In previous blogs, I’ve mentioned in passing the adult nature of current comic books. Given the explosion of super-hero movies, I thought it might be helpful to explore this topic for those parents with children who are asking them for a comic book.
Comic books come from many publishers. The two main publishers are Marvel Comics (think Captain America, Thor, X-men, and The Avengers) and DC Comics (think Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and the Justice League). Then there are the independent publishers: Image, Dark House, Valiant, Boom! (really!), IDW, and others. These publishers attempt to flood the market with continuations of TV series (like Eureka, Dr. Who, Firefly, and Farscape) and movies (like Hellraiser, 30 Days of Night, and 28 Days After), independent superheroes you’ve never heard of (like Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom, Magnus, Robot Fighter, Plutonium, etc.), horror genres, classics, funny comics (like Archie) and Sherlock Holmes revivals. Despite his size, even Godzilla isn’t safe from from being pressed into the pages of a comic. Some publishers, like Gold Key, have gone to the comic book store in the sky, but you can still find their comics in second hand stores and expensive “archive editions”.
How Comics Used to Be
Back when I (and maybe you) was a boy, a comic book cost 12-whopping-cents, a large amount for a ten-year-old without a paper route. The superheroes were moral and their stories were uncomplicated so that a child could follow them. In fact, they were written with children in mind. What adult would be caught dead with a Batman comic book? If Superman was very surprised or dismayed, he might say, “Great Krypton!” If Peter (Spider-man) Parker was interested in Mary Jane Watson, he might take her out for a soda — if he could afford it.
Each story normally began and ended in the same comic. The artwork was serviceable and sometimes even pretty bad, but we weren’t sophisticated enough to notice. Each comic had an “Approved by the Comics Code” sticker, which meant that the Comics Code Authority (the comics industry self-policing panel) certified that it was suitable for children. And for the most part, they were right. Comics were distributed by magazine companies and available at bookstores, news stands, and 5-and-10 cent stores, generally in a revolving, wire stand packed with the latest issues.
How Comics Changed
But starting in the 70’s, comics changed. Many comic book readers grew-up, and rather embarrassed to be caught reading them by our friends, many of us left comics behind. In an attempt to keep their audience, comic books began pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in a comic book. They were still approved by the comics code, but any adult reading them might wonder if the Comics Code Authority was actually reading the books they certified were acceptable for children. Now, if Superman was really upset, he might say, “Damn.” It seemed that any super-hero might exclaim, “What the hell!” Kissing was now permitted. By the 21st Century, if you went to a comics book store, you would look in vain for the “Approved by the Comics Code” sticker on any comic book. And the price of each comic began to rise.
The Current Comic Situation
Comic books are now sophisticated, multi-layered works with intricate plots that may last for years! Some of the plots may involve changes in time or place with little indication of what is happening, and it’s hard for me to picture a ten-year-old child following them. The characters are three-dimensional, varied, and mature. While any comic book publisher can have a couple of substandard issues with artwork bad enough to make you wince, the best comic book artists draw very well indeed. In fact, some of the artwork is breathtaking. The days of 4-color comics is past. The coloring is often subtle and graded. In fact, they are works of art. Instead of newsprint pages, the pages are glossy and firm.
Comics are still sold in book stores (if you can find one), but most are sold in stores devoted to comic books (as well as science fiction and fantasy) or by direct mail. They range in price from $2.99 to $3.99 for Marvel and DC comics to $6.99 or more for independent publishers. Comic books that were released previously in comic book form are now often packaged as pretentious “graphic novels”, which are solidly bound reprints of the comics. Some of them are even hard-bound! Often, the “graphic novel” editions appear only months after the comics issues hit the stands.
When I say that the plots of comics are mature, I don’t necessarily mean to say that they are by extension X-rated and inappropriate for children — though they certainly may be. At this point, superheroes may utter the name of “Jesus” when faced with a difficult situation — and they aren’t praying. Oddly, the villains rarely swear. Most of the profanity is in the mouths of the “good” guys. Some comic books drop the “F-bomb”, but they are generally marked with warnings. Outside of four-letter words beginning with “F”, comic books find any other language totally acceptable. Heterosexual bedroom scenes between male and female characters are portrayed as normal, and homosexuality is regarded as perfectly acceptable. One superhero was even “transgendered”, sometimes appearing as a man and other times as a woman. Even when intimate relations are performed “off-panel”, the reader would have to be very naive not to know what’s happening on the other side of the door.
But that adult nature aside, the plots are also mature and will explore difficult social or moral issues. For instance, one comic book series, when faced with the end of the world, had the superheroes grappling with the way to save humanity. Should they use the time-machine at their disposal to travel back in time and kill the innocent man who, unwittingly, unleashes the doom before he can do so? Some of the heroes are all for it! Others argue that such an action, while it might seem expedient, would make us no better than the villains. One interesting plot involved super-villains learning the secret identities of the superheroes and threatening their loved ones. The solution to protect their families might surprise you in the depth of its complexity and emotional impact . In another story, the earth is in danger from a dimensional collapse. Is it acceptable to destroy another planet, killing its inhabitants, to save our own? Sometimes, it is the villains who save the day when the good guys are helpless. Or what if an immensely powerful hero with unsuspected mental issues turns evil? These plot complexities are intriguing for adults — at least I find them so — but a child with a developing and uncertain sense of morality might find the eventual decisions disturbing.
Comic books have also firmly entered the realm of politics. If you are liberal in your politics, this will be just what the doctor ordered, but if you are conservative, you will discover that conservative ideas are placed in the mouth of only the most boorish of super-heroes in order to show how unacceptable they are. Generally, the writer either does not understand conservative opinions well enough to represent them accurately, or he (and most writers are men) simply does not care to understand a position with which he disagrees. For instance, in one issue of Superman, Lois Lane was angered at the last three conservative administrations. In another Superman comic, a publisher who doesn’t want a white couple to adopt a black child is labeled “conservative” despite the fact that, in the real world, it is liberals who don’t want to see cross-racial adoptions of black children to white parents. If you are a conservative, be assured that any morals or politics you attempt to inculcate in your children will be undermined by Superman, Batman, and Captain America.
Comic books are now written for adults with only passing consideration for what your 10-year-old might encounter in its pages. But if that’s the case, what’s a parent to do? Forbid them? As a father of four children, I’ll provide my opinion of that in another blog.