Sunday, February 20, 2011

Comics Will Rot Your Brains!!

A couple years ago, I set up a booth at a flea market in order to get rid of a huge number of comic books. I wasn't giving up the medium or anything like that but was instead trying to clear house of a good deal of comics that I'd acquired during a comic shop's going out of business sale in the mid-90s. The comics were mostly published by the now-defunct Malibu Comics and were published during the 1990s, easily one of the lowest points in comic book publishing history. I just wanted them off my hands.

I was struck by a hostility from older people at what I was selling. I kept hearing, "You know, these things will rot your brains" being said by grown men in a serious tone of voice. At the time I thought they were just "old," but in retrospect most of these nervous pervises were Baby Boomers. They were kids during the Red Scare, which was also a time when comic books were tackled by demagogic lawmakers and imposed with a rating system called the Comics Code Authority. (While mainstream publishers like Marvel Comics have abandoned the Comics Code, it can still be found on the covers of Archie Comics.)

In a recent Reason magazine article, writer Brian Doherty reviewed the book The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu. Doherty writes that Hajdu argues that the comic book genre was subjected to a witch hunt by lawmakers, churches and academics comparable to the ones that took on Elvis Presley and communists. Hajdu's argument makes sense in explaining why so many Baby Boomers were getting freaked out about the comic books I was selling at that flea market. The book describes kids that beat up other kids who were caught with comic books. Were some of those bullies at that flea market?

Doherty notes that this may not seem relevant to the average reader but it should. Similar assaults have been made on music and video games and will likely continue towards new entertainment mediums in the future. Recall Tipper Gore, the wife of former presidential candidate Al Gore, and her Parents Music Resource Center or Hillary Clinton's efforts to legislate against violent video games.

Comic book companies are still being assaulted by moralist authoritarians in this country, and organizations like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund have been set up to aid poor comic book creators that are defending themselves in court against bullying censors. While there are a few pretty racy comic books out there (both in regards to sexual and violent content), comic book publishers do a pretty good job of making it evident on the cover. Marvel has many "All Ages" lines that are tame and fine for little kids. In contrast to that, they have also set up a line called "MAX" that is clearly aimed at teenage and older readers. Comics that don't fall into those lines but have mature or older content are usually labeled as such. Like any medium, be it video games or movies, what ends up in the hands of kids falls down to the individual parent or guardian who is buying it or the retailer who is selling it, and not the publisher, who has little control over where their comics end up.

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