Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Comic Book Alignment

Talk about AI "alignment" makes me think of a time in the 1950s that a group of companies decided to

create an industry organization to self-govern their work to make sure that they were following the values of the time and avoid government oversight. Of course, I'm talking about the Comics Code Authority (CCA). 

Fueled by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent and a series of U.S. Congressional hearings, the comic publishers realized they needed to police themselves and formed a trade group, the Comics Magazine Association of America (CMAA). The CMAA created the Comics Code Authority (CCA) in 1954 to enforce a code of content guidelines that comic book publishers would adhere to. The Comics Code prohibited explicit violence, sexual content, and other adult themes in comic books, as well as a promoting a "positive portrayal" of authority figures and institutions. The CCA seal, which was a small stamp indicating that a comic book had been reviewed and approved by the organization, became a requirement for distribution by most newsstands and retailers pushing many publishers to follow the code.

I started reading comic books in the 1970s with the code in full swing. It was not a golden time for comic books with mostly bland, straightforward stories, and I gave it up as I went into high school. In college in the '80s, a friend brought me back into comics with some series, like Watchmen, having given up the code and the seal. I started reading comics voraciously, so much that I had to go cold turkey in grad school so I could focus on research. The code itself was abandoned in 2011 after even Archie Comics gave up using the seal.

There's not a direct parallel between comic book writers and large language models, but the principle is the same. If you try to enforce a collection of values, you will get blander, less interesting output. I'm not saying that all alignment is a bad idea, but that you need to realize you will lose something when you do.


  1. 1) Other quality Comic Books: The Dark Knight Returns,
    Batman Year One, Identify Crisis.
    2) There was one issue of Spiderman that appeared without the comics code a long time ago since it had drugs in it- though they were portrayed negatively so I am surprised. See
    3) I also gave up comic books in grad school, though not just because I found recursive combinatorics more interesting, but also because comic books are repetitive. Its rare that any character REALLY dies so if they are in danger its not real. If you read the Wikipedia entry of a comic book character who has been around for a while you can see how repetitive it is.
    4) Did not know that Comics no longer use the comics code, so thanks Lance!

  2. CCA wasn't there to protect college students and was not required to sell comic books to a more mature audience. Newsstands had Penthouse so I find it hard to believe they would not have carries non-CCA comic books in a section for adults. Stan Lee himself said, "I was aware that young people were reading these books, and had there not been a Code, I don't think that I would have done the stories any differently." (

    Also, CCA allowed covers such as in the 1950s.

    1. Archie was naughty.

    2. i mean, given that archie's entire schtick is horny teenagers trying to "score" (for some pg13 definition of score), I can't imagine what they would talk about if these were disallowed. Also, if the whole industry felt beholden to the CCA it's not clear there would've been many interesting mature alternatives in the 70s (but idk if that was true).

  3. David in Tokyo4:58 AM, May 02, 2023

    There was an analogous thing about rock lyrics in the late 1980s. Having grown up in the 60s, I had forgotten about how incredibly after the fact that brouhaha was. Mary Spender recently did a rather thorough video on this. It's rather bland, but put up with it, because the very very end is very very much worth the wait.

    Here's a seriously not safe for work example of why we 60s folkies were already irritating folks with sensitive ears long before the problem discussed in Ms. Spender's video above.