It started in the early 1950's. In the post war years, people noticed a collective group think in the American public that could be exploited by mass media. Joseph McCarthy, a.k.a. Mac The Knife, was the grand master of this with his Communist witch hunts (immortalized in Arthur Miller's immortal The Crucible). Everyone scrambling for public office adopted Communism as the Next Great Threat. But that didn't stop others from trying to franchise their own uncovered threats to the public. Conspiracies were big because it motivated people to fight a huge threat they were recently unaware of. Desire to do SOMETHING to put things right was more important than actually doing something right, a legacy that persists to this day (Wilson Bryan Key, the Patriot Act, the PMRC, Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, Fahrenheit 9/11, etc. etc. etc.).
In 1954, Fredrick Wertham published Seduction Of The Innocent. Up until that point, comics featured relatively diverse material. Basically, they were illustrated pulps. So you had crime stories with femme fatales and horror stories and so on, read by adults instead of kids. The leader in this regard was EC Comics, run by the immortal William Gaines, founder of MAD. Seduction Of The Innocent got everyone up in arms, culminating in a hearing by the Senate Subcommittee On Juvenile Delinquency. It was headed by Estes Kefauver, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee looking to elbow his way to the party's Presidential nomination in 1956. EC Comics was made a Judas goat by other publishers, in particular John L. Goldwater (founder and publisher of Archie Comics), and the Comics Code Authority was born. The rules were engineered to shut down EC. Now, publishers did not HAVE to subscribe to the Code, but newsstands, fearing people accusing them of corrupting their kids, would refuse to stock the books.
This is the worst form of censorship -- the voluntary kind. The only project of mine that would be Code-approved would be Sound Waves. Head Above Water would be rejected for "Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable" and "Sex perversion or any inference to same is strictly forbidden." Remember, there are still people who think homosexuality is perverse and abnormal, even if some things like Piper in The Flash get away with it. My presenting Amber and Becca as not only cool with what is between them, but also spooning in bed with the implication they are naked under the blanket would not fly. Likewise, Stress Puppy would never be approved because of the foul language the characters unrepentantly throw around, not to mention Holly's anarchic behavior being presented as a good thing. I don't want to see nothing but blood and guts, and I don't want to see nothing but rainbows. I want to see what the creators think will make their art work, whether they choose to go blue or keep it clean. An arbitrary body with blatant conflicts of interest has no right to say what they can and cannot do.
Since the collapse of EC, the CCA has been about as effective as movie ratings have been (I was in the 8th grade, and every single kid in class had seen Nightmare On Elm Street. And what boy hasn't seen at least one porno by that age?). There has been some weird contradictions, such as Marvel having to defy it to do an anti-drug story (even the oppressive Hays Code wouldn't have stopped that). But then, some blatant violations of the code occurred. Archie Comics, whose owner and publisher John L. Goldwater was also the keeper of the Code, published a Sabrina comic book that featured a schoolteacher using witchcraft to dissolve the skin off the body of a bully at school. That issue still carried the Code seal. Gee, I wonder how that happened?
The Code was like the emperor's new clothes -- it had authority because everyone gave it authority. In fact, when Image first launched in 1992, there was talk about whether they could get their books in Walmart and such like they hoped because they didn't have the CCA as a shield if someone complained about their content.
It was about ten years ago that Marvel decided, screw this, and left the CCA. They had their own ratings system.
Today, DC announced it was dumping the CCA. They have their own ratings system.
That leaves only BOOM! and Archie with Code approved books.
May this dinosaur FINALLY be dying.