Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Restrictions and creativity

As anyone who knows me knows, I have a great fondness for comic books. Especially 'traditional' superhero books. So sue me...I like over the top guys and gals in ridiculous costumes beating up on equally ridiculous criminals.

When you use the word 'comic book', that is what most people envisage. When comic books first came about, though, this was completely not the case. The popular comic strips and books of the twenties and thirties covered the full gamut of genres - science fiction, western, horror and even erotica. In fact, the most popular early comic books were mysteries. Then, in 1938, Jerome Siegal and Joseph Shuster created the most iconic comic book character of all time - Superman. Strongly influenced by John Carter of Mars, Superman was the first comic book character to have powers considerably beyond those of mortal men (although he was very weak compared to his modern counterpart). Batman followed a year later. Slowly, the superhero genre began to push out the mystery genre...but it was but one trend amongst many. Horror comic books were extremely popular.

Then in 1954 something happened. Comic books, with their brightly colored covers and relatively little text, tended to attract kids. The most popular books were horror. A backlash against comics began, headlined by Dr. Fredric Wertham's 'The Seduction of the Innocent'. In answer, the industry created the Comics Code Authority.

The CCA banned horror comics pretty much completely and gutted the detective and crime comics which, at the time, were more akin to CSI or Homicide: Life on the Streets than anything seen in later books (for example, the CCA banned the explicit descriptions of criminal methods, making it impossible to do a police procedural). Publishers looked to superheroes to fill the gap.

With the over the top, larger than life heroes and villains, it was a lot easier to fill the requirements. The CCA did not allow sympathy for the criminal, so the villains were made even more villainous. Who can feel sorry for The Joker? Good was always to win and the criminal to be punished. However, if good always wins, then you run out of villains. On top of that, the CCA also prohibited excessive violence. The answer? To make it part of the superhero code of honor never to kill the villain - a classic trope of mainstream superheroics that, while it has faded lately, is still definitely present. Interestingly, the CCA also banned, in its initial form, exaggerating the physical qualities of women. Over the years, the CCA was changed. For example, the ban on mentioning adult homosexuality was removed in 1989.

In 2011 DC stopped submitting titles to the CCA for approval, leaving it essentially defunct, although some small publishers still follow the rules of some version of it or other.

However, it has a lasting legacy. Although, these days, the ban on heroes killing villains has become ragged around the edges - comic books are more willing to explore accidental deaths in combat and their impact on the heroes. Alan Moore's Watchmen ditched the 'heroic code' altogether (it was published in 1986). Six years later, Image comics (which never, to my knowledge, sought CCA approval) was formed by a number of sub imprints, including WildStorm. WildStorm comics were emphatically supers, but oriented towards adults, and included characters quite willing to kill, with morality often closer to Marvel's Wolverine than mainstream superheroes, as well as several openly gay characters. (WildStorm was shut down in December 2010 and some of its characters rolled into the 2011 DC relaunch).

Without the CCA, I think the comics industry would have been quite different. And the modern concept of the true hero - fighting only when he must, killing only as a painful last resort, and always holding to his personal morality - might well not exist. The 1939 Batman shot criminals dead...

We now live in a society in which more and more people do see violence and killing as a last resort. It might be that something good has come out of the evil of censorship in this case.