Common Sense(orship)

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Anyone out there remember “Family Ties”? Early eighties sitcom starring a pre Back to the Future Michael J. Fox as the ultra conservative son of a couple of liberal ex hippies. It was better than it sounds, honest. One of the episodes I remember best had Fox’s character starting a college course (can’t remember whether it was journalism or law) and attending a lecture on the first amendment. The lecturer quoted the amendment and then asked whether any law that restricted freedom of speech could ever be justified.

Eager to impress, Fox blurts out “No!”. The professor turns on him. “What about laws to prevent Libel? What about laws outlawing racist abuse?” And so on. (And before any die hard members of the Family Ties Fan Club e-mail me to tell me that I’ve misquoted the scene - I saw it once, in about 1986. I’m just illustrating a point for crying out loud! Gimmie a break!)

Sorry? What has this to do with comics? Censorship of course! Comics have had a problem with censorship for some time. Ever since Fredrick Wetham published “Seduction of The Innocent” back in 1954 comics have been under scrutiny in America. Wertham’s basic premise was this:

Most of the disturbed children he saw in his work as a child psychiatrist had, at some point, read comics. As this was a common experience, it must be the cause of their mental health difficulties. The flaw in argument is obvious (he could have said the same thing about their milk) and his arguments were less than convincing. Quite a lot of the book was wink wink, nudge nudge kind of stuff. “Batman and Robin? A grown man and pre-teen boy running around in tights? Living in the same house? Bruce Wayne single? What’s going on there then?”. Even more of it was just plain ridiculous. The man saw hidden pictures of genitals everywhere. If he hadn’t been a respected psychiatrist, people would have accused him of having a dirty mind - I can’t help but wonder what Freud would have made of him.

But the fifties were a paranoid time and the ideas in the book caught on. Questions were asked in Congress. The Comics Code which still influences American Comics was set up as a direct response to the outcry this book stirred up. Some comics publishers just vanished (EC springs to mind). On my side of the Atlantic the storm was smaller, but the effects were still felt. British Comics in the fifties were mostly devoid of controversy. The most popular comic of the day was the fondly remembered “Eagle” comic featuring the heroic and wholesome “Adventures of Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future!” But we had our share of horror comics too, and they were actually banned by Act of Parliament.

The effect of the fifties censorship on the comics of the time was devastating. Take Batman as an example. Have you read any of his 1950’s adventures? He would appear on the street in BROAD DAYLIGHT, the Joker would perhaps be trying to steal a statue from the Gotham City museum, and Bat-Woman (Introduced I suspect as a direct result of Wertham's innuendo regarding Bruce Waynes sexual orientation) carried exploding lipstick in he utility handbag. It was derisory stuff. I don’t care how fondly it’s remembered by the people who read it at the time, for the most part it was banal, anodyne nonsense.

Britain continued with Eagle and a host of similar titles catering for “older children” whilst the younger kids had the likes of the Beano and the Dandy. (For those not familiar, they’re anthology cartoon titles based around mostly one page strips) Comics readerships fell steadily.

Then came Action - a revolution in British comics whose effects can still be felt today. Now, don’t be confusing the British “Action” of the seventies with the American Superman comic of the same name. The British Action was a weekly anthology title which lasted only a short time, but ruffled an awful lot of feathers. It was violent, it was crude, it was often in bad taste, and it was great. At least the Kids who read it thought so - their parents were less sure.

There was a campaign, led by the Daily Mail newspaper (this will come as no surprise to British readers) to protect children from this “filth“. The editor of Action appeared on “Nationwide” - then the flagship BBC current affairs programme - and was ripped to shreds by the presenter. Action disappeared. It reappeared a few weeks later, a sanitised shadow of it’s former self, fans deserted the travesty in droves and Action faded away. There wasn’t enough of a mainstream industry in Britain to warrant anything like the comics code. Newsstand comics just behaved themselves, and the underground scene on both sides of the Atlantic just went un-noticed.

Things have changed a lot since then. The writers and artists in the British underground scene went mainstream to try to earn a living. Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Bryan Talbot, and many others went looking for work and found 2000AD, a new science fiction based anthology being put together by the team that created Action. Warrior, a more adult orientated anthology launched at about the same time, and in different ways both titles gave these creators freedom to work. Punk had happened by then, society was changing and more importantly, was less easy to shock, on both sides of the Atlantic.

These days 2000AD gets away with things that the editors of Action could only dream of. (It actually produced a “Sex Special” a couple of years ago. Gee, aint progress grand?) On the other side of the Atlantic Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s run on Swamp Thing demonstrated to DC (and of course the rest of the US industry) that you could survive without Comics Code Authority Approval. Marvel launched the “Epic” line (which in many ways was a forunner of Vertigo) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

Well, not quite. Rick Veitch’s run on Swamp Thing in the late eighties ended in acrimony when DC pulled his story comparing the birth of Tefe with the birth of Christ. DC recently got into hot water with the Comics Code over a communal prison shower scene in Catwoman. (Catwoman artist Staz Johnston remarked at a recent convention that you couldn’t get away with nearly as much as he thought) A Kyle Baker “Superbaby” story was pulled because it depicted Superbaby drying himself off in a microwave. Warren Ellis ended his recent run on Hellblazer when Vertigo refused to print a story about a high school shooting shortly after the Columbine tragedy.

Of course, this kind of censorship is slightly different. The baby in a microwave sequence was just too easily imitated to risk, while the high school shooting thing, well, that was very unfortunate timing and I don’t think any publisher with an ounce of decency could have published a story like that in such a climate. In both cases we are not talking about a freedom of speech issue, just common sense and basic sensitivity.

The birth of Tefe thing though - there we do have a real problem. Obviously any comment here has to be largely speculation since I am not one of the favoured few to have seen the story, and neither I suspect are any of you. On the face of it, being objective, I can see the reason behind DC’s decision. In Britain it wouldn’t be a problem, we’re a basically secular society and have been since before Queen Victoria died. In America any perceived blasphemy, certainly on that sort of scale, would stir up the sort of storm that no major company in their right mind would want to deal with. (And of course, we’re not just dealing with DC here, but the whole Time Warner shooting match...)

And there we have the big difference between the bad old days of fifties style censorship and the brave new world of today. Veitch’s Swamp Thing was not censored because of any congressional hearing. It was because DC didn’t want to take the commercial risk of upsetting religious interest groups. The Comics Code Authority was annoyed by Catwoman’s shower scene, but only because the issue went out with an “Approved by the CCA” stamp on the cover. If DC had put the book out without the stamp, no problem.

What we have here is self censorship. Editors are not saying “you can’t tell that story” they are saying “we don’t want you to do that with our characters”. This is their right. Sometimes we might think they’re gutless (I for one would have liked to see that Tefe story) but they have a job to do, and they have to draw a line.

After all, if somebody went to DC with a character called “Nazi Man” who had a big swastika on his chest and fought for “(the furher’s)Truth, Justice (for the Aryan Master Race) and the Totalitarian Way” they’d get thrown out on the street. That’s a good thing. The first amendment might give a creator the absolute right to write such things, but nobody has to publish them for him.

As I said, a line must be drawn somewhere. At the moment, most publishers are getting the line in more or less the right place. Will they always? Who knows. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, if the editors of the comics you read go too far in either direction, it’s up to you to tell them so.

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