Comic Book Censorship Should Be Banned!
Though not viewed as such by society in general, comic books are one of the most pervasive and influential media forms of 20th-century popular culture. They serve as historical text, both for their artistic merit and their reflection of decades past. They are a lesser-known art form, and are highly undervalued. Being that comic books are easy to identify and many read by children, comics have come under fire for containing what many people believe to be illegal material. In this essay I hope to educate readers as to the real truth of censorship, as well as display three arguments involved in this conflict: that of creating a rating system, parental responsibility, and altogether general ignorance surrounding the topic of censorship and the First Amendment obscenity statute.
Most of the controversy surrounding comics began during the late 1940s and 1950's, when debates were raged over the moral influence of comic books. The fire was fueled by the publication of Dr. Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent in which Wertham blamed the rise of juvenile delinquency on the "bad influence" of comic books. The U.S. Senate promptly began to hold hearings and decided comics were not a cause of juvenile delinquency. However, the comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority (or CCA, a rigid set of rules for industry self-censorship). As a result, industry giant EC Comics was all but driven out of business, canceling most of its ghoulish line including Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt; books considered classics today. Something that has always confused me: If the US Government vindicated comics from censure attack, then why would the comics industry go and create the Comics Code Authority? Why would a healthy, vital industry- selling comic by the trainload- go and castrate itself? Upon further inspection of the Comics Code Authority, I found a startling fact that made me sick to my stomach. You see, comics publishers in the 1950s had a problem: EC Comics. The publisher outsold everyone else's titles by a long shot. The other publishers knew that they couldn't compete, not fairly anyway, so they banded together and used the free-floating fear of the time to shut the company down. If you read the Comics Code (and I have read the original), you'll see it was written with no purpose other than to drive EC Comics out of business. The Code cites, "The word 'crime' should never appear alone on a cover…no comic or magazine shall use the word 'horror' or 'terror' in its title." Being that most of EC Comic's best selling titles contained these words is proof enough of a conspiracy, and is an awful reality. It just reinforces the self-righteous dog-eats-dog mentality that censorship promotes. It also makes me wonder who profits from and is really behind censorship in America and gives new meaning to the Czech proverb "The big thieves eat the little ones".
My first point against censorship involves the CCA: that of a ratings system. Noticing that many titles have grown with the times, groups of citizens have been pushing for more rules that regulate comics, similar to the rating system found in movies. They feel that there should be some type of rating label printed on comic book covers, so that they can judge at a glance what comics are suitable for their children. The CCA does not have a rating system in place, though it does state what should and should not be found within comics and does place its logo on books, or at least comics that are printed by Marvel Comics and DC Comics, ironically enough the figureheads & founders behind the CCA. As I have mentioned, both companies formed the Comics Code in all appearances to measure up to its responsibilities to the American culture scene, but in reality did little more than squash the competition by reputation. In effect, all that a rating system does is put a spotlight onto certain comics. As of now, comics that are aimed at a more serious and adult audience say "mature" somewhere on the front cover. Other than that, there are no other labels placed on covers, no range of ratings to detract from the artistry found on the exterior of a book. I feel that placing those labels and bowing to the opinion of a generally uniformed public does a LOT more damage than it helps. In my opinion, if you give an inch, censures will take a mile infinitely. In his keynote speech at the Diamond Comic Distributors & Retailers Seminar in 1994, Frank Miller, comic book artist and intense advocate of free speech, had this to say about comic book advisories: "We have to stand up and stand together and give the bully a bloody nose. Apologies will only encourage [them] to come back for more….Every cover advisory is a signal to lazy parents and opportunistic politicians that we are theirs for the taking." (Miller 6) I feel that comic advisories have a corrosive effect, in that they cut away at the tether that connects comics to the larger book industry and its First Amendment protection. After all, bookstores don't apologize for selling books and writers don't submit their works to a pack of ratings system bureaucrats- they don't sit down and think, "Is this book an 'R'?" Writers are completely allowed their full ride with the artistic train, they are allowed to write anything and everything they want to- just how the art of writing should be. How is that different from the work that a comic book writer creates? A child could pick up a volume of erotica, yet no one will dare challenge Harper Books. The cold, hard fact is that there is no difference- comics are targeted because they are seen as vulnerable, less serious because they are read by children, and sell for less than three dollars. End of story.
Dodging the Comics Code Authority, the underground comix movement of the sixties and seventies swept across a hippie-era America. Led by edgy cartoonists like Robert Crumb, the comix scene produced an acclaimed body of adult work, many images now on display in the Museum of Modern Art. Crumb was later prosecuted for obscenity for creating the book Zap No.4 and in 1973, after numerous appeals, the book was finally branded obscene and banned, mostly due to the ignorance revolving around first amendment rights. In the eighties, an outgrowth of "underground" comics like Love & Rockets become widely popular, leading to the skyrocketing popularity of small independent titles. The nineties were a great time for underground comic writers to become overnight sensations. Unfortunately, one of those writers became a sensation due to his court case, a little known comic book artist and writer; Mike Diana.
In 1997, Diana was convicted of distributing what was considered obscene material, a comic book named Boiled Angel. Never mind that the judge was later disbarred for accepting bribes, never mind that the book was never intended for children, never mind that the jury selection was a farce (none of the members were considered mental "peers" of Diana…most were significantly older and all were ignorant about the new face of comic books. They had only caped crusaders to compare to Boiled Angel). Though he had only published and distributed his work to a select few of ADULTS who chose to receive it, Diana was sentenced to undergo psychiatric evaluation, to take a course on journalism ethics, to have no contact with minors, and to create no "obscene" material for three years, even for personal use. What the jury and obviously the judge didn't realize was that it was unconstitutional to sentence Diana for his artwork under the "obscene statute" contained within the First Amendment. The very fact that Diana was considered an artist and known as such within members of the comics community was ignored completely. In 1986, Friendly Frank's, a comic book store in Lansing, Ill., was busted for selling "obscene" comics. The case led to the creation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), a organization founded to support the First Amendment rights of industry professionals, including retailers. The case was taken on by CBLDF and moved to an appellate Court. The store's owner was acquitted of all charges. Following the Friendly Frank's case, the CBLDF remains an active watchdog organization and has donating members (myself included) spanning the globe in an effort to erase ignorance.
Which brings me to my second controversy over censorship: Ignorance and misinformation. I am embarrassed to say that before writing this report, I was one of those people that was outraged at the government, disgusted by what I thought it was suppressing. The idea that it is the government behind censorship, this concept of "us against the government", is a lie. The truth is that the government has done all it can to provide for free speech rights; practically every base has been covered for artistic license, other than the obscenity statute, under the wings of the law. Throughout every case of comic book censorship I have read, it is not the government that is the problem, it is the people, and their ignorant moral indignation. When Wertham brought the matter of juvenile delinquency in comic books to the Supreme Court, the comic book industry was exonerated. The government followed the law, comparing it to the aspects of the case and found Wertham's hypothesis flawed…in short, it did its job! Our government did not find obscenity within comics, an area of the law that many are unclear about.
Allow me. According to the First Amendment, for material to be considered "obscene" in the eyes of the government, all three of the following elements must apply: 1) The material must appeal to a "prurient interest" in sex (i.e. opposed to a normal and healthy interest); 2) The material has to be "patently offensive" according to contemporary standards; 3) The material must lack any artistic, political, literary, or scientific value…which is pretty difficult to prove in a society where everything can be classified as having artistic value. This third element is what should have cleared both Mike Diana and Robert Crumb. How many times have we seen inkblot images? Since they are considered to have scientific value, they are considered fully legal. Ditto for an artist splattering paint over a canvas and selling it for hundreds of dollars. How can we say what is and isn't art? The problem is that people who protest comic book material do not see value in images, feel that their opinion of art is superior, and are generally misinformed about the context of the law concerning free speech and artistic license. These people must be educated, told that comic books are an irrefutable art form….and this tutelage can start in our schools. Maybe teach a week or two of comic pop art in our school systems? Spend a few weeks discussing the topic of free speech and artistic licensing rights in Justice classes? I was sad to learn this semester that my Administration of Justice class did not even glance upon the topic of free speech, or the obscenity statues. I believe that for the censorship movement to cease, the public must become informed about legal matters surrounding the First Amendment, and the inherent rights contained therein. Helen Keller once voiced, "The highest result of education is tolerance." And Thomas Jefferson: "Wherever people are well-informed they can be trusted with their government." Wise words.
The third argument surrounding censorship is that of parental responsibility. The concept surrounding this controversy is the fact that parents are using comic books and retailers as baby sitters. From working in a comic shop myself, I know firsthand the fallacy of the actions of a parent who dumps their child off to read comix then goes grocery shopping, leaving money behind. It happens more times than you may think. At many points throughout the day I was left behind as a baby sitter, silently told to oversee the children's behavior while their parent were absent. The majority of the cases taken to court regarding obscenity in comic books were brought forth by outraged parents who found that their children purchased reading material deemed unsuitable for their age. They were under the false assumption that it was somehow illegal for retailers to sell the comics to minors, comparing the act of purchasing a comic to that of attaining a pack of cigarettes. "Compared to most of the world, we live in an affluent society. We not only buy many things for our children, we also give our children their own money to spend. It makes little sense to morally condemn those who sell to children when we ourselves give children the means to buy." (Singleton 10) A parent cannot scapegoat comic book artists because they are ineffectual at parenting their own children- instead of blaming a comic title and artists without faces, I suggest that parents should learn to supervise their children...and thus take a more active role in their lives. While working in the comic shop, I was actually confronted by a florid parent who was upset that their child viewed an inappropriate book while in my care. The title was appropriate for youth, a detective comic, but the mother was still stuck in a superheroes-in-spandex mentality and was not aware that comics outside of capes existed. I simply told her that I worked in retail…I am paid to sell books. If the mother had wanted her child to purchase a title, then they had only to leave me with a list. I do not get paid to supervise browsing children while there are paying adults who need primary assistance. A parent should be ashamed to even bring up the subject, should feel embarrassed at being lax in his or her own supervision and should not take their misplaced sense of guilt into a courtroom. Politicians, mainly proponents of Ashcroft's ideas concerning obscenity, have also gotten into the midst of this controversy, also blaming comics on the deterioration of the family unit and corruption of youth. John Waters said it best: "'Family' this and 'family' that If I had a family I'd be furious that moral busybodies are taking the perfectly good word family and using it as a code for censorship the same way 'states' rights' was used to disguise racism in the mid-sixties."
If the topic of censorship was truly about keeping the American family intact and our youth wholesome, then I could see the proponents of censorship's point in the matter. But, as I hope I have demonstrated in this essay, there are a lot more subtle factors at work here than the mere topic of the keeping our youth wholesome and protected; factors such as greed, ignorance, denial and laziness. Elements such as the deletion of a ratings system, increased parental responsibility, and proactive education will go a long way to insure our civil liberty. I close with a comment from US Army Chaplain on the subject of comic book censorship- this battle that industry professionals and readers combat every day against a widely ignorant public: "O Lord, give us the strength to fight the bastards and the strength to fight on."
5/6/02- Why I think censorship is disgustingly annoying, in all it's forms. My TERM PAPER, so let me know if you need to see my Works Cited Page for references...and yes, I am completely serious about that. :)~
Also, do not be confused: this is similar to my essay here (from a retailer standpoint), but they are different. ^_-