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How Stan Lee pushed the boundaries of comic book content

Stan Lee changed comic books and movies as we know them, in more ways than one, including challenging the Comics Code Authority to include darker content.

Stan Lee

December 28, 2022 is Stan Lee’s centenary – as he was born 100 years ago – on this day in 1922. We all know that Lee helped revolutionize comics, and co-created some of the most iconic superheroes of all time – including Spider-Man, the X-Men, and most of the main characters who make up the Avengers and MCU. But Lee helped change the comic book format in more ways than one – as he challenged the Comics Code Authority, leading to darker subject matters to be allowed in comic book stories.

As discussed in Collider, The Comics Code Authority came into effect in the mid-1950s, and it issued a Seal of Approval for the front of comic books that they needed in order for retailers to sell them. They were extremely restrictive of what could be included in comics – gore, violence and sex were all off the table and you couldn’t even have ‘back-talking’ or ‘sass’ to authority figures such as teachers and cops. Words like ‘terror’ and ‘horror’ were not allowed to be in the title, and stock horror characters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies were banned.

The code did lead Lee to find creative ways to skirt around it, while still telling the kinds of stories he wanted to. He still managed to push boundaries while abiding by the code. In 1971, the Department of Health approached Lee to write a comic book which covered the subject of drug addiction. Lee included drug addicted characters in the sub-plot of three issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, including references to Harry Osborn popping pills.

The Code wouldn’t allow it because it mentioned drugs, even though it had a clear anti-drug message. Lee went ahead with the issues anyway, and they sold well, despite not having the Seal of Approval on the cover. The Code was revised after this incident – meaning that drugs were allowed, if presented as evil. They also allowed vampires and werewolves, but not zombies – which Lee got around by using an invented word; zuvembies.

So, on Stan Lee’s 100 birthday, we have much to be thankful for – including him pushing back against the restrictive authoritarian codes of the day and leading the content of comics to become darker and more interesting. If you’re keen to know more about the future of the MCU, check out our guide to Marvel’s Phase 5.