Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Brow is torturing my sister!

When a comics fan thinks about the controversy about Frederick Wertham and the Seduction of the Innocent they usually associate that period of comic book history with publisher William Gaines and EC comics and to a lesser extent, the relationship of Batman and Robin and Wonder Woman bondage.

But the output of Harvey Comics was one of the companies that initially spurred the semi-loons to attack comics. Check out these Dick Tracy covers at the GCD. You can see where the influence of Congress and parents kicked in. The issue cover art changes from such scenes as a gun shot victim dripping gore from a face wound to smiling poses of Detective Tracy that reveal no clue as to the interior. It is a similar to the inane covers of early Silver Age comics like DC's World's Finest featuring Superman, Batman and Robin engaged in activities such as taking photos, fleeing skunks and skiing at charity events.

Pretty extreme for a company that would later be known as the publisher for such safe children's fare as Casper the Friendly Ghost*. Harvey produced a lot of product that was on the surface bright and shiny and was a favorite of children, but was actually very mature in content. Even the three covers shown above, while wrong in many ways, just look like freaking Three-Color fun fun fun! The dog biting the gangster's face is my "favorite" of the Tracy covers with Harvey.

Yet the content of the comic books of the 50's were not the real problem. Admittedly many comics were lurid, violent, graphic and definitely not for young children. The issue was that they were specifically marketed for children too young for the nature of the content. If published now by DC or Marvel these comics would be a Vertigo or Max imprint. The difference today is that the comic book audience consists mostly of young or mature adults who are better able to process the imagery and content. Like the 50's, the marketing of comics today is all about the extreme getting a little attention in a shrinking yet crowded market.

One of the ways that the industry gets reader attention is through the hyper-sexualization of comic book characters. What I find today is that like in the 1950's, the industry is still marketing their product to an age group that is younger than the suggested audience. This sales trick is similar in action to labeling toy for Ages 5 and Up, when it is known and planned that many sales will come from parents who believe their 3 year old is advanced enough (and all parents think that) to use the toy at the 5 year old level.

And this is where labeling comes in. I have no problem with labeling and like seeing it, though I recall some hue and cry about it when it was initialized, mostly from the recording industry. They believed it would hurt sales, though actually the opposite happened. A comic store owner I knew lamented that he lost a sale whenever a Mom saw the Mature Content label on Swamp Thing. Sales increased quickly though as the older audience picked it up for the same reason.

One frequently used trick to avoid the Mature Content label is to color the skin of the nude character an unnatural hue such as green or blue, because nudity is okay if the subject is not human or an alien. I think it obvious that the 12 year old who picked up Detective Comics #823 with the tasty Poison Ivy panel will likely buy next month's and other DC issues for the chance of viewing similar sexy material.

In their lust for one more freaking dollar from the public the comic book industry keeps going for the shallow reader. This is a mistake. In the 1970's comic books did pretty well for themselves and I'd argue the decade was about a comic being story-driven using both art and writing. The latter 80's and the unfortunate 90's was all about the breasts and crotch shots. It is a matter of history that comics quality and sales have suffered since then. The comic industry underestimates their audience much like Hollywood does their cinema customers and resorts to the desperate short grift to bring in the quick buck.

The thing is, most comic readers know it is a gimmick. The stage magician does not really saw a woman in half yet it's still a good show. But the audience would be larger if when the magician sawed through the lady her panties would get snagged on the blade and tear off, right? That performance tease would fill some more seats...At least until the novelty wore thin. Some of the decline in comic sales must from weary fans dropping books as the companies open up the trunk of badness and return to the 90's style of art and story.

For me it's all about the intentions behind the product and not the content. It is rare that I find personally objectionable anything in a comic book. The artistic stunts the comic industry is condoning is akin to spam for comic cooks. If you have to trick a consumer into buying your product then it isn't worth selling.

The comic blogosphere is always buzzing with the commentary about unnecessary sexualization and stereotyping in comics, usually of the female characters. It is heartening to see that some bloggers are having a positive effect on the industry. Others have made it their cause because they want the industry to change for the better through education and exposure of the issues. Let me tell you, it's getting hard to say something new about the same old thing because of how often it happens. Often bloggers and board-posters are forced to be silly or snarky to make a subtle point that could be missed. It isn't easy posting an image of the Black Cat's buttocks and making it educational.

There is at least one good exception to the T&A marketing model, though. The creator of Ant recently acknowledged that he was having his character foray too far into T&A and pledged to take the coitus-poses down a few notches. That alone is enough to make me support his book and pick it up.

* Yes, I know Casper was a dead baby. And Barney the Dinosaur is a T-Rex, a fearsome predator.



  1. In fact, Casper is the ghost of a friendless Richie Rich, who took his own life in suicidal despair one cold, cold night when even the sight of all his money couldn't cheer him up again....

  2. The torture scene with the Brow comes direct from the daily comic strip ... but I presume newspaper adventure strips of the time were not seen as being marketed to children like comic books were.


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