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.


Scott (The Mad Thinker) Anderson said...

RE: the Japanese law that differentiates between child porn with photos and child porn from drawings. For me, there is an enormous difference between a drawing of a kid in some sexual situation and forcing some child to be in a sexual situation so that you can take a picture of it. I'm against child porn that exploits children, but I'm not opposed to exploiting ink. While I suppose I’d find drawn child porn distasteful if I saw it, I’m not opposed to its production. I often quote from the would-be anti-porn Meese report and one of the studies contained in it found that sexual abuse of child decreased as porn’s (including child porn) availability increased. If the trend was the reverse of what the study found, there is a very good chance I’d reverse my stance, but as is, it seems like I would ironically actually be promoting child abuse by being against child porn.

James Meeley said...

For me, there is an enormous difference between a drawing of a kid in some sexual situation and forcing some child to be in a sexual situation so that you can take a picture of it. I'm against child porn that exploits children, but I'm not opposed to exploiting ink.


I think you've nicely summed up a lot of "straight guys" feelings about how women are portrayed in comics (especially superhero ones) and how they are treated in the real world. I don't hold the same expected standards for a drawing of ink and color, that i do for a real human being.

Funny thing, though, is how so many people treat real people over the preceived slights towards "beings" of ink and color. It is an irony that would seem to escape the notice of many who do this very thing.