What If Comics Had Been a Place Without Codes? Would We Live as Air?

I’ve been having some technical issues these past few days and time hasn’t really been my friend but what I’m going to write here past most reasonable people’s sense of sleep is another down and dirty, and therefore ad hoc, article on comics.  So if anyone out there is an expert or has done their homework, by all means, please correct me if need be.

As some of you already know Sequart created and is now in the process of editing, a Kickstarter called She Makes Comics: a documentary on women in the comics industry and the culture surrounding it. One element in particular that it has focused on is the fact that long ago there were more female readers of comics than they were male. Now, I wrote a short article on what will soon be called GeekPron in which I found some of my own assumptions to the question, well, questioned.

I believed that it was the Comics Code Authority, inspired by the fear of McCarthyism “witch-hunting,” blacklisting, the detrimental testimonials by psychological experts such as Frederic Wertham, and a loss of business that had comics publishers eliminate most of their different genres of comics and focus mainly on watered-down stories about superheroes. All the horror, revenge, gore, westerns, romances, and sexuality all went the way of the dodo at the time because of fear. Anything that challenged the rules of the Comics Code, of authority always being right and just for starters, could not exist in mainstream corporations that published for money.

But the comic book editor Janelle Asselin also mentioned that this female readership of 55% over 45% of male readers changed as the superhero genre became more mainstream. Think about that: the idea that after a time the superhero not only reduced a female readership, but also eliminated or greatly marginalized a whole body of stories and genres that made the medium different. I realize now, looking back on what I wrote earlier, that these two statements are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

I mean, if you are afraid of losing your business and your liberty in telling stories for which you want a certain pay cheque and livelihood then eliminating anything that could be construed as an overt challenge to your culture’s status quo or even subversive to it, it unfortunately makes a horrible kind of sense.

The godfather of manga Tezuka Osamu once said that “Now we are living in the age of comics as air.” And while he was most likely referring to the influence of manga in Japan as becoming more widespread, its connotations can be applied to the comics medium in general. According to Paul Gravett, in Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, Tezuka believed that comics without passion or originality can become damaging and even create pollution. It took me a long time to figure out what this meant. When I first encountered the quote and the explanation, I thought that it referred to the potential damage to the morality of the reader but now I realize that the quote can definitely apply to comics as a medium and what occurred during the heyday of the Comics Code Authority.

The age-old notion of the superhero ghetto that we are so used to hearing about with regards to the comics medium: the notion of an immature all-boys club with shallow depictions of sexuality and simplistic violence with no consequences is damaging not only society’s concept of the medium but also that of its readers and future creators.

I’m not, by any means, saying that the comics that existed before the Code and its predecessors were the fonts of enlightenment for gender or, really, humankind. But there was a lot more experimentation before the Code and it just makes you wonder: what would have happened if these vigilantes and superhuman beings in tights had just remained one of many genres and there had been no Code?

I mean, there is always the scenario that Alan Moore presented in Watchmen: that if masked heroes and one a superhero had been in existence then no one would have paid attention to Wertham and the horror comics of Bill Gaines and friends would have dominated the medium from the fifties all the way into the eighties: becoming darker and more grotesque with time while also innovating itself much like our comics have done.

But that is just one creative interpretation. Who knows? Maybe a flat period of unoriginal and recycled stories would have followed regardless. Perhaps female readership demographics would have changed or something else would have challenged the “morals of comics:” for or against the status quo. Or we could have had another Golden Age: where comics became, earlier on, a widely accepted form of beautiful art and every great artist might have tried their hand at one. Maybe comics could have become widely accepted and mainstream coffee table or instructional as manga has in Japanese society to an almost ubiquitous degree. Instructional comics even had their place in North American society and to some extent they still do.

Of course, those latter thoughts are just me playing at utopia and I’ve never been really good at that. Maybe if there had been no Code comics would have, earlier, been just another form that challenged conventional morality much like any work of great art or literature should. Of course, again, this also happened in the Western world through the advent of what we understand as Underground Comix defying the establishment during about the late 60s: about that same time frame that Asselin gave when she talked about the female comics readership majority existed from the 1950s to the 1960s. Or perhaps the comics medium would have burned itself out as a fad and amateurs such as myself would be wondering, even then, what if: what if it had been different.

As for me, if you really want my honest opinion I will say this. I think that if there had been no Comics Code or anything like it children would have still been influenced by Tales from the Crypt, and Archie, and The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and all of those others. And some girls and women would have had Wonder Woman and Black Fury. Many things would have continued on, but sometimes I think about that idea of all people–young, old, straight, LGBTQ, male, and female, different ethnicities, different classes–making their own comics and showing them to their friends and the world. They would realize how different they and everyone else are but also how many things they have in common.

And when you wipe away my pseudo-utopia of a whole loss of potential for a readership of intensely intelligent men, women, and sentient beings, when it comes down to it I do like the idea that without the Code and the forces behind its development, the medium of comics would have been considered more than just silly laughter and transparently hidden BDSM parodies. Those things would have been a part of the kaleidoscope. I think that many more people might have seen comics as a medium that tells all kinds of stories: a space inside and outside of us that is pictures and words. I think many more people may have been more accepting that the medium of comics as that place of sheer variety, like film, between both art and literature.

There is another way to look at Tezuka’s quote about “comics as air.” If you take the pollution of censorship and unoriginality away, what you might ideally have is a fluid art-form that anyone can learn and use. And if you consider that we all live in the continuing Age of Information and in societies that utilize wireless Internet and you include webcomics into the medium … perhaps we can all fly where only superheroes used to tread: up, up, out of the ghetto and away.

Miracleman Balloons

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About matthewkirshenblatt

I am a writer and blogger living in the Greater Toronto Area of Ontario in Canada. When I'm not writing for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization and GeekPr0n, I tend to write science-fiction, epic fantasy, horror, literary and mythological revisionisms, and generally weird fiction stories though I have been known to make poetry, television and comic book scripts. Also, when left to my own devices I tend to write weird and strange hybrid creative opinion piece articles like those you will find on this Blog. I am also very interested in comics, video games, Star Wars, table-top role-playing games, Neil Gaiman's works, H.P. Lovecraft, vampires, zombies, and budgies.
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