A would-be historian at Polygon wrote about how censorship affected the ability to tell stories involving religion, Jesus and the definitions of heaven and hell at the time the Comics Code Authority was in use, in an article that can also give an idea how the industry’s devolved from an ideological standing:
When the Golden Age of Comics started in 1938, using Heaven and Hell was totally fair game. The first character to use the name “Black Widow” was recruited by the actual devil after her murder, and assigned to return to Earth and take down sinners. When police officer Jim Corrigan died, his spirit encountered a brilliant light and a voice that told him he was to return to Earth as the vengeful Spectre. Elsewhere, a young boy died prematurely due to a clerical error by Mr. Keeper, who managed the passage of souls to Heaven. To rectify the error, St. Peter told Mr. Keeper to mentor the boy in his new career as a hero called Kid Eternity. Meanwhile, the wizard Shazam drew power from both the Jewish figure Solomon as well as deities from Pagan pantheons.
But the audience’s taste for placing real beliefs alongside fantasy elements changed. After World War II, US society had an increasing belief that society was delicate and in danger of subversives, and that meant that narrative media was under deep scrutiny. In 1954, the Comics Code Authority was created to monitor comics before they were delivered to the public. There was nothing illegal about publishing a comic without the Code’s seal, but most newsstands and many printers wouldn’t risk getting involved, for fear of angry parents.
Basically, what they’re really saying is that the word “hell” alone was considered a form of profanity, and therefore off-limits for mainstream storytelling. For such a word was almost entirely removed from mainstream comics post-WW2 until the early 70s, by which time the managers of the CCA were beginning to modify their approach. When the article gets around to how stand-ins for satanic figures were conceived, they say:
Under the Code, criminals weren’t to be sympathetic or glamorous, legitimate government authority was not to be put in a bad light, and “deviant” sexual behavior was prohibited. The Code also blocked the depiction of demon worship, witchcraft, and “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.” Still, who got to decide what wasn’t acceptable sometimes depended on who was working at the Comics Code Authority office that day, and some creators realized that as long as you didn’t offend the beliefs of the Code employees specifically, you could get your story through.
There may not be a CCA anymore, but today, it’s taboo in the entertainment industry to offend liberal beliefs, hence, the paragraph serves as an allusion to leftism, homosexuality, and, by the definition they provide, valid government could refer to the Democrats but not Republicans.
They even note an interesting contrast between how DC and Marvel approached certain topics:
Along with allowing vampires and others to return, this opened the door for DC Comics to directly reference Judeo-Christian ideas again. The demon Etrigan, created in 1972, was not from a realm that resembled Hell, he simply came from Hell. But DC was more nervous about putting Jesus Christ in a comic. A major Swamp Thing story arc was meant to end with the titular character meeting the Nazarene carpenter, but editorial decided later the issue would be too controversial, so it wasn’t printed.
The Marvel universe continued to sidestep the issue, however. Originally, Ghost Rider — like Etrigan, created in 1972 — was a man who’d made a deal with Satan, but readers were later told it was Mephisto in disguise. Later still, Satan and Mephisto were said to be rivals in different realms, with possibly neither being the Devil of Christian lore. But the House of Ideas felt similarly to DC in one respect: When Tony Isabella wrote a Ghost Rider story featuring an appearance by Jesus, it was rewritten by editor Jim Shooter at the last minute to say it was only an illusion.
Well I was aware Shooter had a reputation as a staunch moralist, but if he’s despised for it today, it’s not necessarily because he shied away from casting Jesus as an official figure in Marvel’s stories, but rather, because he didn’t want to deal outright with homosexuality as a subject, or at least not to portray it in a negative view (though you could wonder if Mystique and Destiny as allusions to lesbianism were considered acceptable only because they were women).
Not mentioned clearly is that, while “hell” as a form of profanity could be seen here and there in both DC/Marvel books alike come the Bronze Age, Marvel in particular still shied away from rawer approaches to profanity for the most part like the S-bomb and F-bomb, and I recall the Punisher’s series often substituting stars, strudels and asterisks for potentially nastier stuff rarely put to use for many years.
The Panther’s Quest storyline in Marvel Comics Presents starring Black Panther also took that approach. Yet, by that time, they actually were willing to take an open approach to more jarring violence by the late 80s, stopping just short of graphic gore, and subjects like sexual assault and references to the same were also rare; a very troubling double-standard, IMO. And that could surely have been a mistake, because nearly 2 decades after, there’d come truly awful people with lenient views on violence and misogyny who’d really corrupt superherdom, as I’ve noted here countless times before. And, if religion has any place in modern mainstream, it’s either not depicted respectably (Judeo-Christianity), or, it’s given selective favoritism, as seen in examples like the current Ms. Marvel series.
And whatever your opinions on Mark Waid today, the article does cite a most interesting moment from his portfolio: the 2002-2005 Fantastic Four run, where he depicted Jack Kirby as though he were God, when the King’s co-creations took an adventure where they paid a visit to what looked like his house and studio. I can’t say Waid’s run was great, recalling he may have put anti-war allusions into the script, but seeing him actually reference God as he did certainly stands in stark contrast to his modern leftist conduct, where he’s since gone so far as to exploit King Kirby’s famous Golden Age co-creation with right-leaning Joe Simon, Captain America, for leftist propaganda purposes, and Waid’s take on Cap continued from where Secret Empire left off, even though such stories are so reprehensible, it’s a terrible mistake to keep them canon.
I’m sure there’s modern examples of comics out there where Judeo-Christianity is given favorable portrayals, but the chances you’ll find it in the mainstream today are very low. Not to mention that, almost 20 years after the CCA was abandoned, censorship still reigns supreme in the medium.
Originally published here.