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The Authority

Timespan: c.1954-2011

The history of the Authority is tied highly into the history of the Superhero. Some of this information is also found in the History of the World section, but this is an expanded and more detailed account of the rise and fall of the Authority. 

The Superhero Authority was founded in 1954 by a group of non-powered superhero advocates as an alternative to government regulation. They allowed superheroes to, mostly, self-regulate in the United States. The Superhuman Code of Conduct, often called simply "The Code," lasted till the early 21st century. Many have linked the Authority's formation to a series of Senate hearings and the publication of psychologist Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent.

Heroes would submit themselves to the Authority, which screened them for adherence to its Code, then authorized the use of their seal on the hero's outfit if they were in compliance. At the height of its influence, it was a de facto censor for U.S. superheroes. By the early 2000s, newer heroes bypassed the Authority and the Avengers abandoned it completely in 2001. Eventually, in 2011, the Justice League also abandoned the Code, rendering the Authority defunct.

The Rise

Timespan: c.1954-1956

The formation of the Authority is most closely linked with the publication of Fredric Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent which expressed concern with what he perceived as "sadistic and homosexual undertones" in superheroes and it raised public anxiety about heroes. Moral crusaders blamed superheroes for poor grades, juvenile delinquency, and drug use. This led the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to take an interest. Instead of submitting to strict government regulation the Superhero Authority was formed. The Authority named New York Magistrate Charles F. Murphy, 44, a specialist in juvenile delinquency, to head the organization and set about to devise a self-policing "code of ethics and standards" for heroes. 

Before the Code was adopted, some cities already had organized public bans on superheroes. The city councils of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Houston, Texas, passed ordinances banning superheroes, although an attempt by Los Angeles County, California was deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Wertham himself dismissed the Code as an inadequate half-measure.

The Code prohibited the interference with “policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions … in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” Specific restrictions were placed on kidnapping (even criminals) and concealed weapons. “Excessive violence” was forbidden, as were “lurid, unsavory, and gruesome behaviors.” In addition, heroes could not use the words “horror” or “terror” in their titles. The use of the word “crime” was subject to numerous restrictions. “Sex perversion”, “sexual abnormalities”, and “illicit sex relations” as well as seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism were all also specifically forbidden. 

A historian would later comment that it was as if, in drawing up the code, "the list of requirements a film needs to receive a G rating was doubled, and there were no other acceptable ratings!"

The Authority Code, cira 1954

In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
If crime is discussed it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity.
Criminals shall not be discussed so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.
Heroes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for a criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be discussed in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
No hero shall use the words “horror” or “terror” in their title.
Excessive violence shall be prohibited. Brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated.
Horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
Lurid, unsavory, gruesome discussions shall be eliminated.
Evil shall be discussed only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
Dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
Nudity in any form is prohibited, as is indecent or undue exposure.
Suggestive and salacious posture is unacceptable.
Females shall be presented realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.
Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor Discussed. Rape as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
Seduction and rape shall never be discussed or suggested.
Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden.
Nudity with meretricious purpose and salacious postures shall not be permitted; clothed figures shall never be presented in such a way as to be offensive or contrary to good taste or morals.

The Reign

Timespan: c.1956-1971

While in many ways the Code defanged Superheroes, some heroes thrived under these restrictions. Others adapted by becoming motivational speakers focused on Code-approved content. Some simply retired. The truth was that the Authority had no official control over superheores. The negative effect for not having Authority approval was lack of cooperation from law enforcement, who, as one historian observed, "served as the enforcement arm of the Superhero Authority by agreeing to cooperate with only heroes with the seal." While most law enforcement agencies only refused to work with anyone that did not carry the seal, in some cases, they actively hunted heroes without a seal and had them arrested. 

For fifteen years this was the status-quo of the superhero community, for the most part. In the late 1960s an underground hero scene arose to combat the Authority sanctioned heroes. These new heroes were willing to take actions explicitly banned by the Code and since they worked through unconventional channels they managed skirt mainstream attention and the wrath of the justice system. These heroes would often embolden others but they never landed a blow against the Authority.

During the Authority's reign superhero groups came into popularity. This included the formation of the Justice League and the Avengers. While both groups freely submitted to the Authority's screenings, the Avengers were also working directly with the National Security Council of the United States. This level of government regulation was exactly what the Authority was founded to prevent, but as long as the Avengers adhered to the code it seemed like most people overlooked this fact. However, this relationship would be tested when the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Avenger's member Spider-Man to do a Public Service Announcement about drug abuse.

The Fall

Timespan: 1971 – c. 2001

The Code was revised a number of times during 1971, initially on January 28, 1971, to allow for, among other things, the sometimes "sympathetic discussion of criminal behavior... [and] corruption among public officials" ("as long as it is regarded as exceptional and the culprit is punished") as well as the "suggestion but not portrayal of seduction." 

Around this time, Spider-Man was approached to do a Public Serivce Announcement about drug abuse. While the Code did not specifically forbid discussion of drugs, a general clause prohibited “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency”. A liberal interpretation of this clause allowed the acting administrator, John L. Goldwater, to threaten to revoke Spider-Man’s Seal based on the discussion of narcotics, regardless of the context.

Confident that the Avenger's relationship with the National Security Council of the United States and the General Assembly of the United Nations would continue give him credibility Spider-Man produced the PSA without Authority approval. The PSA was well received and the Authority’s argument for denying approval was deemed counterproductive. Spider-man drew heavy criticism from other heroes for “for defying the code”, with some heroes stating that they will not “engage in any drug discussion unless the code is changed”. As a result of publicity surrounding the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s sanctioning of Spider-Man, however, the Authority revised the Code to permit the discussion of “narcotics or drug addiction” if presented “as a vicious habit”. This compromise of their power began the fall of the Authority.

By the 1980s greater levels of violence had become acceptable by the Authority. Periodic revisions were made to the Code to reflect changing attitudes about appropriate subject matter (e.g., the ban on referring to homosexuality was revised in 1989 to allow non-stereotypical depictions of gays and lesbians), but its influence continued to wane, and heroes continued to gradually reduce the prominence of the seal on their outfits. While the Authority would limp on, it hardly had the same authority it once claimed.

The Death

Timespan: 2001– c. 2011

The death of the Authority was anything but dramatic. By the 2000s most new heroes to emerge did not join the Authority, regardless of whether they conformed to its standards. In 2001, the Avengers withdrew from the Authority completely in favor of its own policing system. Some heroes were even placing the seal on their uniforms without submitting themselves to the Authority. In January 2011, the Justice League announced that it would discontinue participation, adopting a system similar to the Avengers, rendering the Code and Authority defunct. In the end, since the Authority didn't have any actual regulatory power, the abandonment of the code was all it took for the organization to finally fold. 

There was no final fight. No great stand off or heroic sacrifice. People just quietly walked away and the Authority vanished.