“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

(Edmund Burke)

By Bob Reyer

I do not wish this to become a political screed, and by that I mean the now de rigueur Left/Right caterwauling that stifles true conversation, but in the wake of the tragic Aurora, Colorado theatre shootings, there arose from the usual quarters a hue-and-cry over violence in the media, with comics particularly singled out. I’m sure that to most of you, this criticism of our chosen hobby smacks of political opportunism of the most craven sort, and will pass as inconsequential gamesmanship during a Presidential election season, but many years ago, this debate arose and nearly destroyed comics as an industry, bankrupting many publishers and forcing others to abandon their most creative properties, with the repercussions being felt even today.

In 1950-51, during a segment devoted to Juvenile Delinquency of Senator Estes Kefauver’s Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, comic books and their publishers found themselves on trial for all manner of social ills, in much the same way violent movies and video games are today. They were granted a reprieve, in part due to this testimony from Louis Goldstein, Chairman of the Kings County (NY) Board of Judges: “I never came across a single case where the delinquent or criminal act would be attributed to the reading of comic books”, as well as similar words from J. Edgar Hoover, head of the F.B.I. This respite would be brief, sadly.

Fires had already been lit in the public’s consciousness, and connections made between comics and violence, however, and by the 1954 publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth” and it’s subsequent excerpting in the influential magazine, Ladies Home Journal, the furor had arisen to a fever pitch, with public burnings of comic books by church and civic groups, as well as enacted legislation banning comics entirely in many municipalities…and this in a country where we had just helped make “the world safe for Democracy”.

As stage-setting for this debacle, during World War II, comic books were routinely distributed to G.I.s in their care packages, and these returning soldiers and sailors acquired the comics-reading habit. This new audience was served by the industry with books designed for a more adult readership; titles such as “Crime Does Not Pay” and “Gangbusters”, the re-imagining of characters such as the Phantom Lady for older readers, and of course the introduction of true “horror comics”, the ultimate expression of this trend being William M. Gaines E.C. line; “Tales from the Crypt”, “The Vault of Horror”, “Shock Suspenstories”, et al.

These types of comics, though intended for adults, were still “kiddie books” in the minds of many people, who still associated the medium with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, and who were appalled by the level of violence, some of it quite graphic, that to them was being distributed to impressionable youngsters. So when a noted psychiatrist ascribes all the ills of juvenile delinquency and child violence to horror and crime comics (this latter appellation including virtually all the extant super-heroes), the general public sat up and paid attention.

In an effort to stave off government censorship, the “Comics Code Authority” was established in 1954 to allow publishers to self-regulate their industry, by sending the books, pre-publication, to an independent board for approval. Grounds for dis-approval included victorious or un-punished criminals, excessive violence, sexuality, sensuality, horror, the depiction of criminal acts in detail, vampires, werewolves, the un-dead…you get the picture, I’m sure. The Code would eventually be revised, after the more-human Silver Age Marvel characters began to hold sway, and particularly in the wake of the U.S. Government’s backing of the 1971 Spider-Man “drug issues” (#96-98), and the same year’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow (#85-86) on a similar theme.

In the years since, and certainly over the last 20 years following the “Image Revolution” and the rise of smaller publishers, there has been an increase in violence and sexuality in comic books, mostly in books aimed at adults, but as the average age of readers has increased, those aspects of characterization have crept into mainstream, formerly “all-ages” books, as well. Before we go on, let me state for full disclosure that I grew up in “The Sixties”, proudly call myself a capital “L” Liberal,  and consider myself wholly on the side of free expression, providing that it’s responsible.

Remembering that the U.S. Congress, and then the courts, recently spent millions of our tax dollars investigating Roger Clemens and his alleged use of steroids, is it a reach that some over-ambitious public official seizes on an illusionary comics violence/real-world violence link, and starts the witch-hunts anew, and with the imbalance of adult to all-age appropriate books in a product still associated in most minds to children, I believe it’s whistling past the graveyard to think we won’t hear a Senator intone, much as one did to Bill Gaines: “Well, Mr. DiDio, do you find that Catwoman cover in good taste?”

For the on-going health of this industry, we as consumers, thinking adults and parents must demand, either through our voices, or by voting with our wallets, a return to balance in this medium. If we continue to support the books that re-inforce the mostly incorrect, but widely-held notion of this industry and it’s fans as a monolithic “Repressed Boys’ Club” that sadly reflects the coarseness of today’s society, rather than celebrate true heroism; an industry with far too much product that demeans and insults half it’s potential audience, and that, despite the good-will generated by billion-dollar films, manages to marginalize itself into a fringe marketplace with an over-priced product, the comic book industry will find itself under a similar cloud of public scrutiny as 60 years ago, and in it’s present weakened state, may never recover.

We must craft a return to civility, so that there are books for everyone; children and adults, women and men, and yes, even “repressed fan-boys”, before history repeats itself with something akin to the Hollywood Production Code of the 1930s, or a new Doctor Wertham imposing his will upon this medium we cherish, transforming it into something so safe as to be as saccharine as they were in the Eisenhower 50s, as opposed to the vibrant art form we want comic books to strive to become. As comics fans, we need to speak out, and broker our own solution, before someone does it for us and takes away our choice.

“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

(Martin Niemoller, 1946)

FURTHER READING:

“Seduction of the Innocent”

Dr. Fredric Wertham (Rineheart & Company/1954)

“Seal of Approval:  The History of the Comics Code:

Amy Kiste Nyberg (Mississippi University Press/ 1996)

“The Ten-cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America”

David Hajdu (Farar, Strauss & Giroux/2008)

 

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9 Responses

  1. Giant Woman

    I can’t see that it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to see a group such as the Westboro Baptist Church or a senator looking to score points, taking up a rallying cry against the industry we love and forming a mob with torches and pitchforks a ‘plenty. A colleague saw me reading comics the other day and gave the usual comment “aren’t comics for children”, so I showed him what I was reading. It was Crossed: Badlands. His reaction was un-repeatable in polite society. I realise that is an extreme title to illustrate my point with, but I struggle to think of a single title that I can start buying for my niece/nephew, that will encourage them to take up the comic-reading habit, but won’t lead to them seeing inappropriate content. I thought of Tiny Titans, but that is just entry level to Titans itself, which I would not let a child near. As a prodigious reader in my youth, being told a book was “too old” for me would only encourage me to read it, and I don’t expect the next generation of my family to be any different. Every week on the podcast I listen to the ‘new releases’ section near the end of the broadcast, and every week there is little or nothing for a young audience. Even the comics based on fairy tales have been sexualised and eroticised past anything I recognise as the stories from my childhood, which prevents even me buying them.

    I think the final paragraph of the article sums up what I am trying to say better than I can, but I will just say that comics such as Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Dexter Soy don’t have the gratuitous violence, swearing or sex seen elsewhere, but are not the highly sanitised titles of the 1950s, and is a must read for me. If the industry sees that books such as this can be as popular as – of not more than – titles that sell sex for the sake of it, maybe we can avoid a repeat of histories mistake.

    • Bob Reyer

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ms. Giant Woman. I’m thrilled that you, and hopefully others, can identify the root of my fears. I’m all for “adult” books, but for adult audiences. I want there to be “Walking Dead”, “Revival”, “Saga”, “Vampirella”, “Empowered”, etc…I just don’t want these adult themes explored by characters that, to the general public, have been children’s fare for over half-a-century, an attitude high-lighted by your anecdote. It sends the wrong message about the industry, and it’s fans, and with the always-shifting political landscape, it could be an invitation to disaster.

      Thanks again for your insight, Ms. G-W,
      Bob
      ps) Young Audrey agrees with you about “Captain Marvel”!
      (…and so do I! rrr)

  2. RepStones

    Very interesting post Bob. A few points if i may…
    First, i think it should be pointed out that the comics industry makes such an easy political target because it is not backed by a powerful lobby in Congress. One of the most powerful and indeed feared lobby groups on Capitol Hill is the NRA – which should help explain why the one issue which the Aurora shooting should raise in Congress, is not being raised – gun control (or the lack thereof). As a European i find it bizarre that it seems US society has ring-fenced a clause in the Constitution that originates in the threat of being overrun by the imperial overlord and thus demands that every US have the right to bear arms, what is commonly known as the 2nd amendment. The beauty of the US constitution as a codified body of law and guidance for the great nation (and as a dyed in the wool Euro lefty – yes i think the US govt does get up to some deeply unsavoury crap, but that is not what defines the nation or its people) is that it is malleable. It can move with the times and evolve as human society evolves. But for some reason that 2nd amendment thing is like a barnacle you guys can’t remove. Bible followers have abandoned many ridiculous laws and prescriptions (not all though) contained in their hallowed text. But then they weren’t up against a concerted anti-farming lobby who deplored the mixing of crops. Of course gun nuts say, ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ – well its a lot easier to outrun a knife than a gun.

    I would be wary about imposing a stricter form of self-regulation as it can open the door to abuse by politicians with cries of “even they know they need reigned in” or some such like. I think the market regulates itself pretty well. I don’t think there is a viable constituency (sales market) for anything that would be deemed illegal on the basis of depiction and intent alone. We have advisory warnings on covers and if that suffices for the movie and music industry, it should suffice for our favourite medium.
    Let us not forget that many great comic creators started in the underground movement – including Trina Robbins – where they did not have to adhere to CCA. Regulation can be an inhibitor, but of course there’s a counter to that argument – would we Irish live in the famed land of poetry and prose were it not for the pain our larger neighbour inflicted upon us? (hows that for lefty?)
    I don’t want comics to go boogaloo crazy and have a Punisher Triple MAX, where Frank Castle kills people by head-butting them through the stomach with an accompanying word balloon exclaiming “Heres Frank!”
    But the possibility should always be there to go one step further, with appropriate warning on the cover.
    I think there is plenty out there for all ages to enter our beloved medium, my 4 yr old just got Spongebob #11, she had wanted Green Lantern The Animated Series #5, but i thought, a little old for her just yet (self-regulation). If we seek to impose greater regulation on this industry we love, not only does it open the door for the government to jump on the bandwagon, but it takes the eye of the industry who should be under scrutiny. And that industry does not merely sell paper with pictures and colours on it. The regulation should be at the service end, at the shop counter, not in mind of the creators – for therein lies the loss.

    Thats my 2 cents…

    • Bob Reyer

      “Rep”, Thanks for participating!

      I hope that I haven’t given the impression that I’m calling for another version of the CCA, as that would exert a chilling effect on creativity. No, what I am asking for is responsibility from creators toward their audiences, both current and potential. When I first began reading comics, at a similar age to your little one, the REGULAR Green Lantern book that was on the newstand was perfectly acceptable to be read by a 5 year-old, but could still be read by a teen or an adult as well. The creators of that era worked to a different standard, knowing that ultimately, their new readers would be children, or as Stan Lee was told by his publisher back then “8 year-old kids”, and he often described his task as “writing upwards”, to make sure there were layers and themes for older readers, without putting it out of reach for the younger. Most of the characters we describe as “iconic” were created as children’s literature, and lathering ultra-violence and sexuality upon them, as if the current books are some new form of “Tiajuana Bible”, puts the industry on shaky philosophic ground, and beyond that, it’s simply reprehensible that characters who appeared on children’s lunch boxes and tee-shirts for generations, can now not be read by those self-same children. In a correspondence with Trina Robbins, after discussing our mutual love for the new “Wonder Woman Adventures” animated-style book, she was giving it to her 6 year-old grand-daughter who “Although she loved my Wonder Woman action figures and played with them, there wasn’t a Wonder Woman comic book I could show her.”

      Mentioning movies for a second, the difference is that there isn’t an R-rated “Little Mermaid”, ramming a trident through Ursula’s chest, and then shtupping Prince Eric (to date, anyway!). They keep things separate, which in our rush to placate the 25-35 male audience (female readership of “The Big Two” hovering around 10%), we’ve forgotten, and allowed this coarseness to seep into the “regular” titles. This from John Byrne, on creators wanting to be seen doing “adult” work: “Fine, if we’re treating comics like movies, and acknowledging that there can be different packages containing different kinds of stories, with different target audiences. But NOT so fine, when prima donna “creators” insist they be allowed to use classic characters, created for younger audiences, any way they like.”

      “Rep”, I’m for a market filled with all kinds of books: simple, heroic, good-natured, as well as bug-crazy, hyper-violent, sensual…but is there a need to graft the latter on to the former, and will that current trend by “creators” (most of whom haven’t created the characters they’re perfoming this “operation” on, by the way) lead us to the “stricter self-regulation” that we both fear?

      Your obedient servant,
      Bob
      ps) That “Triple-Max Punisher” sounds like a winner; now that you’ve put it out there, you might see it! rrr

      • RepStones

        Hi Bob, thanks for the reply. I take your point about the propensity for some talent in the comics industry to take our iconic and beloved characters (that were written for kids, yes) and try and ladle on adult theme after adult theme.
        The quote from Byrne sums it up nicely. However i do think there should be room to allow some degree of that, whilst still (and this is the caveat) providing other books with the same character that do the nice apple pie cops and robber stuff for the kids (e.g Superman family Adventures). But if the only thing being produced with that character is adult oriented then yes, i do think that is wrong.
        Don’t get me wrong, im not some violence obsessed mouth breather, in fact i kinda miss the cops and robber aspect of old too (evented-out as you might say) but it is occasionally nice to see Garth Ennis let loose on the MAX imprint. Which is why im so looking forward to the upcoming Wolverine MAX – because lets face it, even though we don’t read it in the normal X books, we all know Logan curses like a sailor – he’s just that kinda guy. It’ll be good to have him let loose.

        By the way, i kinda want to see that little mermaid scene you imagined above…ahem.

        Best regards

        PS Cap’s War And Remembrance arrived in the post this week (as per your recommendation) im very much looking forward to some pure Cap.

      • Bob Reyer

        Hi Rep!

        Thanks for the continued interest, as well as the constructive back-and-forth…it’s much appreciated, .and quite instructive.

        For me, it’s about the balance you’re describing, pure and simple. If some “creator” wants to do a MAX version of some iconic character, I could live with it, as long as the “on-model” version is available as well! What I personally can’t stomach is when the MAX version becomes the “standard”, which has become the case way too often.

        Thanks again,
        Bob
        ps) How about a Little Mermaid/ Punisher Team-up, but only if it’s in TRIPLE-MAX, with extra violence and gore…and maybe some shtupping?

        pps) I had forgotten about my recommendation of “War & Rememberance”; you’ll love that, Rep!

        pps2) SSSSHH…don’t tell anyone, because they are probably monitoring this, but Audrey and I agree with your take on the Second Amendment, and ARRGGGHHHH……….
        (The remainder of this message has been redacted by order of Homeland Security)

  3. AvatarofLoki

    Afternoon!

    While I have voiced before that I agree with you to a certain extent, I am a bit puzzled by this current article.

    I cannot see a medium that is on one hand being persecuted for abandoning its original audience of children, also being charged with corrupting our youth (that are by-and-large not reading) once more to drive any form of outside regulation. They seem to be two mutually exclusive scenarios that are both being portrayed simultaneously.

    Discounting the fact that there is 50’ish years of pre-existing all ages material available for the younglings, nothing is preventing these companies from printing new all-ages material utilizing their intellectual property, and in fact there are currently options available on the shelf today. Unfortunately for that style of books, the sales have been dwarfed by its adult-oriented contemporaries. So while they do print them sparingly, that seems to be a result of good business practices with a product suffering from an already slim margin of profit.

    Would there be demand for these tales, more would be printed; but at the current pricepoint in comparison to options available, there are not many parents clamoring to buy these titles for their children regardless of content. I know I am preaching to the choir, but $3/4/5 for a small periodical that WILL be demolished in the hands of a child faster than you can blink; is a lot of money to your average cash-strapped parent to justify buying more than a sparingly few times a year. Which at that point, it does not matter what ongoing is available, its just what is kid-friendly and there at that particular moment.

    So if there are titles available, but other forces are keeping those stories out of the hands of children, why should the first step be regulating content? I know you are against a revived CCA, but what you propose is a shadow-CCA without the accountability. In the context you write it, the creators would need to regulate the actions of their characters by writing/drawing them ‘responsibly’. Responsibly would indicate there are guidelines (unwritten and vague guidelines at that), which in turn means that there is restriction in the stories they would like to tell. This is would lead to a silent, behind-the-scenes regulation of content without any organization to appeal to. Personally I would see that as even more restrictive than a CCA arrangement…

    While we can argue the merit of whether it is a lost artform or not in the modern era, storytelling is indeed an art. Any walls built to restrict any artistic medium is a personal no-no in my opinion; and as I said earlier, there are no walls preventing both from existing together other than demand.

    As I’ve typed up before, I completely agree with your assessment that comics need to be put into the hands of children. I just disagree that content is a driving reason parents are not doing so now over factors such as price, longevity, availability, etc with the current options available.

    Always enjoy your op-eds, even if we disagree, so thanks for taking the time to make your voice heard!

    • Giant Woman

      Afternoon, sorry to jump in on this one, but I’d like to add my ten pence worth, hopefully no-one minds! You seem to have read something different in this article to me; I’m not sure that an attack abandoning children and corrupting youth are wholly different. Personally I define “children” and “youth” separately, but that’s by the by. If you are producing content that parents could view as seditious, they will stop the children reading it, therefore you are forcing them away as readers, causing their abandonment, no?

      Anyway, that wasn’t the point I wanted to make. One of them was that not all comics are expensive, and not all children destroy them immediately – or in fact ever! I have a friend with a 4 year old who will sit perfectly nicely reading his comics and books, especially when they have his favourite characters in them (chiefly Spider-Man and Wolverine) but finding books suitable for him is a tough mission that I have sadly been given. The advent of digital comics is making them more readily available to a wider audience, given the lower price points that seem to come with digital titles, but you state that if there was a demand for more child-friendly titles, more would be published, but how exactly do you suggest that demand is measured? I tend not to buy the currently available ‘child friendly’ titles because they don’t have the characters I want in them, but surely the success of TV shows such as Ultimate Spider-Man and Young Justice show that there is an audience out there?

      I am not sure that Bob is suggesting a “shadow-CCA”, but simply saying that creators don’t need to continually up the ante on the sex and violence, and that it does credit to the original characters that they can be written for younger audiences. Bob is not (as far as I can tell) suggesting we curb the art of story-telling – surely writing a story for an audience that you do not usually write for is a more creative and difficult process than just churning out more of the same fodder that we are used to? You don’t need guidelines to have responsibility, and guidelines do not always equal restrictions – although I doubt that any non-creator-owned projects come without a shed load of restrictions and guidelines from the publishers!

      Anyway, I’m off now, to try and find a strong female character in a comic suitable for the cousin of the 4 year old I mentioned earlier, because she wants in too, but doesn’t like Spidey as much as he does!

  4. AvatarofLoki

    No problem GiantWomam!

    From my perspective, the two statements would have to be different. If a product is not made for or marketed to a segment of the population, it cannot be held against the producer of that content that the end-result is objectionable for that particular segment. I think of it along the lines of movies. If I make an R movie, a reviewer really has no leg to stand on by saying ‘The movie was good, but I am giving it 1-star because it was wholly inappropriate for my 6-year-old child.’ It was not made for the child, and therefore cannot be held accountable that the content was not child-friendly.

    Much like the original topic that started the conversation, when the Aurora shootings happened, and people were starting to link it to the Batman mythos; did you hear any newscycles talking about the comics? Nope. They were all referencing the movies and the Joker’s anarchistic portrayal in the second movie. Comics have been relegated to a corner that has no bearing on the influence of children, adults, or anyone in the eyes of the mainstream. (I do not believe this to be a true assessment, it is just a blanket statement from how much comicbooks themselves are brought up as influential in everyday conversation outside of the culture itself.) So no relevance, no real gain from attacking it.

    As for a measure of demand, it would certainly be sales from the publishers standpoint. The point I was trying to make was there are kid-friendly books out now. They are not selling in any comparable fashion to the adult fare. So is it truly the salacious content keeping parents from buying when there are traditional options available (and front of the line in bookstores) and they are not buying those? I understand there is a question of a characters popularity, but it would seem practically every top-tier character from both publishers has been in a kid-friendly series in the last 10 years. The vast majority of which were cancelled because there was no demand to support publication.

    As for durability, I have an 8-yr old son. When he gets a book, it lasts about 30 days before covers rip, chocolate sticks pages together, or it just falls apart from being tossed into a basket next to his bed. My SO refuses to pay $3-4 for something that will just be trashed in a month in comparison to buying a DVD or toy that will last years. I still buy them for the munchkin, but I am silly like that and enjoy getting yelled at for frivolous expeditures from my beloved. :P

    And for our final point of discussion, a border is a restriction. If there are lines on what is considered responsible, or respectable, or for lack of a better word sanitized; then the stories thay want to tell have to be molded to fit an arbitrary box for a market that as I was stating above, are not buying the offerings that currently fit that criteria. In that scenario, it would be a lose-lose for both parties involved as those wanting adult stories would be letdown, and those wanting more classical stories would be letdown when sales cancelled said series (only going by market history, not stating it certainly would!).

    Those are the reasons I believe content is not the driving force keeping parents from buying the books. And if parents are not buying the books for kids, there is no pushback from governing authorities because the medium is not being read by kids.

    But as always, it is only my opinion, and I do not state anything as a hard fact as I have been wrong (SOOOOOO many times) before!

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