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By T. E. Wanamaker
BREAKING THE CODE
It seemed, quite recently, that the comic arts’ heyday as a lightning rod for cultural criticism and official censorship had passed.
Congressional panels and hair-wringing mothers had long since turned their attentions to sexier media.
Janet Jackson’s nipple, Grand Theft Auto’s carjackers and the Internet’s virtual plethora of pornography seemed destined to torment America’s conservative consciences.
Many a petition-signing Midwesterner, in fact, would likely have given a kidney to return to a time when the biggest moral corrupters facing their children were 10-cent comics full of zombies and mobsters.
But then a few Danes put their pens to paper, drew some pictures of a bearded man in a turban and changed everything.
Before the Western world fully understood what was happening, hundreds of thousands of Muslims were rioting, fatwas were issued like parking tickets and a healthy respect for – and fear of –the drawn image re-entered the American consciousness.
“I think the Danish cartoon controversy has had an impact on American cartooning, simply because no cartoonist who contemplates depicting anything to do with Islam could fail to take note of that episode,” said Bradford Wright, author of “Comic Book Nation” and a professor at the University of Maryland’s University College in Germany. “I am sure it’s given some pause.”
As turn-of-the-century journalist Heywood C. Broun once observed, “Everyone favors free speech when no axes are being ground.”
Suddenly, some large axes were being ground quite audibly because of a cartoon image. The question, which in many respects still remains to be answered, is how “everyone” in the land of the First Amendment will respond.
SEAL OF APPROVAL
Our current climate is hardly the first in which Americans have found themselves wringing their hands about the cultural effects of comics or cartoons.
Fifty years ago, after the close of the second World War and near the height of Joseph McCarthy’s Communist Inquisition, worried parents began to wonder what effect a suddenly booming comic book industry was having on their children.
As in most movements toward censorship, a catalyst emerged: an alarmist study by psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, called “Seduction of the Innocent.”
The book purported to show a scientific link between juvenile delinquency and the hugely popular “true crime” comic books of the era.
A Congressional panel was formed and unsurprisingly came to many of the same conclusions as Wertham, decrying the “violent death in every form imaginable” found in such comics.
The end result eventually was the Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring body adhered to for decades by most comic book publishers. Among its provisions were a ban against vampires, werewolves and zombies and a prohibition on words like “terror,” “horror,” and “crime” in titles.
“The Comics Code was the product of a specific set of historical circumstances,” said Amy Nyberg, professor of communications at Seton Hall University and author of ‘Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code.’ “That included postwar concerns about juvenile delinquency, the ability of psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and others to mobilize public opinion about comics … the popularity of crime and horror comics and the high readership by a young audience.”
After its inception, the CCA was followed rigorously by nearly every publisher in the business, including Marvel Comics and DC Comics. The most popular “true crime” publisher at the time, EC Comics, was forced to cancel or re-brand nearly all of its titles because of CCA restrictions.
Though an underground publishing industry emerged in the ’60s and eventually began to erode the Code’s authority, major comic book publishers didn’t begin giving up wholesale on the CCA until the 1990s, when adults began replacing children en masse as their biggest audience.
After that sea change became evident, Marvel and DC started publishing imprints and series intended for adults that were never submitted for CCA approval, or simply ran without the CCA’s code of approval if they were rejected.
In 2001, Marvel completely withdrew from the Code, and began rating its books with its own system, which uses four ratings that mirror movie ratings.
DC now submits only Johnny DC and DC Universe titles to the censors.
The Code, clearly, has long ceased casting any noticeable shadow on American comic book publishing.
“Right now we’re witnessing a Golden Age for graphic novels, and as such, a high-point for comics content,” said Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which helps fund comic-book First Amendment legal battles.
“In the historical context, comics authors have never enjoyed more freedom to express a wide variety of ideas than they do now,” he said.
The reason for such freedom goes beyond the fact that many censors have turned their sights to video games and television.
“Most comic books and graphic novels are now purchased by adults, and there seems to be a growing public awareness of the changed audience for comic books,” said Wright.
When children are no longer a medium’s target audience, the most visceral argument for censorship loses its focus.
“It seems that most writers of comic books and graphic novels published today enjoy the same kind of freedom of expression enjoyed by other authors of mature fiction and non-fiction,” Wright said.
But even before the Danish cartoons swept across the world, comic books and graphic novels still faced threats rarely seen by written word authors.
Celebrated artist Art Spiegelman, for example, ran into great difficulty finding a U.S. publisher for In the Shadow of Two Towers, his graphic novel about 9/11.
“American papers are very careful not to offend,” he told The Guardian last year, “which is silly really, because while you’re being careful not to offend, the government is off doing very offensive stuff.”
And in Georgia today, an obscenity trial continues against the owner of a comic book store for allegedly giving “lewd” comics to underage customers. The CBLDF has been funding the owner’s legal defense in that case.
And, as Wright noted, there are more kinds of censorship than just that enforced by the government.
“There may still be other kinds of censorship at work, as there always is in this country. The gatekeepers of distribution at retail outlets like Borders and Barnes & Noble may choose to pass on certain controversial graphic novels,” he said.
WHAT WOULD MOHAMMED DO?
But what about Mohammed? Have the Danes wrought any lasting changes upon the American comic arts scene?
In the strictly technical sense of official censorship or widespread self-censorship, the answer seems to be a resounding “No.”
“The Cartoon Jihad has not appeared to have any impact at all upon American comics publishing,” Brownstein said.
The most public debate occurred in the daily newspaper community, which had to decide whether to publish the cartoons in conjunction with news stories about the controversy.
Though most bowed to the pressure and opted not to publish the cartoons, the smaller niche markets for comic books makes it much less likely that comic authors would ever feel similar pressure.
“You need to remember that comic books and political cartoons are two different forms,” Nyberg said. “Certainly the controversy over the Danish cartoons has had a chilling effect on publishing controversial political material, but I doubt it will have a lasting effect.”
As for the Comics Code, it’s highly unlikely such an officially sanctioned code of censorship would ever come again to bind American comic publishers.
The environment compared to the 1950s – from who publishes comics to who sells them to who reads them – is simply too radically different.
“Today, we don’t have the same urgency in regulation of comic books because of a number of factors,” Nyberg said, “including the much wider variety of material available in comic book form, the “graying” of the comic book audience … and the fact that distribution of comics – and in particular those that might be considered controversial – is done through specialty stores, rather than mainstream retail outlets such as Wal-Mart.”
In fact, the flap over Denmark’s cartoons could end up leaving positive legacy in cartooning and comics.
“Ideas should provoke dialogue, not violence,” Brownstein said. “The Cartoon Jihad should remind cartoonists of the power of their work, and it should provoke all civilized people to strive for debate about what offends them, rather than an angry knee-jerk rejection of such things.”
Added Nyberg, “I am a First Amendment absolutist. I think there is much more danger in suppressing ideas than in putting them into the public arena for discussion and debate. Perhaps something positive to come out of this controversy would be a reminder of the power of words and images.”