Speak no evil

Today’s post is brought to you by Banned Books Week, which ends tomorrow. During this annual event, sponsored by organizations including the American Library Association and  American Society of Journalists and Authors, people are encouraged to read books that others have deemed too dangerous for society. For more than 70 years now, many have presumed that all comic books fall into this category.

The Huffington Post’s list of 10 banned graphic novels gives some recent examples of comics that teachers and librarians have sought to keep out of the hands of impressionable young readers. For information on court actions against questionable comics, visit the Web site of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (which I featured in my recent post on the Small Press Expo).

But rather than talk about the attempts of governments and educational institutions to stifle creative expression in comics form, I want to share a brief history of self-censorship in the comics industry. Sadly, there is a long tradition of comic book publishers giving profits and good public relations priority over the desires of writers and artists to tell good stories.

Senate hearing

New Jersey Senator Robert C. Hendrickson, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, points out some of the comics accused of corrupting America's youth.

Enforced innocence
The most famous instance of comic book censorship resulted from a wave of anti-comics hysteria that swept the country in 1954. As I mentioned in my post on superhero role models, this is the year psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, his book charging comics with promoting everything from homosexuality, to murder, to fascism. This was also the year that Wertham appeared as a star witness before the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, which launched a congressional inquiry (more like Inquisition) into the allegedly corrupting influence of comic books on America’s youth. (In fairness to the prosecution, most of the attention was focused on crime and horror stories—deliberately being marketed to kids—that did contain lurid depictions of violence and cruelty.)

CCA seal of approvalIn November 1954, comic book publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America in an attempt to defend themselves against increasingly negative public opinion and to avoid feared congressional regulation of their industry. The CMAA’s first act was to immediately draft the Standards of the Comics Code Authority, which placed far greater restrictions on free speech than Congress ever could—without repealing the First Amendment. The CCA produced a mostly ridiculous list of decency standards primarily aimed at curtailing stories of crime, violence, sex and the supernatural. Publishers had to follow these standards to get the Comics Code seal of approval on their comic book covers. Newsstand and drugstore owners were unlikely to carry comics without the seal and parents were even less likely to let their kids read them.

(For an excellent in-depth account of the Senate hearings, the creation and enforcement of the Comics Code, and the history of government attempts to censor comic books, read  The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu.)

The Comics Code condemned an entire art form to being used solely for the purpose of entertaining children for nearly twenty years. And while prohibiting certain “adult situations” from being depicted in the pages of comic books was supposedly meant to eliminate juvenile delinquency, the CCA also sought to wipe out civil unrest through its General Standards Part A: #3, which insisted that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”

Many superheroes had begun their careers protecting the oppressed and downtrodden from corrupt politicians and government officials. Under the Code they had no choice but to serve as unofficial spokespersons for the Establishment, defending its leaders’ infallibility and moral righteousness regardless of any real-world evidence to the contrary.

Over time, events in U.S. history from the Women’s Movement to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement to Watergate made it impossible for comic book writers, publishers and characters to keep up this charade, and the CCA relaxed some of its standards in 1971 (and again in 1989) to create a slightly more open forum for adult themes and political debate. Today, the Code is mostly ignored by anyone wishing to create comics for mature audiences.

But this hasn’t stopped comic book censorship from recurring whenever publishers feel their creators are exercising their First Amendment rights a little too strenuously.

A higher Authority
The Authority was created for Wildstorm Productions in 1999 by writer Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch. It followed the adventures of a former United Nations super team originally founded to counter extraterrestrial and paranormal threats to Earth. The series was known for its well-scripted dialogue and stunning cinematic layouts full of what has become know as “wide screen” action. However, although then-team leader Jenny Sparks had long claimed that the Authority’s purpose was to make the world a better place, it wasn’t until after her demise in 2000 that the group seriously began to fulfill this vision under new writer Mark Millar (acclaimed comics author whose works include Superman for the Animals, the comic book I worked on for the Doris Day Animal Foundation’s Comics for Compassion program).

The Authority #13

The Authority #13. Cover by Frank Quitely. Copyright DC Comics.

From the moment he took over the series at issue 13, Millar had the Authority going after the “real bastards” of the world—dictators and despots around the globe. Their first mission, drawn by new series artist Frank Quitely, was meant to be a coup d’état against Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, successor, protégé and former vice president to infamous human rights abuser Suharto. However, this idea did not go over well with Wildstorm’s parent company, publishing giant DC Comics (in turn a subsidiary of Time Warner). Apparently, although The Authority was published outside the jurisdiction of the Comics Code, and the government and politician being criticized did not represent the United States, DC thought that it would be too “disrespectful” to specifically identify President Habibie or his nation. Therefore the original panels that identified Indonesia’s capital and its president were ordered altered prior to publication to make the target of the Authority’s wrath more generic.

Click on the images to enlarge.

The Authority censored 1

From The Authority #13. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Frank Quitely. Copyright DC Comics.

The Authority censored 2

From The Authority #13. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Frank Quitely. Copyright DC Comics.

The Authority #27

The Authority #27. Cover by Arthur Adams. Copyright DC Comics.

In Millar’s final story arc as writer on this series, the world’s seven wealthiest nations finally intervene to end the Authority’s meddling in global affairs. The G7 creates a monstrous assassin specifically bioengineered to neutralize and savagely defeat each member, and hires a more pliable group of similarly powered replacements willing to protect the economic and political interests of their native governments. In The Authority #27, artist Arthur Adams drew a collection of makeshift signs posted outside the quarters of the new team’s leader that demonstrated the character’s racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic attitudes. Because the editors at DC Comics felt these signs might be seen as offensive—which was precisely the point—they were removed from the panel that appeared in the published comic.

The Authority censored 3

From The Authority #27. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Arthur Adams. Copyright DC Comics.

In another panel, the G7′s assassin is shown standing next to an unnamed U.S. president in a control room from which the brutalization and humiliation of the Authority’s original team members is being directed. The problem this time was that the president drawn by Adams bore a more than passing resemblance to then real-life Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush. On another occasion this might have been overlooked, but this issue was released shortly after 9-11. DC Comics could not allow the possibility of being perceived as unpatriotic, and so the president received a face lift before the issue went to press.

The Authority censored 4

From The Authority #27. Written by Mark Millar and drawn by Arthur Adams. Copyright DC Comics.

In an interview on the Sequential Tart Web site after leaving the series, Millar expressed his disappointment over the creative restraints put on him by DC Comics.

To be honest, I’d have serious reservations about working with any company which was under the DC umbrella while they’re under the current administration. The Authority was selling more than Superman by our eighth issue, we’d been all over the international press, we’d received huge critical acclaim and been nominated for a ton of awards. And they still dicked us around. How could you possibly trust them with another series when they could decide, on a whim, to do the same again? I should point out that I bear no ill-feeling towards Wildstorm. They fought our corner from the start and I still have a good relationship with all the people there.

The problem with working for corporate mainstream comic book publishers is that they are seldom willing to alienate any potential customers. This sometimes leads publishers to push for stories that will appeal to society’s lowest common denominator.

Captain America #602

Captain America #602. Cover by Gerald Parel. Copyright Marvel Comics.

Tea for two
In Captain America #602, released earlier this year, acclaimed writer Ed Brubaker and artist Luke Ross began a story arc called “Two Americas.” In it an ultra-right wing, racist Captain America impostor is leading a militia group called the Watchdogs in a plan to overthrow the U.S. government and restore America to its “true” values. (For the historic background on this false Cap, see part two of my post on comic book depictions of the 1950s-60s.) The real Captain America and his African-American superhero partner, the Falcon, travel to Boise, Idaho, looking to infiltrate the Watchdogs and capture their leader. Shortly after arriving, they come upon an anti-tax demonstration where outraged citizens are expressing many of the same opinions that we were all hearing on the nightly news at the time.

Captain America and the Tea Party

Panel from Captain America #602. Written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Luke Ross. Copyright Marvel Comics.

When the issue was published, one particular sign in this panel—the one to the left of the large sign in the center—caught the attention of a conservative blogger. He immediately shared his own outraged post denouncing Marvel Comics for associating the Tea Party movement and its “reverence for the U.S. Constitution” with a fictitious group of violent, racist insurrectionists. The mainstream media picked up the controversy and soon Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada was issuing a public apology (which essentially described the scene above as a Tea Party demonstration while simultaneously denying that it was meant to be any such thing).

There was zero discussion to include a group that looked like a Tea Party demonstration. Ed simply wrote in an anti-tax protest into his story to show one of the moods that currently exists in America. There was no thought that it represented a particular group.

Claiming that the message on the sign in question was somehow the result of a typographical error, Quesada promised that it would not appear in future reprints of this story.

Implying that it is only acceptable to publish a comic book about the polarization “that currently exists in America” as long as you don’t actually identify one of the polarizing factions proves that our nation has devolved beyond the possibility for civil discourse (and sets the stage for second rate storytelling). Regardless of what was written on any of the signs in that panel, readers would have recognized the protest as a Tea Party Tea Bag signdemonstration. And Brubaker wasn’t equating the Tea Partiers with the fictional Watchdogs or their crazed leader. If anything, he was merely suggesting that this militia group suspected—rightly or wrongly—that a group of people with such fervent anti-government sentiments would offer a fertile environment to find recruits for their cause. An interview with Ed Brubaker on the Web site io9.com, suggests there might be some truth to this.

I had to shut down my public email because I started getting death threats from, y’know, peaceful protesters. That was really pleasant. [laughs] I guess they’re all for freedom of speech except for mine! What was really infuriating is that they’re weren’t reading the story, they were just reading some blogger. Has our media really come to the point where anyone can just blog about something and it becomes a news article that warrants death threats? We’re seeing this with Trey Parker and Matt Stone of [South Park] receiving death threats from Muslims. How is this any different from Tea Partiers telling me I should die in a fire because I wrote an issue of Captain America? It’s a little disconcerting to me.

Speaking truth to power
The adjective “comic book” is used as an insult to describe movies or books with plots and characters that are shallow, unsophisticated and unbelievable. This goes back to the decades of publishers’ self-imposed requirement that comics deal only in “good always triumphs over evil” morality, G-Rated subject matter, and “my country, right or wrong” nationalism. But from their beginning, comic books—including western, crime, war, and even horror titles—have instructed readers in the importance of obeying rules of civilized human behavior and the consequences of violating them, often in ways that weren’t suitable for children.

When they are given the same creative freedom as books and movies, even superhero comics can achieve artistic greatness. Watchmen, the superhero epic by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, is an unrestricted examination of human relationships, violence and politics recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 greatest English language novels of the last 87 years.

Ed Brubaker’s Captain America embodies the revolutionary ideals this nation was founded on, just as Mark Millar’s Authority spread that revolution to countries whose leaders were unwilling to experiment with democracy. But as long as corporate giants like DC and Marvel (which was recently purchased by Disney) put the drive for massive profits and mass appeal ahead of a desire for intelligent, critical, and sometimes controversial storytelling, works like theirs will remain the exception rather than the rule.

But the “never-ending battle for truth and justice” should never be censored.

[For a glimpse at the diversity of topics addressed in comics by small publishers and independent creators, see my posts on the Small Press Expo.]

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8 Responses to Speak no evil

  1. Julie Falconer says:

    Thanks to you and Jen Boyer I’ve read two of the five graphic novels listed on Huffington Post as the greatest graphic novels of all time. That’s two more than I would have read if I hadn’t met you guys. I think Sandman will have to be next on my list. :)

    • I’m glad to hear I’m succeeding in my mission to spread graphic literacy. Just so you know, Sandman was an ongoing series, unlike Maus or Watchmen, so the entire collection is 10 volumes. If you don’t want to commit to something that long, you might enjoy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is filled with characters from Victorian literature (see my reply to Jeff’s comment below).

      But before you make your next graphic novel selection, you may want to read my soon-to-be-posted review of Duncan the Wonder Dog.

  2. jeff subhumyn says:

    Thanks so much for writing this! Excellent history of the CCA, however I would have liked more modern examples of self-censorship by the comic book industry. When I worked for Forbidden Planet NYC it seemed like every other week DC was recalling a title. There was the All Star Batman and Robin that was pulled because if you squinted really hard you could sort of make out the swear words that were supposed to be blanked out. And then there was the infamous Superman comic where Clark Kent and his father were enjoying what appeared to be ice cold beers together on the cover. DC recalled the issue and replaced the “beer” bottles with bottles that clearly read “soda pop.” It was stupid for three reasons. 1. It wasn’t even clear they were drinking beer. That was up for interpretation. 2. They were both grown men well beyond the legal drinking age. And most importantly, 3. Due to Superman’s alien physiology I don’t think he’s even capable of becoming intoxicated. He can drink all the damn beer he wants and never get drunk.

    • You’re right about DC having a history of printing comics that company president Paul Levitz ordered pulped before distributing. One memorable incident was the scrapping of DC’s Elseworlds 80-Page Giant. It contained Kyle Baker’s humorous story, “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter,” in which indestructible infant Clark Kent is shown being “cooked” in a microwave oven. The story was eventually included in the Bizarro Comics anthology.

      And let’s not forget Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’sThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5 that Levitz ordered destroyed because it contained an authentic early 20th century advertisement for a Marvel Douche, which he felt might lead to a lawsuit from a certain comic book publishing competitor.

      But in keeping with the theme of my site, I was restricting my examples to comics that were censored for political (or “politically incorrect”) content. (The Authority was also censored for images of graphic violence and profanity.)

  3. Liz says:

    Fascinating history! I had no idea the extent to which comics were attacked by censorship. Really amazing.

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