Since the 1950's, the CCA has acted as a non-governmental censorship with an astonishing bit of clout, trying to make sure that comics that fell into the hands of kids were wholesome reading material.* The development of the rules and the enforcement thereof was often stringent and nonsensical. For example: no werewolfism or vampires. Everybody has to love and respect authority figures. Etc...
This had two separate effects:
1) It killed off whole genres of comics whose genre continued to thrive in TV, movies, radio, magazines, etc...
2) The rules were so strict, it led indirectly to how bizarre some comics became during the Silver Age. Basically, you could no longer show Superman actually just beating people up, but you could show him in bizarre situations with red kryptonite and screwing with Lois Lane's perceptions of reality on a near daily basis in order to maintain his secret identity.
However, by the late 1970's the Direct Market (ie: the newly invented comic shop) began to appear and the Direct Market was not the supermarket. While magazine racks and supermarkets wouldn't carry comics lacking the CCA Seal of Approval, the direct market saw it as a growth opportunity, and an opportunity to draw in an older readership. And this began the change to the market you see today.
By the 1980's when I figured out what a comic shop was, you could occasionally find a "For Mature Audiences" comic like Swamp Thing accidentally or intentionally tucked in with X-Men and Hawkman. But the comic shops were full of all kinds of stuff across a whole range of non-kiddie faire. (Circa 7th grade, I have very strong memories of wondering who would come up with an idea like Cherry Poptart.) But it wasn't all "hey, this is fun! What can we do now?" Some of it was Watchmen and Elektra and Grendel.
Flashforward to the 00's, and honestly, I haven't noticed a CCA logo cluttering a comic cover in years, and I had kind of guessed that the CCA had folded long ago. The idea that a room full of retired librarians and elementary school teachers were still looking at every panel didn't seem too likely. After all, once grocery stores and comics mutually agreed the other wasn't profitable enough and broke up, DC and Marvel both started writing for an audience I would describe as no younger than 14, including in titles like Superman. And, certainly the code had become so relaxed within the past 15 years that, short of a few choice items of profanity and full frontal nudity, its a grown-ups world in "mainstream" superhero comics these days.
However, today DC announced they were dropping the CCA, which elicited a "wha-? The CCA is alive?" from me. DC Comics is taking steps similar to those embraced by Marvel years ago, and adopting a ratings code, similar to that of the MPAA.
Pop Culture Safari ponders what it can mean
Comics Alliance responds to the change
From the DC site:
E – EVERYONE
Appropriate for readers of all ages. May contain cartoon violence and/or some comic mischief.
T – TEEN
Appropriate for readers age 12 and older. May contain mild violence, language and/or suggestive themes.
T+ - TEEN PLUS
Appropriate for readers age 16 and older. May contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes.
M – MATURE
Appropriate for readers age 18 and older. May contain intense violence, extensive profanity, nudity, sexual themes and other content suitable only for older readers.
of course, this isn't what Marvel is using, so... good luck, parents!
As near as I can tell, the CCA doesn't have, and may never have had a website. I can't even find a site for the Code's parent organization, Association of Comics Magazine Publishers. That's just mind boggling.
It leads one to wonder if DC made this move because the CCA informed them they were going out of business, anyway.
In my opinion...
This may actually be a sign that DC is looking to diversify their offerings. I suspect DC didn't worry about the ratings before as they knew who was walking into comic shops. But I suspected that when a non-comics person like Diane Nelson took over DC, she was not going to settle for trying to just get a bigger piece of the Direct Market comics pie.
As DC moves into digital and seeks new markets and audiences, of COURSE they will be looking to kids and teens, in which case, you can't have Cry for Justice on the same shelf as Tiny Titans. And I don't think its wrong that Superman writers should mostly stick to a "T" rating. Batman can go be "T+".
I may be misreading it, and likely am, but time will tell.
That said, I got away with reading all KINDS of stuff because I was never dumb enough to let my parents flip through the pages of what I was actually reading, and my books didn't have an age-appropriateness rating. Then again, I didn't have the internet and the wide world of eye-popping wonder that it contains, either.
*The one thing that Hajdu omits from his story is the recently unearthed and mostly forgotten mix of comic art and badly typed prose called Nights of Horror, which was, in fact, not at all for kids, but contained art by Superman creator Joe Shuster (this was basically just discovered within the past four years). I am totally not kidding. I recommend seeing if your local library has a copy of Yoe's book, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman Co-Creator Joe Shuster (mine did! Look, I'm a Superman completionist. And its not what you think.).
Anyway, it seems that much-vilified-by-comic-nerds psychologist Fredric Wertham, who led the crusade against comics in the 1950's, did so after a series of brutal killings in New York that the perpetrators blamed their inspiration on comics. Those comics were not, by the way, Archie and Superman, but Nights of Horror.