Its no secret that I was a comic book fanatic when I was a kid. Had I a bit more time on my hands now, I likely would be still. I was primarily a Marvel Comics collector: X-Men, more than any of the rest. DC characters seems a bit too…traditional….to me at the time. DC Comics, however, pioneered the first superheroes. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman…all were borne from the DC Universe. The only one of these that I ever gravitated toward, however, was Batman.
I think the reason that I liked Batman so much at the time was the same reason I like James Bond so much: I’ve always been a sucker for cool technology, and both of these characters had plenty of that to go around. The current incarnation of Batman movies have returned the Dark Knight to his appropriately dark and menacing persona, nearly an anti-hero, and appeal to me a great deal. What occurs to me, though, is that I grew up with a post-television-series Batman, with memories of “pow!” and “bam!” and campy music still in the air, and so even Tim Burton’s Batman films were refreshingly dark for me.
I watched the anime Batman: Gotham Knight last night, and it launched me into this research. Is it that we’ve made the characters darker in modern incarnations, or just that we’ve stopped running in fear from good storytelling and returned to the original character concepts?
Actually, the latter is occurring (even the current James Bond is much closer to Ian Fleming’s original character than have been any previous film versions). You see, when I grew up snatching new issues of Marvel comics from the shelves on weekends, I was reading material approved by the Comics Code Authority (CCA). I remember very well the seal appearing prominently in the upper left corner. What I didn’t realize, however, was how much the CCA actually censored in the publications bearing their seal.
It turns out that a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham was to thank for this, as he was possibly the first to lead to the cultural panic that life imitates art. In his rush to assume that children’s minds could not stand to see life portrayed vividly with all of the junk accompanying it, he launched into a personal war against media in general, and comic books in specific, to prevent them from printing violence, gore, and any number of other story elements.
Except that all of these things are just that: story elements. Are we to say that, because many writers and film-makers portray them gratuitously and in poor taste, that they are not useful for progressing the story? Scriptural narrative contains a significant amount of sex, violence, and other vices. Instead of attempting to with-hold them from story altogether (its amazing to me how the CCA managed to exist in a country valuing freedom of speech), we should concentrate on producing quality art, where the sex and violence and addiction necessary to move the story line is not presented gratuitously, or inserted where it is not necessary to move the story line. Perhaps artistic quality is what should be in question here, not the assumption that life imitates art. Because, even if it did, shouldn’t we want it to imitate quality art?
I suppose, in retrospect, that I was shielded from a great deal of this, as Marvel Comics phased out of submitting their material for CCA approval, and because I gravitated toward other publishers who didn’t bother with approval in the first place. Knowing that I was unwittingly exposed to censorship, though, leaves me profoundly disappointed in many ways.
Even more disappointing is realizing what I would have been effectively shielded from had artists focused on presenting “questionable subject matter” is artistically substantive ways, and those who refused to do so were not able to win over such an audience. That, of course, would involve the taste of American audiences leaning toward substance.
Some days, I’m even optimistic enough to think that might happen.