Weird Wednesdays: How Stan Lee, drugs and Spider-Man fought censorship

FILE - In this April 16, 2002, file photo, Stan Lee, 79, creator of comic-book franchises such as "Spider-Man," "The Incredible Hulk" and "X-Men," smiles during a photo session in his office in Santa Monica, Calif. Comic book genius Lee, the architect of the contemporary comic book, has died. He was 95. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Honestly, I was going to write something about Thanksgiving turkeys or whatever for this week’s column, but when I heard that Stan Lee passed away on Monday, I threw that out the window. This man was an icon, guys, to the point where writing about his entire life and accomplishments would take maybe a book or two. That’s been done, so I won’t tread where giants already have. Instead, I’ll show you just a wee bit—a savory sampling and notable accomplishments of The Man.

It’s 1954. Superhero comics, since their genesis in the early 1900s and the introduction of Superman in the 1930s, were going strong. Captain America was still riding the wave of patriotic righteousness from World War II and was just starting to punch Communists instead of Nazis. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern and other caped crusaders were in the Golden Age of comics, as the expanding middle class of America now had more disposable income to toss at weekly issues. The genre of superheroes itself was beginning to expand as well—writers and artists began to explore more crime thrillers and murder mysteries with serials like “True Crime” and “Mysterious Adventures.”

Enter a guy named Fredric Wertham.

Now, as tempting as it is to call him a dipsh*t egghead (you’ll see why in a few sentences), this guy, to his credit, did a whole lot of good for the world. A psychiatrist, he would treat poor African Americans when few other white doctors would, and did extensive studies on the psychological effects of segregation on minority groups—findings that would later be used in Brown v. Board of Education.

Now, onto the dipsh*t egghead part.

Wertham was concerned about the “troubling” imagery he saw in comic books. Not only were comics like “True Crime” too gruesome to show to children, they would induce juvenile delinquency if the heroes were depicted using violence to solve their problems. Sexual overtones, he argued, were pervasive in the “cleaner” series—Batman and Robin were clearly gay lovers, and Wonder Woman was a lesbian because her strong independence from men indicated so. The horror, the horror!

Wertham wrote all these thoughts down in the smarmily-titled “Seduction of the Innocent,” a book that took the nation by storm and led to a massive anti-comic movement. A Senate committee hearing was arranged, led by a New Jersey lawmaker with a solid vendetta against comics in general. By the time it was over, nearly 70 percent of Americans thought that comic books would doom the nation’s youth.

In response, a group of publishers banded together and formed the Comics Code Authority, an institution headed by DC Comics and Archie Comics employing a team of censors who would plow through pre-publication panels and artfully remove undesirable content. Comics by the code had a seal of approval printed on the outside, reassuring parents and distributors that their precious bumpkins wouldn’t be consuming any nasty, unwholesome ideas.

What were unwholesome ideas, might you ask?

While the censors had the ultimate authority over what went through (to the point of censoring ugly old women to look “prettier”), general no-nos included profanity, “sexual perversion,” nudity, suggestive clothing, vampires, the occult, criminals being sympathetic instead of just eeeeeeeevil goons, authority figures like judges and cops being depicted as anything but competent and good, black main characters, the words “horror” and “terror,” crime looking appealing and drugs, just to name a few.

As well, every story had to have the heroes triumphing over evil, and the criminals being justly punished for their misdeeds. Just like real life, kids!

Thus began the Silver Age of comics—an era of “Holy ____, Batman!” doofy illustrations and wacky plotlines. Once-complex, compelling villains like Lex Luthor were reduced to stealing cakes, and heroes spent their days fighting cartoonish baddies and arguing over Hostess pies.

It was around this time that Stan the Man was heading Marvel. Though Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and other heroes had found their start in the Silver Age, Lee was bored. He’d entered the industry in its heyday writing westerns and pulp comics. While collaborating with Jack Kirby on new characters helped to fill the void, Lee considered quitting the monotony of making sanitized comics.

It all changed in 1971. The war on drugs had just been launched, and the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Lee with a novel idea—a Spider-Man issue demonstrating the consequences of drug usage.

Spidey was the ideal vehicle for this. Other superheroes, such as those in the DC-verse, seemed almost inhuman in their perfection—they were always in the right and always had the answer, making them inaccessible to most readers for personal stories. Lee, however, wrote Spider-Man to be imperfect—a regular kid getting used to his powers who still struggled with school, making friends and dating.

The deal was on. Lee wrote about Spidey saving his friend Harry Osborn’s life when he finds that Osborn has overdosed on pills, which (of course) incites a battle with Harry’s father, Norman Osborn the Green Goblin.

The real battle, however, was with the censors. Even though drugs were definitely depicted in a negative light, the Authority poo-pooed the comic. Lee responded by running the issue anyways. Shockingly, the youth of America did not descend into debauchery, and the comic was well-received by both kids and their parents, sans-Code.

This spelled the beginning of the end for the Authority, as more and more publishers began to drop it, leading to the Bronze and, later, the Dark Age of comic books, as heroes once again became darker and more nuanced than their technicolored Silver Age counterparts, fighting terrorists and drug lords with bombs and guns.

The Code itself took a while to die out completely. It revised itself multiple times to attempt to keep up with the times, even as more and more publishers stopped using it each year. DC dropped it in 2011 after creating their own code. Soon, Archie comics was the only one left, and they dropped it, rationalizing that their wholesome family comics would speak for themselves, code or no.

And they do! Just watch an episode of “Riverdale.” Yep. Reeeeeeal wholesome.

In any case, if it weren’t for Lee’s utter stubbornness, then the comics, movies and Marvel Universe, as well as other comic universes, wouldn’t be here today.

Excelsior, readers. And stay weird.

This article was not approved by the Comics Code Authority.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.