Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Seven: The Man vs The Code

In our last episode: Publishers fought small battles with the Comics Code throughout the Sixties, leading to inadvertent blows for creators’ rights and self-censorship that wound up costing the industry one of its most promising talents…

By 1970, Marvel Comics had gained a large audience of high school and college students. This was due, most likely, to a combination of things. Marvel’s troubled heroes appealed to a slightly older reader, for one thing. But the mid-60s camp craze (as popularized by the Adam West Batman TV show) also seems to have had an impact, with a college-aged crowd that thought the cornier aspect of the Marvel books was knowing satire being created by people who’d been “turned on” to the drug culture. As Roy Thomas recounts:
Back in 1965 I took a phone call at the office sometime after 5:00 p.m. from somebody who asked me what you and Steve Ditko were on—because you had to be taking something in order to do those Dr. Strange stories with the fights. I said, "I don't think Stan or Steve do anything like that." (I wouldn't have admitted it if it had been true, of course.) Then he says, "It has to be, because I had a fight like that when I was high on mushrooms in Mexico City a couple of years ago! It was just like the one Dr. Strange had with Dormammu!
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, especially in the case of the two artists who proved most popular with the college crowd. Jack Kirby was a middle-aged Jewish family man whose attempts to depict the “Love Generation” in a positive light were sincere, but obviously done from the perspective of an outsider.

Hippies like cowboys… right?

And Steve Ditko… Well. Ditko was a devotee of Ayn Rand‘s Objectivist philosophies, and a square to the very core. The belief that the strange landscapes he created in Dr. Strange were drug-inspired visions horrified him.

Because, obviously, this isn’t trippy at all…

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

So I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: I’m a complete romantic sap. It ain’t a side of myself I show much here on the Dork Forty. One sign of weakness, after all, and the nerd wranglers start forgettin’ who’s the farmer and who’s the hired hand. So I keep it light. Jaunty. Glib. I act like I don’t take nothin’ too serious (except my personal vision of what makes good funnybooks), and we all get along fine. But give me a sad story well-told, about characters I’ve invested a little somethin’ in, and I cry like a little girl.

I mean-- I cry manly tears of sorrow at the tragedies that befall my fictional heroes.

(Yeah, that’s the ticket!)

It doesn’t happen often, mind you. Not too many funnybooks are written well enough to draw a tear from my eye: even in times of sadness, I still have my standards. But just a few minutes ago, I finished reading something that really got me…

Fantastic Four #588
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Mark Brooks

This is the funeral issue of Fantastic Four, the follow-up to last issue’s death of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. As with the death issue itself, we’ve all seen this sort of thing before. Lots of characters stand around in funny costumes looking sad, and therefore faintly ridiculous. I mean, it’s a funeral, for god’s sake! Couldn’t you have at least worn a tie?! Then (much like at real funerals), somebody gets up and says a bunch of heartfelt nonsense about the deceased. The funeral issue is harder than the death issue, I think; heroic deaths come naturally to adventure fiction, but writing a really good funeral scene means dealing with messy emotions, and that’s a bit outside the escapist bounds of most adventure writing. This is especially true in super hero comics, where prose that already tends toward the purple usually amps up to the freaking ultra-violet.

Jonathan Hickman avoids that pitfall, though, by doing this as a silent issue. So there are no overblown speeches, just the honest and pained expressions of the surviving members of the team as they each mourn Johnny in their own way. Sue, surprisingly yet not-at-all-surprisingly, withdraws, as you can see here in this rather well-realized page by guest artist Nick Dragotta:

click to embiggen

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Funnybook Funnies

So every once in a while, somethin' kinda special sprouts here on the nerd farm. Somethin' that moves our funnybook favorites from the ridiculous to the hysterical. Sometimes, it's sophomoric...

And sometimes, it's prosaic.

But always, if we find ourselves laughin' over it hard enough, we like to pass it on to you, our beloved readers. And that, my friends, is the Funnybook Funnies.

Tonight, we bring you this little gem, courtesy of the birthplace of much unintentional high-larity: Silver-Age Superman! I got no clue what the context of this panel is; I just ran across it in my years of searchin' the interwebs. And now, I share it with you...

Saturday, February 19, 2011


So I’ve been spending an awful lot of time reading and writing about the Comics Code here lately, to the exclusion of the funnybook reviews that have been the… manure… that the Dork Forty’s… fertilized its fields with… from… day… one… Okay, forget that metaphor. What I’m saying is, I feel the need to flex my snootified reviewer’s muscles once more. But I’m still in “long-form” writing mode, so… Rather than do my usual capsule review catch-up, I’m gonna look more in-depth at a few things that have come out in the last month.

And I think I’ll start with the Marvel work of my favorite writer in that company’s stable, Mr. Matthew Fraction. His Casanova series is one of my favorite books of the past decade, of course, but for my money, Fraction’s also doing the best corporate spandex work Marvel’s putting out these days, and some of the best super hero work on the market in general, corporate or not. Seriously, the only guy who’s beating him is Grant Morrison, and that’s not an embarrassing battle to lose at all. Fraction’s work features nuanced, understated characterization and long-term plotting on a level you don’t often see on work-for-hire books. His Thor series with Pascual Ferry is especially nice, so let’s start with that…

Thor #619
by Matt Fraction and Pascual Ferry

Fraction’s been slowly moving the status quo on this book into a shape more to his liking, bringing back Loki and more than hinting that Asgard needs to go back atop the World Tree. But my favorite change, by far, is the return of Odin. He’s all sullen and bitchy about having been brought back from his glorious, carefree afterlife, and Pascual Ferry’s rendering him as a round-bellied old bear, massive and grumpy and proud:

click to see Odin in all his embiggened glory

Ferry’s really bringing it on this book, his character designs simultaneously nodding to Kirby and looking entirely like his own work. That’s most evident with Odin, but also with the World Eaters, the villainous invaders from the Void (about whom more in a bit).

At any rate. Odin is not at all happy with Thor for bringing him back, and is even less happy with the way Thor’s brought back his little brother…

Don't risk Odin's wrath... Click to embiggen!

Pardon our seams and staples, by the way. All the god scenes in this book are laid out in two-page spreads, and Ferry’s making the most of them, going for full wide-screen bleeds and unrelentingly placing the action right smack-dab in the center. It’s going to be a bitch to read in trade, where the far more severe binding will make the lack of inside gutters difficult at best. Which is kind of fitting, in a way. While Fraction is doing his usual nuanced character development and long-term storytelling, Thor is still very much comic book comics. It’s about lusty Viking gods, their enormous passions, and their even more enormous melancholy. It’s BIG, above all else, and BIG is something that comics has always done very, very well. There’s a part of me that really likes the idea that this book can’t be contained by the tight-assed binding of the trade paperback or the narrow confines of the digital reader screen. It needs the wide open spaces of flat staple-binding to be experienced to best effect.

The SPOILERS begin... after the jump!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Six: Sometimes, a Gun is Just a Gun

In our last episode: Comics publishers forged on into the 1960s under the Code, and DC tried desperately to prove that Batman wasn’t gay. Meanwhile, Stan Lee found a way to attract a new audience with super heroes who had Code-approved real human problems…

There’s a World Going On Underground

While mainstream comics struggled with the Code, a whole new breed of funnybook was being born that didn’t worry about it at all. These were the Undergrounds, humor comics whose publishers (often the artists themselves) weren’t members of the CMAA, and thus didn’t submit things to the Code for approval. Additionally, these books were distributed and sold primarily through record stores and head shops rather than the newsstands and grocery stores of America. This “underground” distribution system took them outside the reach of most children, and their low print runs kept them below the radar of whatever few anti-comics watchdogs remained in the mid-60s.

Packed with sex, violence, and drug use, the Undergrounds challenged authority and were designed to shock. They were, in many ways, the spiritual children of Bill Gaines. The EC Comics Fan-Addict generation had made it to college, and they weren‘t about to take any shit anymore. The lessons they learned at the feet of the Crypt Keeper were put to use in their own even more transgressive works, as evidenced here by Robert Crumb‘s front and back covers to Zap Comix #0:

click to embiggen

Crumb was a self-professed EC Comics fan as a kid, and Zap was his attempt to recreate that fun and forbidden EC feel. One of the early major Undergrounds, Zap was sort of like Mad, if it had been done by a bunch of revolutionary hippies and social outcasts. It, and the countless other Undergrounds that joined it, were on the cutting edge of the counter-culture, questioning everything the Code forbade comics to question: government, religion, race, war, sex… Really, anything held as established wisdom. And while they occasionally ran afoul of local obscenity laws, at least nobody suggested that they were a bad influence on children.

And how could they be?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Covering the New Avengers

So over at Bleeding Cool, they've previewed a bunch of New Avengers cover sketches done for The Hero Initiative, a charitable organization devoted to helping aging funnybook creators who've fallen on hard times. Some artists drew the current New Avengers team, while others chose whatever line-up or characters they remember most fondly. You can see highlights at the Bleeding Cool link, and the full batch at the Hero Initiative (about half of the projected 100 are up as of this writing). And you should definitely check 'em out: there's some really nice work in there, with a wide range of artists donating their work to a good cause. In the meantime, though, here are a few I thought were particularly nifty, all of which may be clicked to be embiggened...

Colleen Coover

Al Milgrom

George Perez

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Secret Dork Origins: The Danzig Skull

So I ain't been around the nerd farm much lately. My apologies. The research for our on-goin' history of the Comics Code has been takin' up so much of my time that I haven't been postin' at my usual pace. While it's great that I get to re-read the Spider-Man drug issues, I have missed flappin' my gums at you. So here's a quick little piece of Dork History to tide us both over til the next chapter's ready for public consumption...

Lots of dorks know this logo all too well:

That's the emblem (and first album cover) of the horror-rock band Danzig, named after lead singer Glenn Danzig (who also fronted the even-better horror-punk band the Misfits):

Comics fans will also be very familiar with Glenn's sideburns.

But did you know where Danzig got that bad-ass skull from? No, it's not original artwork. And no, it's not something from a heavy metal artist with a cool name like Pus-Head. It actually comes from here:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Five: The Bat-Closet and Other Stories

In our last episode: The Comics Code Authority was put into effect, and (much to everyone’s surprise) administered with extreme prejudice. Most of the truly interesting voices in the industry went elsewhere (along with much of the audience), and those that remained had to retrench…

Life Goes On

So the funnybook business was stuck with the Comics Code. Very few people liked it, but backing out would have been a PR nightmare. Though the anti-comics fervor finally died down after a number of regulatory laws were passed around the country, the Code Seal was still something that distributors and retailers looked for. Everyone was scared, and nobody knew quite what to do.

Other than putting out funnybooks, of course, which is what they did. The publishers were, as ever, primarily concerned with getting the books out. The attitude of most comics publishers toward the business, in fact, probably had a lot to do with the industry’s willingness to submit to whatever restrictions their critics thought necessary. As comics writer Steven Grant once put it in the message boards for his Permanent Damage column at the Comic Book Resources website

“Comics publishing has traditionally had a lot in common with carnivals and pro wrestling: the owners considered the audience marks whose money it was their duty to steal, and the performers dolts who were unemployable elsewhere and they should be grateful for whatever little money got thrown at them. Most comics publishers have been fly-by-nighters and I doubt many really expected to be in it longterm.”

Which is perhaps a jaded point of view, but evidently not an inaccurate one when it comes to the comics publishers of the Code era. The lack of credits on comics from the Golden and early Silver Age books is certainly evidence that the publishers didn’t take their writers and artists very seriously. Whether they worked to actively suppress the information, or just didn‘t think of it, is unknown (and most likely varied from publisher to publisher). But they owned the characters and the stories being written about them, and the people who created it all were treated more as commercial artists than authors. The jobs had to get done, and they had to get done on time, and quality be damned.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Touchy Fanboys 1, Funny 0

[RANT] So last week, funnybook man Eric Powell posted up a video urging people to buy (and make) more creator-owned funnybooks. We thought it was pretty funny, and that it put forth an opinion we here on the Dork Forty support all the way. In the video, Powell equates doing corporate super hero books, when you have no real creative interest in the genre, with prostitution. He does this by showing a struggling young artist reluctantly taking on super hero work to make ends meet, and then being... well... pounded in the butt by a super hero. While his loving family watches on in shock and horror.

Sure, it's a bit harsh. It's even kinda unfair. But it's also funny, and more than a little true. But now Powell's taken the video down in the face of an amazing onslaught of ignorant fanboy anger. He feels that it's become too divisive, and is hurting his cause more than it's helping. Which is probably true, but GODDAMMIT, PEOPLE! This is sort of shit that makes me ashamed to be a comics fan. Eric Powell trades in satire and mildly transgressive humor...

...okay, maybe mildly is the wrong word...

...and that's exactly what he delivered in his video message. He gave us a satire of a situation in the funnybook business that not enough people are willing to talk about: in American funnybooks, you do corporate spandex comics, or you don't make any money. Powell is (as he says in the video) lucky enough to be the exception to this rule, but that doesn't make it any less sad. If the American funnybook is to survive as a medium, it needs more diversity of story. And it needs a system to attract more (and better) creators to the field, by offering them the same sort of deal they'd get if they wrote a prose novel instead of one with pictures. Which is to say, a deal where they don't give up ownership of their own creations. Or even one where they get to do something of their own creation, rather than a corporate-owned franchise.

But say anything that even hints at a criticism of super heroes, and you're gonna get flamed. Take note, guys: this wasn't intended as an insult. Nowhere does Powell say that you shouldn't buy, or like, super hero comics. He just wants other genres to be as important a part of the industry as the corporate spandex books. And for people with an original creative vision to have a shot at making money with it, as they do in fiction markets that haven't been hobbled by years of inbreeding.

I mean, do you really wanna wind up like this guy?

And he wants these things for the good of the industry. Because he loves comics just as much as you do, and he wants them to survive and thrive, with an audience that can sustain them for the foreseeable future. And that means people reading, and creating, a few more comics that don't have super heroes in them. Because, as much as you and I might like the genre... If sales figures are anything to judge by, we're a dying breed. [/RANT]

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Comics Code, Part Four: "You Can't Have a Negro"

In our last episode: Driven by increasing public outcry over the content of crime and horror comics, the comics industry enacted the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board designed to ease concerns. But things didn’t go quite as anyone planned…

Judge Murphy Walks the Funnybook Beat

So the CMAA sacrificed Bill Gaines and EC Comics on the altar of public opinion, and attempted to appease their critics by putting the Comics Code into effect in September of 1954. Their chosen administrator, Charles Murphy, immediately set about spending the Code’s $100,000 annual budget on setting up offices and hiring a staff of five (all women, all college graduates, as the CMAA proudly advertised) to begin the task of reviewing every comic put out by every member publisher. They were set up and ready to go by October, and immediately gave the industry the shock of its life by enforcing the Code, to the letter.

The first few months of Code oversight were chaos. Stories were being submitted for approval so close to deadline that there was no time to re-draw offending panels, leading to some very clumsy, very unprofessional edits. If a female character’s dress was deemed too revealing, or her breasts too large, they just slapped some ink over her and went to press. If they were told that a character couldn’t use a weapon in a fight, it got whited out, leaving the impression that the combatants were beating each other to a pulp using nothing but empty air. 

Not all of the changes lead to such clumsy censorship, of course. The Marvel/Timely Western character The Rawhide Kid had to stop using the bullwhip which was the source of his name, and become a farmer between adventures. Nobody was immune to the requests, either. Even artists at Archie, the company of CMAA president John Goldwater, were told to lower the hems and loosen the blouses on Betty and Veronica. And for some reason, any number of panels were changed to remove perspiration from characters’ brows. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what Code by-law prevented sweat. Perhaps it put the censors in mind of some sort of grunting sexual exertion. Or perhaps they thought that the depiction of any bodily fluid, no matter how commonplace, was inappropriate.