Blog Carnival: The Fightin’ Fans Vs The Censorious Critics

It’s blog carnival day! Whilst you eat candy floss and consider having a go at ducking the Dan DiDio, several different comics blogs will be writing on the same theme across the course of the next few hours. This blog, happily, will be one of them.

The topic for BlogCarnival 2015 (or Blarnival if you would to sound vaguely Irish about it) is:

Censors and censures: What’s the difference? What is the social utility, if any, of them? What to do about the strange reaction to criticism of comics, where it’s all perceived as threatening, even post-Code, with Frederic Wertham invoked at every turn? Why are so many people so defensive, so Team Comics, about a medium that’s enjoying a creative renaissance?  

Comics, dominated as they are by superheroes and autobiography, have always been a one-sided narrative. You have the heroic and justified on one side, and you have the villains on the other. Although some attempt at filling in those stages between outright protagonist and outright antagonist has been made at times, there remains a narrative both within the comics and within the industry which prides one side as always being the correct side.

It stems to some extent from Frederick Wertham, the original villain of comics. His writing of decades ago was incredibly compelling in building up an argument against comics which continues today. He argued that all kinds of devilry was encouraged within comics – that their violent and sexual content, their liberal attitudes and progressive (!) nature would warp your child and render them unto a monster. He basically got across the idea that comics needed to be controlled, or they’d take over and ruin childhoods permanently.

Although we say now that this was all silly and comics attempt to escape the “not just for kids!/not suitable for kids!” headlines on a weekly basis – the truth is that Wertham’s ideology remains within comics to this day, expounded by the strangest of people: the readership themselves. The fear of Wertham being proved right has been a motivator for fans to stand up against criticism and claim censorship at each turn: that every word written which criticises comics is in turn an attempt to slap a new ‘comics code’ onto the books. Fans whose parents weren’t allowed to read the dangerous comics of Wertham’s era have grown up with the idea that comics now need react to any attempt to rein control over them.

This has had the effect of actually making it harder to get new ideas into comics, and *actual* experimental projects or ideas have moved away from the comics store and onto the internet. Webcomics are designing the future of the medium, even if people don’t realise, and the people making waves today – Kate Beaton, Spike Trotman, Noelle Stevenson – are those who made comics in a separate sphere from those who write at Marvel, DC, Image and the like. As they move towards the comics store demographic, fans are having to realise that new voices have broken into the industry without gaining their approval – and that’s causing a disappointing fightback.

‘Mainstream’ comics, as they’re called for some reason, have been trained to react defensively to any new challenge – since Wertham managed to restrict the medium, fans and authors have wanted to prove that nothing will ever hold them back again. This led to some comics which went way over the line in their approach, and it also led to some of the strongest work in the medium. Right now, though, the comics themselves are being overshadowed by the people who’re buying them. The idea that Noelle Stevenson can come to comics from – as they believe, nowhere – is a shock, and it’s triggering an instinct to push back. When she writes about her perspective on comics, which isn’t based on the intensive insider mindset that many vocal comics readers seem to have, she gets yelled at.

Because in their mind, she’s an outsider, stamping her rules on comics as others did before. Because the current comics industry is heroic, she must therefore be the antagonist of this battle. And antagonists should always lose. That she and the many female creators who’ve found success at comics in new forms can actually continue developing ad progressing their work within the industry, building a fanbase? It’s counter to everything comics are used to.

The publishers are involved in this too, and have been for years. There are countless stories of creators like Dwayne McDuffie or Larry Hama being treated as second-class by the editors of their time, because their perspective on comics is different to the prevailing one which saw the medium survive Wertham. Christopher Priest was asked to mainly write African-American characters because he himself was African-American, and when he started writing white characters there was a fightback from readers. When Reginald Hudlin wrote a story where Black Panther beat Captain America in a fight, there was enormous outcry. A strong African-American male being written by a strong African-American man? This is censorship of reality.

These were views and stories coming from perspectives never before seen, and again – if you’re not a hero, you must be a villain, and the industry seemed convinced that these new voices were villains. Once more, everybody started fighting to keep their comics free from censorship and change – and in the process tried to stop them from progressing. The outsiders remained on the outside, and the insiders got to continue doing whatever they want. Readers and publishers were conspirators in forming a comics blockade.

Because the thing is: comics need a little censorship. They can’t just exist in a vacuum where nothing changes, and there’s nobody pushing necessary restrictions on work. We need for people to critique work, and we also need for the industry to work on censoring itself where necessary. The scars left by scalding, regressive censorship still remain on the industry, but that’s no reason for everyone to always be on the offensive. Maybe by listening to a little criticism – and censoring work in appropriate ways as a result – things’ll get a little less aggressive around here.

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  1. […] The Fightin’ Fans Vs. the Censorious Critics, by Steve Morris at The Spire […]

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