Monday, May 21, 2001

Week of 05/21/2001

Wertham Revisited?
- by David Matthews 2

"I just feel that there's something wrong with this current system, that if a book does not bear the stamp of the Comics Code Authority that there's something wrong with the book. I think frankly that's just bullsh*t. And that level of bullsh*t has really hurt the comic-book business in America for the past 50 years. If you get to other countries in the world where there hasn't been this institution, comic books have become a significant, interesting, lively mainstream form of media with a tremendous amount of creative freedom and a hugely diverse offering." - Bill Jemas, Marvel Comics

On May 16th, 2001, the people who brought the world Captain America and the X-Men gave their own blow for freedom and the American way of life.

In a press conference that garnered little attention, Marvel Comics made the announcement that they would be abandoning the Comics Code Authority. Executives said that they would no longer adhere to the fifty-year old morality code of the CCA, declaring the code to be outdated, and it’s "seal of approval" meaningless in today’s comic book market.

Of course, Marvel would not be the first to abandon the CCA. DC Comics had strayed from the CCA decades ago, first with mainstream comic characters such as Green Arrow, Vigilante, and the Doom Patrol, then later with their own Vertigo label.. and then again when DC purchased Wildstorm Comics. Wildstorm itself came from Image Comics, an organization of writers and artists who felt constrained by both the CCA and corporate mentalities. And there have been scores of other smaller publications who have also made the decision to abandon the CCA.

But you never really heard of these others flat-out abandoning the Code, did you?

As a matter of fact, how many of you even HEARD of the Comics Code Authority? Or know the history behind it?

That’s precisely Marvel’s point. Most people don’t know. Or care, for that matter.

But once upon a time, they did.

The Comics Code Authority was the comic book world’s unpleasant alternative to government censorship fifty years ago. Back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when the only "freedom" actively practiced in America was the freedom to suppress, the moralists began to turn their attention to a popular publication called the comic book.

Quite predictably, they didn’t like what they saw.

They saw a wide array of comic books and comic strips, geared towards all ages of readers. They saw fan favorites like Superman, Batman, the Human Torch, Wonder Woman, the Phantom, Popeye, and Bugs Bunny. But they also saw the horror books like "Tales from the Crypt" and "House of Horror." Clearly these were not books for kids, and they discussed issues at the time that they themselves did not like. So they piously made the declaration that comic books were evil and had to be stopped "for the good of the children."

The man leading this charge against the animated world was a New York psychiatrist by the name of Fredrick Wertham. From his lofty intellectual world, he stood in judgement not only of horror books, but also the mainstream "superhero" books, and declared them a menace to the youth of America.

To prove his point, Wertham related dozens of instances where children leaped off rooftops trying to fly like Superman. He pointed to testimonials from parents who said that their "precious little angles" became sadistic demons once they began reading comic books. And when he couldn’t use words from paranoid parents, he began to make his own judgements. Batman, for instance, was not a nighttime vigilante, but rather a wealthy pedophile who has a young boy (Dick Grayson), who is given a girl’s nickname (Robin), and is forced to wear shorts to expose his legs, and they both live reclusive lives without any sign of an active heterosexual social life. Wonder Woman was initially dressed as a Can-Can girl, which in those days was considered a floozy. Her costume back then consisted of a red bustier, blue skirt, and boots. The bustier, of course, exposed her shoulders and her cleavage. The skirt barely reached to the knee. Clearly not something your average "upright" woman would wear in public in those days.

Armed with their so-called "expert judgement" from Wertham and others like him, the moralists went to Congress to demand action. And it was the self-named House Subcommittee for Un-American Activities, that bastion of tyranny that made a publicity whore named Joe McCarthy famous, that would call hearings on the "appropriateness" of comic books. And no doubt many in the comic book publishing world feared those hearings would eventually lead to censorship legislation, or else they would not have agreed to self-censorship through the creation of the Comics Code Authority.

Almost fifty years have passed, and a lot has changed.

For one thing, comic books have moved away from the "kids only" tag and moved back into the adult crowd. Frank Miller’s "Dark Knight Returns" presented a grittier Batman who wasn’t afraid to bloody a nose or break a few bones. "Watchmen", a mini-series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, gave the world more realistic superheroes, and showed their effects not only in society, but also in history. I mean, how could America lose the Vietnam conflict with the help of the most powerful men in the world?

Even mainstream comic books became more and more grittier. The nobility of Captain America and the ethics of Daredevil gave way to the killers and assassins named Punisher and Wolverine. Green Arrow dropped his sidekick after his heroin addiction, and he abandoned his Batman-like trick arrows and became a killer after his girlfriend Black Canary was brutally assaulted.

American readers were also getting introduced to Japanese comics, or Magna, which not only had a children’s section, but also an adult one. The Japanese had no mental stigmas about comic books being a "kids only" genre, and American adults were eager to read quality work that wasn’t watered down. All of which, by the way, were without that CCA seal on them.

Now let’s get brutally honest here… Marvel did not have to make a big production about their departure from the Code. They could have easily crept away from the CCA without completely abandoning them, as did rival DC. In fact, if you look carefully with a microscope, you should still find that "Seal of Approval" on the covers of DC’s more popular titles. Or they could have abandoned the CCA without even so much as a notice.

But by making a public announcement and making it clear why they are abandoning the CCA, Marvel Comics has once again placed itself squarely in the sights of the moralists, daring them to once again take action.

And this commentator has no doubt that at some point, the moralists WILL be taking shots at Marvel Comics. For while times have changed for the rest of us, moralists have not. They continue in their anti-American ways to suppress freedom under the guise of "protecting children" by getting the local police to shut down comic book stores and arresting store owners. It really doesn’t matter if the charges are later dropped
(as recently happened to one store owner in Texas) or if the owners are found not guilty. Quite often the intent of the moralist is not to win cases, but simply to drive the struggling owner out of business. Essentially they engage in economic terrorism.

And given the recent crusades against anything "violent", it would not take long before the Federal Trade Commission starts peering into the comic book world just as they are doing now with movies, music, and television. It would not be much of a leap before the FTC starts doing an "expanded study" on print media.

Marvel, however, is not the same publishing organization of fifty years ago. They have much more money, not to mention much more support today than ever before. Comic book writers, artists, and fans have also banded together to form the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization dedicated to fighting moralism and defending the rights of responsible comic book store owners, artists, and publishers.

Other comic book publishers will no doubt make their own decision to stay or to leave the CCA, but they shouldn’t expect the CCA’s "Seal" to protect them from all moralists. Former 2000 Presidential candidate Harry Browne said it best when he said the following:

"The first step in freeing yourself from social restrictions is the realization that there is no such thing as a "safe" code of conduct - one that would earn everyone's approval. Your actions can always be condemned by someone - for being too bold or too apathetic, for being too conformist or too nonconformist, for being too liberal or too conservative. So it's necessary to decide whose approval is important to you."

Much like their X-men, Marvel Comics and their supporters will have to prepare for a conflict that hopefully will never materialize. Much like the anti-mutant bigots of their world, the moralists of the real world are also self-righteous and scared of the things they have no control over. But unfortunately, it will not be adamantium claws or eye-beams that will win this struggle. Rather, it will take good hearts to stand up against the self-righteous, and to remind them what freedom really is all about.

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