Gaines on such matters, in the 1950s Senator Kefauver won the day and eventually forced the comic book industry to shed such "smut" from its pages as stories like "The Whipping."
However laughable the merits of a full fledged Senate investigation into the contents of comic books now seem, the full on rush to censor is -- as Professor Nyberg points out -- an often all too American phenomenon and one that we would do well to bear in mind the next time sometime someone points an accusing finger and calls for the censor's eraser.
Nyberg's SEAL OF APPROVAL is a responsible, deeply researched, well-documented scholarly history of the Comics Code. It's essential for anyone doing in-depth study of the history of American comic books after the early 1950s.
Contrary to what some other customer reviews have implied, Nyberg does not endorse the Comics Code. Nor does she condemn. SEAL is a work of media history and analysis, not of advocacy. Its treatment of the Code, its nature and its history, is subtle and avoids overstatement.
While Nyberg reaches certain conclusions that differ from my own, and unfortunately neglects the underground comix of the 60s as a response to the Code, SEAL is an excellent book, not to be judged solely on the basis of one's gut reaction to the Comics Code.
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