Saturday, February 28, 2009


A little background on the Comics Code Authority as we discussed in class last Friday:
From Wikipidia on Seduction of the Innocent:

"Seduction of the Innocent is a book by American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, published in 1954, that warned that comic books were a bad form of popular literature and a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. The book was a minor bestseller that created alarm in parents and galvanized them to campaign for censorship. At the same time, a U.S. Congressional inquiry was launched into the comic book industry. Subsequent to the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code Authority was voluntarily established by publishers to self-censor their titles."

In order to avoid government regulation, the publishers decided to form the Comics Code Authority to police themselves. The Code approved books had a small symbol that appeared on the cover (as seen at the top of the post).

Several books over the years were published without Code approval. Most notably a 1971 Spider-Man that dealt with drug abuse.
As times changed, the Code became an anachronism. Today only DC and Archie Comics are submitted for Code approval, and DC only submits the titles in its juvenile line.

As a long time comics reader, I grew up with Code approved books. The switch by the major publishers away from Code approval that began in the 1990s was a move that was welcomed by the majority of comics fandom. Today, as the average age of the comics reader increases, and the publishers are desperately seeking ways to bring in new, young readers; new juvenile stories that could have passed in the Code days are being published as part of entire series that are aimed at the childrem of current fans. The publishers know that the current readership will not sustain them into the future and need the young audience. An audience that they can not get with the "mature" stories in the mainstrean titles today.

Friday, February 27, 2009


In BATMAN R.I.P., Grant Morrison makes good on the promise that has been repeated since the 1980’s; that comics aren’t kids stuff anymore. Morrison’s style and quality writing has done something that all the killing, sex, and “grittiness” of the past 20 years has not; to create a really adult reading experience. Morrison realizes that the depth of a character, not his actions, marks the work as mature. By embracing the entire, not all together sane, seventy year history of Batman, Morrison enriched a tried and true character. By embracing stories that lesser writers treated as inconvenient, and wrote out of Batman continuity, Morrison opens up his playing field to work on the character.

BATMAN R.I.P. consists of issues 676 to 681 of Batman comics printed by DC Comics. During this story arc, this was the title that I most anticipated each month. The challenging, well executed story kept me trying to keep up with the sheer amount of stuff Morrison was packing into the story. Morrison is not afraid of a dense, intricate story. Each panel and line demonstrates an economy of storytelling that moves the epic along. I felt that even the panel dividers held esoteric clues. Morrison uses concepts and storylines from across the history of Batman to create his story. The opening chapter reveals to us that a mysterious group of super criminals have set their sights on Batman. Morrison only gives us a visual of the villains and leaves the reader to discern the identities of these new enemies as the story unfolds. We soon learn that some time in his past, before Robin came onto the scene, Batman volunteered for an isolation chamber experiment which resulted in a mental breakdown. Later in the arc we learn that the experiment was an attempt by Batman to understand the workings of the Joker’s mind. The doctor conducting the experiment is revealed to be Doctor Hurt, the ring leader of The Black Glove. Hurt used Batman’s weakened condition to implant subconscious suggestions that are to be triggered years later when The Black Glove attacks. But that is the thing about being Batman; you have to be prepared for everything. Batman created a failsafe; a backup personality in the case of just such an attack on his consciousness. Here Morrison reaches back into the long ignored past to find the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. In a silver age story, Batman traveled to a distant planet to encounter a doppelganger, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. Morrison crafts the admittedly silly story into the development of Batman’s subconscious back up personality. Surviving the mental assault due to his backup personality, Batman is able to endure until Nightwing, Robin, and the Club of Heroes are able to come to his aid. The club of Heroes is another silver age creation that Morrison makes relevant again. The club is a group of Batman and Robin knock offs from various countries around the world. The club has heroes such as Knight and Squire from England, Ranger and Scout from Australia, and etcetera. The idea only works under a writer like Morrison who is able to make the absurd work for the reader. The Black Glove is likewise made up of villains from around the world, including Jezebel Jet, Batman’s new love interest. Jet has infiltrated Batman’s life as part of the villains’ plot.

Part of the beauty of Morrison’s story is that he doesn’t lay all the back story of the Club of Heroes and Zur-En-Arrh out for the reader. The only reference to the origin of the Zur-En-Arrh persona is on page one of issue 678. We see Robin reading the account of an old batman case titled, Robin Dies at Dawn, which is the actual title of a silver age story. Admittedly there is a degree of fanboy glee in seeing references that are only accessible to true comics historians, but this is not just a cute inside joke for the comics nerd. Morrison is letting his Batman stand on the tradition of the literature that came before. Batman is great enough to include in his cannon the stories that are considered embarrassments by most modern writers. Morrison is letting Batman be serious literature by building on all his historical elements, just as all art builds on what came before.

On first read, you know you are only getting part of the story. Morrison is using the comics medium as part of the story; the clues are given in the art and the script. There is no use of long exposition or needless explanation that fills too many contemporary stories. Morrison trusts his reader to pick up on the story. Morrison is playing with identity. The identities of Batman, Dr. Hurt, Alfred, and Jezebel Jet are all in question in the story. All the characters assume multiple, conflicting identities. The reader questions the very foundation of the Batman universe. Could Hurt really be Thomas Wayne? The idea does not seem too big for Morrison.

The main criticism of this, and most Morrison works, is that it really does not stand on its own. You need the build up to understand the story. The more I let the story ping around in my subconscious, I’m not really sure the criticism hold up. I think Morrison should be applauded for treating the comics world as an organic system that grown and builds on itself.

The comics medium is ready for a writer that can embrace the entire continuum of comics. Silly silver age stories and modern hardboiled urban drama can be equally embraced as part of our comics heritage. There should be no shame in exploring the stories that had garish colors and ridiculous plots, they are our heritage. The decision to embrace back story or retcon it out of existent is just that; a decision. Decisions made by editors and writers are only as good as the skill used to accomplish the story. The difference between Morrison and most of the writers that have handled Batman since his rejuvenation in the eighties is that Morrison is actually skillful enough to handle the task.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Name Calling

Too often in our society we fall into the intellectual trap of applying easy labels to people and ideals. We are a generally intellectually lazy society and the ability to apply a label or to type-cast an individual or group makes it easier for us to put them in a little box in our mind and not really put any more thought into our dealings with the idea or person. Labels make our lives easier. We love labels, especially pejorative labels that allow us to set up an artificial "Us versus Them" scenario. This kind of thinking is the refuge of the lazy. If you are too lazy to take the time and effort to think and educate yourself in order to make reasoned arguments, then the next best course of action is to label your antagonist with a nasty name that will inspire equally slothful individuals to avoid any serious though and deal with the clean label, not the messy ideal. This does not mean that there are not equally lazy bastards out there that will fit the definition of your label and not make any attempt to rise above it. These individuals that embrace and relish the simplicity of the label are to be held in contempt for their views and for their simplicity.

In Frank Miller's seminal BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, readers and critics have found grounds to accuse Miller's version of Batman and by implication, Miller, of being a fascist and/or terrorist. Charges that the author has done nothing to dismiss and at times has embraced. Miller is an author and artist, a creature of the modern media culture. He knows the powerful cache these terms carry. He can be forgiven for indulging in a little name calling himself, if only because it only enforces one of the powerful themes of his work; the creation of public opinion through media manipulation. The reality of Miller's work, and really all Batman stories since Bob Kane first brought the character to life, is that implications of fascism and terrorism have always been with Batman. A cursory read of historical Batman stories will reveal the undercurrent that breakthrough to center stage in Miller's work. To say that Miller made Batman a fascist or a terrorist is to not only demonstrate ignorance of the history of Batman, but also an intellectual laziness and lack of ability to see the depth of the character.

Lets have a little reality check on our vision of Batman. Batman is a rich man who has never been able to move past a formative emotional wound. He uses physical violence as his primary means of conflict resolution. He is a primarily martial character who does not let a day go by without a violent confrontation with the worst our society can produce. He is Batman more than Bruce Wayne. He is trying to impose order on a world that has shown him only disorder and chaos.

Now, looking at Batman in the light of the preceding paragraph; how can any rational mind expect Batman to be a pleasant man, concerned for any one's sense of propriety and civility? Batman willingly engages in physical combat with the mentally damaged and society's underprivileged. To state this another way; he beats the mentally ill and the poor with his fists until they are unconscious. This is not a new development, he has been doing this since 1938. To accuse Miller of writing a fascist is to let Kane off the hook.

So, if you want to label Batman a fascist, you are by implication, placing all of the vigilantes of our literary history in the same group. Scarlet Pimpernel? Even worse, he protected the rich elites from a democratic revolution. Hamlet? A severe Freudian oedipal complex who is trying to summons the nerve to confront his father's killer. Spiderman? Sexually repressed teen that beats his repression out on the criminal class.

What do we expect our Batman to be? He is a hard man, in the tradition of the individualistic American hero that takes on the psychic guilt of his society in order to fight the monsters that lesser men can not face. He is Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON or John Wayne in the SEARCHERS, except he does not get his happy ending. Batman's war will never end. He will challenge you to be better that you are, or at least a more violent you.

So, is it accurate or fair to label Batman a fascist or a terrorist? The reality is that a man or a good character is a complicated subject. Batman is a fascist and a terrorist, and he is not. By using these labels, we deny ourselves the satisfaction of coming to a deeper understanding of the character and ourselves. Sometimes the world does function under its underlying Darwinian principal. When someone higher on the food chain is at your door, are you going to criticize your savior's philosophical bent? Do we expect the man who has the audacity to go out into the dark night and confront the monsters that we have created in our society and minds to either neatly fit our bourgeois ideas of genteel society? He will be a man that is objectionable to polite company because he shows us how weak we are. He will dare to be a fully actualized person in a world of the lazy and weak. We will hate him.

Batman has survived for seventy years, attracting new readers and writers due to his complexity and his iconography. He was a complicated character even when written in the simplest of terms for a juvenile audience. We can take up the challenge of understanding the character or we can label him and put him in a little box.