Welcome to SBC’s The Panel, a chance for you to put your burning questions – comics-related or otherwise – to a group of comics professionals.
The Panel lives or dies by your contributions; please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add them to the list…
This week’s question comes from Donna Barr and is as follows:-
“When somebody says they write books, it’s assumed they write for adults. When WE say we write comics, it’s assumed we write for kids.
If we say we write “adult” or “mature” comics, it’s assumed we write porn.
Who did this to us? Who made it possible for our retailers to be arrested because — in an American court — “everybody knows comics are for kids.”? Who made all our jobs harder now?
Who do we burn in effigy? If not in person?”
Wait a minute. Do I answer my own question?
All right: off the deep end.
It was done to us by weak tits who caved in to the mind-set of HUAC and Seduction Of The Innocent. The same generation as that of actors who caved to HUAC. The kind of weak-minded actors who go to Columbine and Flint, Michigan to represent the NRA after the kids’ heads were blown open (“I was jes’ doing a role. I was jes’ followin’ orders. Hyuk hyuk hyuk. Or is that Huac huac …. wait a minute… GOOFY was a dissident!?).
I’ve never understood why that gang was so weak. They were always writing commie books about the Bad Germans and how they should have stood up to the Nazis. Pft. Our gang never had anything more dangerous threatening them than blacklisting. Our gang didn’t have a gun at their heads, or their uncle in a punishment battalion, or a daughter in a camp. But our gang, all high-and-mighty, totally caved and knuckled under.
For shame. Weak weak weak weak.
And yes, I resent it. I resent it each and every time our shops are raided, our books are seized and burnt, our art form denigrated and despised.
I just helped a comic-book lovin’ bookstore owner get comics back in his life after getting so badly burned in the Marvel idiocy. I mean, WHO does not know about the book market returns policy? Did they not KNOW they were going to get most of those silly spandex collections back? Were they STUPID? Oh, that’s right. They let the bean-counters come in and take them over. Or, let’s call those guys by their right name — WILDCATTERS. There is a history in America of carpetbagging on a crop, and here’s Marvel, hoodedoo, falling for it all over again like some dork alfalfa farmer who thinks he’s found oil on his land cuz the wildcatter showed him a smelly cup of dirt. I mean, who did NOT see it coming? HELEN KELLER?
I mean, these are the people who thought that, just because MAUS got the Pulitzer, everybody would pick up their silly overwritten circus costume boy power fantasies! They took the credit that Spiegelman had won for our artform, and totally blew it away with spidey powers. We had a toe in the bookstore market, and the Zombies got the door slammed on that toe. Where are these heads, and why are they not rolling?
It took people like Eric Shanower and Carla Speed MacNeil and Jane Irwin and all the rest of the people with brains and talent enough to do all their own book and — gasp — OWN THEIR OWN COPYRIGHT — to pry the door back off our poor bleeding toenail. We should put them on a float of whipped cream so they can do the parade wave through the middle of the hall at SDCC. And we should all bow down and then throw candied cherries. Or liqour. Or COFFEE.
Oh, don’t get me started…
Donna Barr has books and original art at www.stinz.com, webcomics at www.moderntales.com, www.girlamatic.com, and has POD at www.booksurge.com Nothing she won’t try, at least once.
First…eager-beaver politicians, angling either to move up in the hierarchy or else to keep the job they have, see comic books as easy targets. Unlike, say, the movie industry with the MPAA, there is no central lobbying group that protects comics from onslaught by censors (the CCA is fairly toothless and certainly doesn’t extend to most publishers these days in any event.) And comics are good headline fodder because they can wave the “Do it for the children” banner which doesn’t apply to, say, hard core adult bookstores. Which is why you get wildly contradictory community standards issues wherein adult bookstores are left unmolested while a comic book store has to fear for its life because someone might read “Fallen Angel,” see the words “blow job,” and freak out that their kids will be corrupted.
Second…superheroes. Superheroes, from their initial launch through to the beginnings of the Marvel age, were seen as paper thin, one-note, childish wish fulfillment figures. As much as that view has changed, it still holds sway for many in terms of perception and media presentation (how many comics articles do we read that are headlined “Pow! Zam!”) There’s already a school of thought that says the combination of words and pictures is evocative of kiddie picture books. Add to that the dominance of the medium by superheroes, and you’ve got the pervasive view of comics as kidfare.
Peter David writes stuff, including the much-underrated Fallen Angel, the first trade of which has just been released – it’s essential reading.
Oh, I think this calls for a throwing of stones, don’t you? That’s always good fun. (Verbally, of course. I don’t condone physical flinging, and I’m a rubbish shot anyway.)
Let’s target DC and Marvel/Atlas/Timely first, for their role in a key moment in American comic book history.
In 1954, Frederick (please spit now) Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” was published, in which he argued that juvenile delinquency could be traced back directly to comics. Believe it or not – and I understand any and all incredulity at this point – people took the little fucker seriously, to the extent that it provoked a U.S. Senate hearing into the matter.
At that point, I swear to God, nothing need have happened. The issue and evidence would have fizzled out as speculative at best, a move towards censorship at worst.
Unfortunately, something did happen: The Comics Code Authority.
Here’s Frank Miller in 1994:
“The Comics Code never helped anybody who was worth a damn. It was nothing but a vicious, cowardly attempt to put the best publishers in comics history out of business. We’ve been stuck with that wretched, dumb-as-a-brick Code for decades… all because a pack of lousy publishers couldn’t compete with William M. Gaines 40 years ago. You bet it has stopped good comics from being published, and not to protect children.”
William Gaines was the publisher at EC, one of the companies producing comics which adults actually enjoyed (“Tales from the Crypt” etc.). Under the CCA (the mechanics of all this would take pages to explain), the movement of mass market comic book material (i.e. that which was on the public radar) by larger companies towards intelligent, articulate and visually arresting content was stopped dead in its tracks.
(Underground comix are another matter entirely – given their distribution outlets the mainstream were never going to stumble upon them.)
Now let’s look to the continent of Europe where none of that happened.
Public respect for the medium as adult entertainment has grown there sufficiently for Bilal to get his Beast Trilogy vol 2 rated as France’s number one book for the summer of 2003. Impressive? It’s not unusual there.
Let’s look to Japan, where none of that happened either: most of the population, infant and adult alike, read comics.
So what happened in Britain – and more specifically America, on whom we in the UK rely for so much in this industry – to make Donna’s assertion so demonstrably true?
We threw it all away.
First with the manipulation of (rather than capitulation to) the Comics Code Authority, and then through 99% of comic book retailers consistently failing over the last two decades to stock intelligent, adult-orientated work like Donna Barr’s, Gary Spencer-Millidge’s, Roberta Gregory’s and Roger Langridge’s (to name just four very close to home) in an environment in which ordinary people felt comfortable.
All the public have had on their radar for so many years is product for kids. It’s all they see, so it’s all they suppose exists. You can’t blame them.
Good news: it’s going to change.
There is now so much razor-sharp material aimed specifically at literate adults available in the format the public will be tempted by (collections or original graphic novels), that the momentum will gather, growing mainstream coverage will increase to a critical mass, and the next generation of comic book creators who do write and draw for adults won’t have to qualify themselves every time they’re asked what they do for a living.
Plus that living in question will finally be a damned sight plusher.
I know this to be true.
It’s why we opened shop in the first place.
Stephen Holland runs Page 45, a comic shop in Nottingham, with Mark Simpson and Tom Rosin. All the material listed above has, from our very inception, been consistently available at Page 45 and will never leave our shelves whilst in print. Ask any of its creators.
I blame the BIFF! POW! sixties Batman TV show, so I guess you could go after Adam West.
Seriously, being misunderstood is the challenge that was set aside for us comics folk years ago. It’s our fate.
My personal favorite story about how misunderstood we are:
I was pushing graphic novels to the American Bookseller Association crowd at their convention, circa 1992. I asked a white-haired, kindly old lady to take a look at our graphic novel selection, how there was something there for every taste. She shook her head and made a face. “I don’t like GRAPHIC things!” she said. “Too violent!”
There is some logic you just can’t argue with.
Anyway, we should continue to fight the good fight against mislabeling and misunderstanding, and not play the blame game. Be problem-solvers, not finger-pointers. Surely, as each generation passes, more and more people will come in contact with the Frank Miller books, the Alan Moores, the Tim Trumans, the Scott McClouds and the Matt Wagners. Then the old impressions will die away.
Now more than ever, there are trade paperbacks and original graphic novels in print, with promises to resurrect wonderful past series like AMERICAN FLAGG! and GRIMJACK; with new and talented creators coming along every year. Hang in there and plug away! I’m confident we’ll win in the end.
In the meantime, join the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to help us get past the sticky parts.
Jesse Leon McCann is a New York Times Best-selling Author. He’s currently editing the fourth Simpsons TV Episode Guide for Bongo Comics/Harper Perennial, and writing stories for DC Comics’ Looney Tunes and Cartoon Cartoons.
The PMRC, the ACLU, the FBI, the CIA, the House, the Senate, the Right, the Left, the Bible Belt, the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Parents, the Kids, the Teachers, the Perverts, the Good, the Bad, the Ugly…
Basically, everyone. Because somewhere along the way, no matter how enlightened everyone thinks they are, we’re all full of hot air and still have some of the same beliefs as we did in high school or college.
I said we, so I’m included.
Vito Delsante’s creator owned mini-series, “The Mercury Chronicles”, with artist Jim Muniz, is now in development with Image Comics and will hit stands late this year. “Batman Adventures Vol 2: Shadows and Masks” (DC Comics) is out now! He will next be seen in Reflux Comics #3 (August) and in X-Men Unlimited #5 (October).
I have no idea who’s ultimately responsible, but the notion that the comic book industry is filled with a bunch of misfits trapped in a state of arrested development, refuses to properly die off. Hell, most people would probably be surprised that we consider ourselves an “industry” to begin with. But with no one person or thing to blame, we’re left with this continued response, this uphill and likely futile battle against people that either don’t know, or don’t care to know differently. For a long while, I thought that it was worth time and effort to sprint toward this golden chalice of mainstream acceptance, but seriously, fuck it. Why even bother?
Had a really interesting convo. with a co-worker recently about racism, and how quickly and religiously the word “nigger” flew out of her family member’s mouths when she was growing up. We got into a short exchange about prejudice/discrimination and her final statement was something along the lines of me fighting this from a personal level, “by showing everyone what an upstanding citizen I am.”
I really didn’t have the heart to tell her what an incredibly stupid fucking thing that was to say, as if I should get on my hands and knees and beg some bigoted bastard to join the 21st century with the rest of us. The industry’s dilemma isn’t quite the same thing, but it does deal with reversing long-held and mistakenly ingrained beliefs of people who could give a shit about realizing otherwise. The average potential consumer doesn’t care about comics, and whether or not they’re safe for eight year olds. They’re somewhere watching The Simple Life and buying Ashlee Simpson CDs. When has the “mainstream” ever known what was good for them?
Should I be getting a boner from the fact that Entertainment Weekly runs a Comics section every six weeks? Are we that desperate for attention that we’ll just lap anything up in measured appreciation? Either people want to cover comics or they don’t. No reason for us to stay bent over at the waist, waiting for anyone “official” to come along, and make us feel justified. Less attention should be devoted to what someone else thinks of us, when the energy is better served ensuring that we’re advancing the artform as much as possible. At one time, I was into this whole debate, but I really can’t force myself to care why the outside doesn’t respect comics any more. I’m more concerned that Wildcats was just canceled, Sleeper can’t crack the Top 100, and Ex Machina debuting at 81 is considered a victory.
Brandon Thomas is one of the writers of Spider-Man Unlimited #3, scripter of Youngblood, creator of Cross and long-time Ambidextrous columnist.