While attending a Sunday morning church service, I watched my cousin Matt draw dirty pictures on his program with a tiny church pencil. I must have been nine or ten years old. Matt was older and had the reputation of a troublemaker. By nature, I was a cautious child who tried his best to follow the rules. The lunch ladies at my elementary school would always make a point to tell my mom how polite I was. He always says ‘please’ and ‘thank you!’ So I found Matt’s inclination to rebel fascinating.
I call his drawings “dirty” because, at the time, I thought they were the filthiest images anyone could dare to imagine in a sacred place like church. I recall, in the margins of the program, a monster with a wide blood-soaked maw of jagged teeth eating the remains of some poor human victim. Near the header, there was a gangster with a giant black tommy gun mowing down a group of police officers. And there were other sketches of monstrous faces and mutilated bodies. Sitting in the middle of church while the pastor gave his sermon, I knew these images were just plain wrong, even unholy—but I couldn’t look away. Every time I looked at those indecent doodles, I felt a rush. By gazing at them, appreciating them, I was a participant in my cousin’s small rebellion.
This is one of the fundamental qualities of comics; they depict images society says we should look away from. They are doorways to the unnatural, obscene, incendiary, and abhorrent. By depicting the obscene, comics creators challenge traditional beliefs regarding moral values and artistic taste. While literature and film are also highly subversive, they lack the immediate reaction produced by comics. You have to read a novel, or sit down to watch a film, to realize it’s offensive. However, with a comic book, you only need to flip though the pages, or sometimes just see the cover, to say that the images are “wrong” according to society’s moral standards.
The history of comics in the United States has demonstrated this numerous times. The pulp horror and crime comics of the 1940s and 50s contained visceral depictions of violence, such as beheadings, cannibalism, and torture. Here’s one of the most disturbing examples from Crime SuspenStories #22, 1954:
In 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham published a study titled Seduction of the Innocent that was persuasive in convincing the American public that comics caused childhood delinquency. Once adults started noticing what their children were reading, there was pandemonium. Comic book burnings were held in several states.
Eventually, Senate subcommittee hearings, in which Dr. Wertham served as an expert witness, resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which was similar to the Production Code in Hollywood. Some of the rules drawn out in this code included:
- Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
- Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.
- In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.
- All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.
- Inclusion of stories dealing with evil shall be used or shall be published only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue and in no case shall evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.
- Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.
- Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.
The Comics Code Authority effectively declawed mainstream comics. However, the era of the illicit crime and horror comics made a lasting impact that’s still being felt to this day. The modern artist Charles Burns (Black Hole, X’ed Out, The Hive), makes many references to this history in his work. His stories often revolve around mutilations, alien invasions, spontaneous mutations, and so on. Here’s an image of his recurring character Big Baby reading a sci-fi horror comic in bed with a flashlight.
The iconic image of a child secretly reading a comic book has been embedded into our culture, creating this sense that comics, like pornography, are something to be kept hidden away. Consequently, if you did read comics, you were a rebellious child with decaying morals.
In the 1960s a counter culture movement began to take shape that broke every rule of the Comics Code Authority. Underground comix (comics with an “x”) were produced by a group of artists (including Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, Art Spiegelman, and Justin Green) whose aim was to make work that exposed the human desires and thoughts that were being repressed by mainstream society. They explored many topics, such as drugs, sex, and racism. (Cover of Zap Comix #0, 1968, which featuring the art of Robert Crumb and others.)
As they gained popularity in the late 1960s and 70s, underground comix were labeled “pornographic” and retailers in many areas of the United States were barred from selling them. This resulted in the movement eventually losing steam, but it had accomplished some incredibly important achievements. These artists demonstrated that the stories in comics were not bound by a particular genre (superhero, romance, western, etc.) and that it was a medium where highly subversive images could get exposure.
Many of today’s alternative comics contain controversial images, but they are much more subtle compared to the incendiary underground comix of the 60s and 70s. Graphic memoirs such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and David Small’s Stitches depict taboo subjects, such as homosexuality, mental illness, and suicide. In her book Graphic Women, Hilary Chute describes this as the “risk of representation” and states, “The complex visualizing [graphic narratives] undertakes suggests that we need to rethink the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize trauma theory as well as our current censorship-driven culture in general” (3). Essentially, society is still saying that certain ideas shouldn’t be written or talked about, and certain images shouldn’t be drawn or looked at.
Current events prove that censorship is alive and kicking. Lawmakers in Charleston, South Carolina approved a budget bill that defunded a reading program at the College of Charleston for suggesting (not requiring) college freshmen read Bechdel’s Fun Home. This action was taken in an attempt to punish the school for assigning a memoir by a lesbian author. In protest, Bechdel brought the Braodway-version of her graphic memoir to Charleston College and held performances for the public.
Cases like the one in Charleston highlight how comics are still being portrayed as dangerous and morally depraved. However, certain people may view many of the greatest works of art as obscene. I’m sure the nudity of Michaelango’s David still makes some people blush. When a graphic novel, film, painting, or book causes controversy for its obscene material, that’s usually a good sign. It means that the art is pushing against a widely held belief, exposing us to something new, something society is trying to keep invisible and inaudible. Well-made, thought provoking comics, almost always contain something society labels as “weird,” “dirty,” or “wrong.”
I can’t recall what happened to my cousin’s doodle-covered, desecrated church pamphlet. He might have left it in a hymnal with the intention of scandalizing the next church member who discovered it, or my uncle might have given Matt a stern warning and snatched it away. Whatever happened to it, I’m sure that pamphlet is long gone now, but I know those drawings will stay seared in my memory forever.