In the early 1950s, American comics were edgy.  Newsstands carried the usual kid stuff, but they also featured genres like graphic horror, true crime, and noir.  Then came a fear-mongering psychiatrist, a Congressional inquiry, and threats of censorship.  The industry decided to preempt criticism with self-censorship, setting up the absurdly skittish Comics Code Authority.  Soon the Comics Code seal was de rigueur to get on the newsstands, and edgy comics all but vanished from the U.S. market for a generation.

If you’re familiar with Gary Becker’s The Economics of Discrimination, these facts ought to surprise you.  This looks like a classic case of consumer-on-consumer discrimination: Newsstands refused to carry unapproved comics because they were worried that they would offend other customers – especially uptight parents.  The standard Beckerian prediction is segregation: Some stores will cater to prudes, and the rest will specialize in edgier fare.  While this happened to a slight extent – “alternative” comics were often sold side-by-side with drug paraphernalia – the Comics Code seemed to have a huge effect not just on where edgy comics were sold, but on whether they existed at all.

It’s tempting to blame government, but hard to give it more than a supporting role.  When an industry falls under government scrutiny, the classic response is to promise better behavior, make token changes, and wait for the government spotlight to move on to the next scapegoat.  But the comics industry remained puritanical for decades.

What gives?  Before you answer, consider Iron Age‘s account of how the Comics Code came crumbling down:

In 1972… New York convention organizer Phil Seuling made an arrangement to purchase comics directly from publishers rather than from newsstand distribution organizations.  Gathering together orders from the few stores at the time specialized in selling comic books, Seuling convinced the publishers to waive shipping costs in exchange for purchasing the comics on a non-returnable basis.  With that agreement, the direct market for comics was born.

A direct distribution channel between publishers and stores benefited both ends… The non-returnable orders from the direct market not only allowed the publishers to escape that risk [of returns], but also helped them set their print orders more precisely.  In return, publishers could give stores in the direct market a high discount… Moreover, specialty stores receive their comics sooner and in better condition than those sent to newsstands, attracting more of the growing number of comic book collectors to their stores…

Growth of the direct market in the 1970s was slow and steady, but during the 1980s that growth became explosive.  In 1979, the direct market represented 6 percent of Marvel’s gross sales; by 1985, that number had risen to 50 percent, and the other major publishers were seeing similar numbers… The readers and collectors coming into a direct market store were focused, returning every month and often every week for the latest comics. 

In the direct market, breaking the Comics Code with titles like Wolverine actually became a plus: “The cover (and the series) might have caused controversy if it were sold at newsstands, where parents passing by still believed comics were children’s fare.  In the direct market, it was a hit.” (Iron Age)

So why did the Beckerian segregation mechanism take decades to work?  Kids seem to have been the key friction.  When kids like a product and their parents don’t, setting up specialty stores doesn’t work very well.  The kids don’t just depend on their parents for money; they need them for transportation!  Once the adult fanboy market hit critical mass, though, market forces cut loose, just as Becker would have expected. 

Triumphalist upshot: Now that parentally-disapproved material is never more than a mouse-click away, self-censorship has no future.  If you don’t print what the customers want, someone else will – even if the customers are way too young to drive.