As a community and an industry, we are desperately trying to prove that “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” Whenever the mainstream media starts talking about a comic book, its usually how they lead the story. We tout famous books like Sandman and Watchmen (rather than Maus and The Neighborhood) to our non-comics-reading friends as proof of the versatility and maturity of the medium.
Its not just us trying to prove ourselves to outsiders. We’re trying to prove ourselves to each other. The superhero books we read, leftovers from decades clutching the apron strings of the CCA-Nanny, are struggling to grow up and lose the trappings of childhood. With the Nanny gone (or at least too old and senile to babysit effectively), the writers and artists have tools that they are using as shorthand for “maturity.” Violence and sexual situations and sexualized violence and strong language have been increasing steadily for decades.
Of course, if you’re reading this website, you already knew that. Better writers than me have decried this, and better writers than me are actively using these “mature” tropes to good and bad effect in their stories. Chances are if you’re reading this site, you’ve already taken a side in the great “Maturity, Censorship, and Decency in Comics” debate.
As that debate is going on, both sides are killing the concurrent debate on social issues in comics.
Here’s an example of how it works. A young lady, a huge fan of Supergirl, reads an issue of Supergirl where the main character is drawn in suggestive poses, poorly characterized, and romantically linked to a much older man. She writes a post expressing her concerns on the artist’s message board, pointing out how the art sacrifices storytelling in favor of sexualization, and how a few brief panels meant to pass as characterization just seem like rationalization for the excessively skimpy new outfit. She logs back on the next day to find the thread is filled with Wertham references because the first reply to her post accused her of wanting to reinstate the Comics Code.
It becomes a sore spot, and she brings it up in another thread. Only this time, our Supergirl Fan has an unlikely ally. “Won’t Someone Please Think of the Children?” Man. He’s generally unpopular on the board, because he believes that there should be no blood, no gay relationships, and no sexuality in comic books. But he’s now using her arguments to support his own argument.
The end result is that she can’t get a decent discussion on the portrayal of Supergirl going because on one side she has people freaking out about the spectre of censorship, and on the other she has people wanting to reinstate Draconian censorship disrupting the conversation. She doesn’t want to leave and hold the conversation elsewhere, because this message board is on the artist’s website and she wants his ear. But he can’t listen to her because she’s being shouted down by the other posters in the censorship debate.
For other cases, consider the poster worried about offensive images of black people in imported Manga, or the poster who wants to see two gay men in a relationship in a superhero comic. Such posts cause much the same argument. Instead of discussing racism or homophobia, we end up discussing censorship and artistic freedom.
So, for future reference and to prevent such derailments, let me let you in on a little secret. Nobody who wants to see real diversity in any medium wants to support censorship.
And that’s not a “No True Lantern” argument. Its strategic thinking.
Censorship hurts us here. It encourages lazy writing. It prevents people from thinking about other people’s situations. It is the opposite of sensitivity. Censorship is when you decline to show something because you will get in trouble if you do. Sensitivity is when you decline to show something because it will make other people uncomfortable. Censorship keeps you thinking of yourself as a person, while sensitivity has you thinking of the other as a person.
Since one of the major problems (if not The Major Problem) with the portrayal of female, minority, and LGBT characters is not thinking of them as people but rather as objects, quotas and plot points, this is a big difference.
In order to have a truly diverse range of characters who reflect the makeup of the population, you cannot have creators relying on cultural cliches and ingrained stereotypes as shortcuts. You need the creators to actually think about who they are creating, and understand basic identity politics. If they understand the complexity and scope of sexual assault in our society, how unoriginal an idea it is, and how dreadful it is to read, they won’t bother with the hackneyed rape origin story for the female character. They won’t make that Asian superhero with cultural powers they had the idea for, because they’d understand it’s tired and it’s insulting to potential readers.
For that to happen, we need to have the conversation. We need an environment where the writers will actually try to use a different kind of person as the hero, rather than one where they go with the plain white male because they don’t want to risk the rules. We need for comic book creators to be thinking of these things.
So censorship is bad as applied to creators.
Critique, however, is a good thing. Even though I personally don’t wish to censor a creator, I reserve the right to analyze, criticize, complain, demand, and generally make a pest of myself when I see something offensive in a book I’m reading. I don’t want their bosses to make a rule that stops them from offending me. I want to make them think so they will stop themselves from offending me.
This brings me back to my opening paragraph, about us desperately trying to prove that comics aren’t for kids. When offensive images and storylines are examined, the idea that comics aren’t being read by kids often comes up in the defense, especially when discussing sexuality and sexualized violence. On one side, people argue that such things are necessary for a mature story, and that anyone who doesn’t want to read about them should go back to Care Bears and My Little Pony (which I suggest because they may be the only properties from my childhood that haven’t been updated for adults yet). On the other side, people who actually should stick with Care Bears and My Little Pony insist that comics should be for kids, and quote your arguments in favor of the white-washing of superhero comics and the reinstatement of the Comics Code.
In the meantime, the companies and creators continue to churn out so-called mature storylines that have all of the offensive material, ingrained stereotypes, cultural cliches, and a extra-slathering of graphic violence and sex to even the whole mess out. They do this to market for adults. They know adults are reading, and they figure this is what adults want.
Well, in this debate I have taken a side. I am an adult. I read comics. I’d like for children to read them, but I’d also like for all books to have content for adults. This is not the same as “Adult Content.”
“Adult content” generally means graphic violence, sexualized violence, dirty jokes and graphic sex (though these have their place) slathered on an insubstantial and meaningless storyline.
Content for adults generally means a decent story with well-developed characters and interesting events. This can be light-hearted and fun, heavy-hearted and engaging, and often unsettling or disturbing. Creators who make content for adults consider the purpose of their audience, and make a product appropriate for that purpose without alienating potential members of that audience. They offer an escape from reality (superheroes, science fiction, fantasy) while still reflecting enough of reality (the characters) to make it relatable. It can have adult content, but that’s not what makes it for adults.
Content for adults is virtually impossible to create when you have a censor filtering out all adult content, because censorship encourages lazy art and writing. Content for adults can only be made by a thinking creator.
We all know adults read comics. Its time to stop pretending and actually make comics for adults.