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.

The idea of comics being nothing more than children’s entertainment wasn’t really an issue for most of the publishers, or for most of the people who stuck around in the industry to make the comics themselves. Which is good, because that’s about all they could produce. Not that you can’t do good adult entertainment without sex and violence, but the adult market just wasn’t there in the second half of the 50s. Whatever adult readers the industry had were drawn by the very sort of lurid content the Code made impossible, and any adults who’d have been interested in more “serious” fiction wouldn’t have been caught dead reading something that was so widely considered a juvenile medium.

So most publishers were left to produce simplistic comedy and adventure fiction for small children. Crime comics were pretty much gone, replaced with police comics that never really caught on. Horror morphed into watered-down “suspense” comics, or went more science-fiction with giant monsters and the like. The romance comics, robbed of their ability to deal with any romantic urges that originated below the neck, died out for the most part, eliminating much of the female audience. Even war and western books saw a sharp decline, the gun battles that dominated both genres having been ridiculously neutered. That left the industry with funny animals, whacky teenage hijinks, and of course super heroes.

Super heroes had seen a much-reduced profile following World War II, displaced by horror and crime. But the relative innocence of the genre…

…the kink-filled adventures of Wonder Woman notwithstanding…

…made it ideal to survive the Code. While you weren’t going to be seeing the excesses of a Fletcher Hanks anymore…

…most super hero adventures were much more wholesome.

Now, you’re reading into that and you know it!

Putting the Bat Back in the (Sci-Fi) Closet

All joking aside, Batman might just be the best example of how the Code changed super hero comics. It was in the mid-50s, right around the rise of the Code, that the infamous “sci-fi Batman” era began, and we saw Batman go from fighting super villains and mobsters to fighting space aliens and monsters. Not that the gangsters and bad guys disappeared entirely, of course; the Joker still seems to have popped up every so often, and there were still bank robbers to punch out from time to time. But there was a lot more emphasis on strange creatures and odd transformations, and you’d never mistake any Batman book for a crime comic. The official reason for this was to make the Bat-books more like the then-more-successful Superman titles. But with the Code’s mandates against the depiction of crime, I have to wonder if it wasn’t also done to guard against time-consuming Code rejections.

More telling, though, were DC’s efforts to make sure that everybody knew Batman and Robin were not (I repeat, NOT!) gay. First, in Detective Comics #233 (June 1956), they introduced Batwoman to bring some much-needed eggs to the sausage party that had been going on at the Batcave for so long. Intended as a love interest for Batman, Batwoman (aka carny-turned-heiress Kathy Kane) didn’t quite take the curse off the way they’d intended. They do pay some lip-service to a romantic attraction between Bruce Wayne and Kathy Kane, especially in the Batman and Robin II stories, set in a future where they‘ve gotten married. But the romance goes nowhere in the present-day, and they constantly undercut it in favor of the Batman/Robin partnership.

In her first appearance, the Dynamic Duo resent her horning in on their (hot) Bat-Action, and Batman tries to talk her out of being Batwoman because “crime-fighting is no place for a woman.” She doesn’t stop, of course, and the Dynamic Duo come to accept her as a sometime-partner. But then they do a story where Robin gets so jealous that he has a nightmare about Batman and Batwoman marrying, and that really doesn’t help to lessen the gayness of it all. Even after they introduce Kathy’s niece as the original Batgirl (presumably a love interest for Robin), there’s never a sense that there’s much actual romance happening.

Not between Bruce and Kathy, anyway…

In the end, Batwoman and Batgirl became playmates for Our Heroes, but not girlfriends. Still, they did bring those eggs with them (even if they never got scrambled), so when the characters were eliminated for Julie Schwartz’ more realistic “New Look” Batman in 1964, something else had to be done to take the curse off. Cue Aunt Harriet! Harriet was Dick Grayson’s aunt (why she didn’t come forward to take the traumatized youngster in when his parents were killed is anybody’s guess), and she came to Wayne Manor to-- Well, here. I’ll let her explain it.

But-- Our hot Bat-Action!

What’s that? Oh, yes. Alfred died. That’s right. They killed off Batman’s best supporting character just to make the book less gay. Aunt Harriet’s presence gave our confirmed Bat-Bachelors a lady chaperone instead of a mildly effeminate gentleman’s gentleman (oy!), which presumably meant that they couldn’t possibly be homosexuals. Except that Aunt Harriet was played as something of an amateur detective (or at least a snoop), and slowly started to suspect Bruce and Dick’s secret identities.


You know…

If you were of a mind to look for gay subtext…

Which, let’s face it, we are…

Could be taken as a metaphor. I mean, Bruce and Dick spend an awful lot of time together (Dick doesn't even go to school!). And on top of that they go off on their own, at night, not telling anyone where they’re going or what they’re doing, to engage in a secret activity that they daren’t let anyone know about… Well let’s just say that, if I were Aunt Harriet, “crime fighting” would not be the first thing to cross my mind in relation to those two.

Subtext aside, all this was actually a storyline that ran through Detective Comics for the better part of two years. Alfred dies, Aunt Harriet arrives, and then the Dynamic Duo start being taunted by a mysterious new villain known as The Outsider, who orchestrates crimes to be carried out by other bad guys. The Outsider has inside information on how Batman and Robin operate, and in the meantime Aunt Harriet gets closer and closer to figuring out Our Heroes’ secret. It all comes to a head when the Outsider is revealed as Alfred, resurrected by mad science and twisted into a hateful monster who only wants to destroy Batman and Robin. Alfred is restored, Aunt Harriet is tricked, and everything goes back to normal (except for Aunt Harriet sticking around) just in time for the Batman TV show to debut, with both Alfred and Harriet in the cast. Though executed in a sort of clumsy and episodic manner, this is one of the earliest extended plotlines I’ve ever heard of in comics, and is a fine example of comics creators doing interesting things with situations created by the Code and its controversies.

The Marvel Age

Another fine example is what Stan Lee and his artistic partners created across the street at Marvel. With Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the rest of the new Marvel heroes, Lee gave his readers characters with recognizable human problems while never straying outside the bounds of the Code.

The Code never said nothin’ ‘bout no stock markets!

Lee claims that he never really thought about the Code when he was writing, in fact. In his mind, he was writing for an audience that included young kids, and so he avoided anything too racy or violent. And he succeeded admirably, creating the first comics with interest for older readers since William Gaines threw in the towel. Marvel’s popularity grew as the 1960s progressed, always working within the Code, and eventually attracting an audience of high school and college students (who, admittedly, were using the books as fuel for acid trips). Such was Marvel’s reputation with American youth by the end of the decade that the government asked Lee to do a Spider-Man story about the horrors of drug use.

Which brought Stan, and Marvel, into direct conflict with the Code. But that’s a story for our next chapter…

Geez, Harry, I’m sorry. I know I said I’d get to your story this time out, but… Come on, man! Gay Batman! How could I pass that up?!

List of sources to come later. Right now, I've gotta get to bed...


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