Thursday, March 20, 2008

Here, See For Yourself.

So, don't believe what I said in my last post? Don't think it could happen?

Found via Journalista, we have an example of Frederic Wertham's writing itself! Not the fabled Seduction of the Innocent, alas, but an article he wrote for a magazine that covers much of the same ground.

Let me offer a few quotes.

Dorothy Thompson recently wrote about comic books: "The harm done is incalculable, even if it results in no overt acts, and even if at last it is overcome by other influences."

Okay, he's quoting someone else, but look at that: they claim enormous damage even if nothing happens and any bad message a kid may learn is countered in the end. "God only knows what these poor kids have festering in their heads! Why, they may stab their parents in their sleep! Proof? Ah, well, look at all the harm! In the head!"

Children do not think of reading a comic book as they might "read a book". They "look at" a comic. They become picture-gazers, because they can get the main points of the stories from the pictures alone, without bothering to read the words. The damage may show up years later in the disinclination - or inability - to read a whole book from beginning to end. What right do we have to deprive a whole generation of children of the wholesome influence that comes from reading good literature?

Right, not only do comics make you illiterate (which, anecdotally, sounds like bullcrap to me, since as a kid I grew up on comics, and was far more advanced in my reading than the majority of my classmates in school), but they actually somehow prevent kids from reading the good stuff (also bullcrap, I read a lot more than just comics), and it's a moral question, since "we" are depriving kids of good literature by letting them read comics, you know, that's right, allowing kids to read what they like is an active infringement of their rights.

This is why Wertham fails, and can be ultimately dismissed: a lot of what he says is mostly conjecture and opinion presented as fact without much in the way of evidence to back it up, and half of the evidence he does present is just some other doofus pontificating (without evidence) about comics having a negative effect.

They stimulate morbid - especially sadistic - sexuality in young children, without leaving any outlet except deviate day-dreaming, masturbation, and delinquency.

Okay, never mind any actual proof of cause and effect here: Sexual fantasies and masturbation are evil. When kids touch themselves we have failed them as a nation.

In the wording of the code, Mr. Murphy has tipped his hand, too. "Excessive" violence is forbidden. Should not all violence be toned down? "Brutal" torture is forbidden. Does that mean that refined torture is all right? "Excessive" knife and gunplay is forbidden; so is "unnecessary" knife and gunplay. Does that mean that it is all right to stab a guy if need be? Surely this is not a counter-measure, but a cover-up continuation of the cruelty-for-fun education of children.

Think about that. What kind of action story would you have if you removed every last vestige of violence from comics? If the bad guys cannot be bad, what do the good guys fight for? "You'll never get away with mocking authority with your pointed, sarcastic graffiti and journal posts, Joker!" And also consider the attitude of "whatever they're doing, it isn't enough" that permeates this piece.

This was 1953, about as close to the utopian Ozzie and Harriet ideal as was ever achieved (but which only really existed in rose-colored Republican remembrances), and people still think like this to this day.

If being worried about that happening again is being paranoid, fit me for a tinfoil hat.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beware of Buyer's Remorse

Eh, you had yer chance.

During the early postwar years, comic books shifted in tone and content. Fed by the same streams as pulp fiction and film noir, many of the titles most prominent in the late forties and early fifties told lurid stories of crime, vice, lust, and horror, rather than noble tales of costumed heroes and heroines such as Superman, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, whose exploits had initially established the comics genre in the late thirties and early forties. These unprecedented dark comics sprouted from cracks in the back corners of the cultural terrain and grew wild. Unlike the movies and the broadcast media, comic books had no effective monitoring or regulatory mechanism—no powerful self-censoring body like the film industry's Hays Office, no government authority like the FCC imposing content standards. Uninhibited, shameless, frequently garish and crude, often shocking, and sometimes excessive, these crime, horror, and romance comics provided young people of the early postwar years with a means of defying and escaping the mainstream culture of the time, while providing the guardians of that culture an enormous, taunting, close-range target. The world of comics became a battleground in a war between two generations, delineating two eras in American pop-culture history.

--David Hadju, The Ten-Cent Plague

If it seems, sometimes, like I constantly harp on the idea that some in the feminist community are out to squelch the expression of others, if it seems like I can't just accept it when someone says "but we aren't out to deprive you of anything", there's reasons for that.

High on that list is: because it's happened before.

Even Frederic Wertham, often painted by his detractors as a bitter uptight prude, would later, after the Comics Code was put into place, say that wide-ranging censorship wasn't his goal; he merely believed children shouldn't be reading the lurid types of comics he was protesting, as that would turn them into criminals.

We can give him that much benefit of the doubt. I am confident that in his heart of hearts, Wertham believed he was Doing The Right Thing and Thinking Of The Children and all that; that he had nothing but the finest of intentions.


The alarm and ruckus he helped raise ran away, well out of any control he may have wished to exert, and the comics industry clenched its own anus tighter than Tupperware and consigned comics to decades of simplistic morals, dwindling genres, and declining audiences.

Every time you look at a scan of some comic from the Seventies and groan about how stereotypical everything is, how bland and tasteless, how backwards in the attitudes portrayed*, just remember: that is a result of the actions of people who thought they were Doing The Right Thing.

By contrast, over in Japan, where there was far less censorship over the same period, manga matured into a vital and diverse artform. Sure, there are juvenile, tasteless, pandering comics over there, but there's also been, on the whole, a much greater diversity of appeal to a wide variety of perspectives. Sensitive, thoughtful, and even action-filled girls' comics? Sure, lots.

This was achieved without blotting out that which offends, without worrying overmuch about damaging some kid's brain if OH GOD he or she should happen to stumble across something a little bit (or a lot bit) sexy or violent, or perhaps not entirely respectful to every possible sub-group of humans on the planet.

Well, the Comics Code is dead, for all intents and purposes. The distribution pathways that demanded its use are atrophied; they do not support the industry. Mainstream comics are more sophisticated (true, that's a debatable point) and deal with topics the Comics Code was specifically meant to suppress. For all the criticism of modern mainstream comics, they are in many ways better now than they were when the Comics Code was at its peak. And alternative comics are slowly filling in long-lost (or even newly-mined) gaps in genre and complexity.

Consider, however, how much better these comics could have been today if there had never been any Comics Code. What might have happened if the lurid comics from EC and other publishers had matured and evolved naturally over time, as they did in Japan? Is it unreasonable to speculate that there would be a far more healthy industry today, one that retained a diverse range of material for all ages, all genders, all whatever?

Not into speculation? Don't see the problem?

Recently Japan instituted new rules regarding child pornography, rules more approaching those set by the US. (In fact, it seems clear it's mainly pressure from the outside world on Japan that's bringing these rules into existence.) But still, manga and other drawn images are not being made illegal, despite concern over these images from the same groups that endorse the new, tighter restrictions. "Lolicon" manga have long been a source of agitation for many comics-watchers, who see any depiction involving minors and sex as reprehensible, regardless of the fictitious nature of the depiction. You remember the Nymphet controversy, right?

But how many people can get over their own distaste and explore just why such comics came into being in the first place? The kneejerk reaction would seem to be "because Japan is full of perverts!" That may be the case, but it doesn't seem to be the only factor. A cultural obsession with "cute" contributes. In looking for the origins of this genre, it seems that censorship itself has also played a part in bringing out underage subjects in sexual context.

While the degree to which it has been enforced has varied over the years, Japan has had one notable form of censorship in its comics: adult genitalia cannot be shown**. Now, in today's porn-comic industry, this restriction may only result in a thin white rectangle obscuring some bare minimum of an otherwise very explicit picture, but in decades past characters in erotic stories had no more primary sex organs on display than your average Barbie doll. Sex was depicted in "artful" ways, with odd camera angles, and visual euphemisms, and suggestive silhouettes.

Artists who simply had to draw genitals had one avenue of exception: Children's genitals were allowed to be depicted. And that's what some artists began to do, sexualize younger subjects just so they could draw the naughty bits in around the censorship.

This is what suppression does. If it works, it stifles creativity, often in ways not originally intended. If it doesn't work, it motivates sidesteps and workarounds, or brings the attraction of the "forbidden fruit", that which is taboo, into the equation.

If I seem fixated on the subject, consider it a cautionary tale. I have very little against personal dislike for some storyline or artwork. If you don't like something, you don't.

But bring more to it than that, bring in social significance, imperatives of some sort, and I begin to hear echoes of past history. "This is sexist!" becomes "Sexism is bad, kids shouldn't be reading this" becomes "really, something should be done about all this sexism so it doesn't harm our children". Then you turn around and wonder just when it was you signed up for the Non-Sexism Comics Mandate, and why do all the mainstream comics seem even more bland and stale than usual...? Yeah, how did that all happen? After all, you're sure you were Doing The Right Thing.

*And that's what makes the truly good stuff from those times all the more remarkable...

**It's worth noting that this rule was something brought in by the US, post-WWII, and not any particular Japanese cultural imperative of the time. Certainly erotic art from most of Japan's pre-war history was unabashedly explicit.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

If You Don't Ask, You May Never Know.

I haven't had any thoughts really worth sharing for a while, but I'm feeling restless and impatient waiting for my poll to fill up. I do have some thoughts about how that's turning out so far, but maybe setting the time limit to two months was a bit excessive. I may edit that down later (if possible).

In the meantime, here is my current whim: From the time beginning now until I get some inspiration for another post, I'm throwing the door open to questions from my readers, whomever that might be. If you have been puzzled or curious about some facet of my stance on things, if you ever wondered "why does he think like that? Argh!" now is the time to ask.

Writing this, I don't particularly expect much reaction, but in the off chance this sets off the Internet Dumbass Flood of 2008, here's some ground rules:

Try to be clear, but succinct. If you have to preface your question with six paragraphs of setup, you're probably doing it wrong. Likewise, if your question depends on me reading your 70 links to important documents I'll probably pass.

Smartassery will be treated in the same manner in which it was offered, at my discretion. That is, if your question is just an excuse to needle or insult me ("hey, jerkface, why are you such an idiot?"), then you forfeit any expectation of a serious answer.

No, I'm not going to reveal any personal details about myself, except in the most general fashion. Not that I consider my secret identity to be that much in demand, but just in case it comes up, I'm covering that base.

Aside from such exceptions, I pledge to answer any questions as honestly and straightforward as possible.

Any takers?