At one point during Morgan Neville‘s great documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers’s delightfully human and thoughtful confrontation with the Senate Subcommittee on Communication in 1969 is highlighted as one of the central moments in the beloved figure’s long career. Why? Because when he appeared before the subcommittee to defend public television against then-President Richard Nixon’s proposed budget cuts, he ultimately explained how important his role as a public educator of sorts was, thereby endearing himself to the Senate’s most ardent budget hounds.
It’s one of the many beautiful and raw moments in the documentary, and I bring it up today because I’ve been thinking about it a lot since news of Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee’s death broke yesterday. The 95-year-old writer, editor and publisher’s impact on comic book fans, hip-hop artists and the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe is undeniable, of course, but what he did for comic books themselves deserves its own recognition. In 1971, Lee experienced his own Fred Rogers moment with the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing body tasked with policing its own industry to avoid government regulation and censorship.
Established by the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954, the CCA was tasked with creating and enforcing the “Comics Code,” a collection of strict guidelines for comic book creators regarding what they were allowed to publish. Many of these guidelines, including the CCA’s rules regarding the depiction of criminal behavior, were questioned and later reviewed in the late 1960s and early 1970s following complaints from publishers, but drug use — despite its very real connections to the counterculture movement in the United States at the time — was out of the question.
So when the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services) approached Lee and Marvel about doing a story that dealt with the horrors of drug abuse in 1971, they had to seek the CCA’s approval first. The Comics Code did not explicitly ban depictions of drugs or drug use outright, but one of its general clauses had been cited before in such instances. “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code,” it stated, “are considered violations of good taste or decency.”