Sex & Violence In Comics: How Much Is Too Much? An MTV Geek Roundtable Discussion

The debate about sex n' violence in comics has been around for at least 60 years

Charles Webb: So maybe you missed the minor tizzy that was inspired by a recent report by a Fox affiliate in Washington D.C. running with a “who’ll think of the children” report about sex and violence in comics, specifically with regards to the New 52. You know the drill: show the offending material, getting some talking head from local or state government decrying this filth, citing some unsourced statistic saying this kind of material will rot your babies’ brains, and—as an added twist—showing the books to a couple of grade schoolers to ask what they think.

And bravo, reporter Sherry Lee, that’s some weak journalism you did there, but weirdly, almost by accident, they kind of sort of have a point. A lot of the output from DC well before the New 52 and certainly now is kind of gruesome, messed-up stuff, and as someone who tends to be into that kind of thing in some of my fiction, I’ve nevertheless argued in the past that but supplying the gore in bulk, maybe they’re doing it wrong. The same goes for their competition across town to some extent, and while we’re at it, let’s bundle sex in with this too because with very, very few exceptions, I’ve seen a lot of sexualized stuff at the Big Two but very little of it actually being, you know, sexy.

But before I go on, Valerie and Alex should weigh in. What did you think of the report? Was there anything that it might have gotten right? Do you think they may have actually scored any kind of point here?

Valerie Gallaher:Well, it’s an election year, and we are going to see a lot of manufactured outrages like this perfectly packaged in the hopes of becoming Issues (instead of real issues like the economy, the environment, health care, and so on). I’m sure if some presidential nominee found that this “sex n’ violence in comix” story hit a nerve among voters he’d blow it even more out of proportion and perhaps even suggest such comics be banned. And that is crazy, and reactionary, and a throwback to the Eisenhower era.

That said, I would assume nobody wants an 8-year-old potential new comic fan to randomly read a comic containing soft-core sex or extreme gore on their parents’ iPad either -- a comic featuring characters they were first introduced to through cartoons and/or other material designed for children. Rather as seeing this as a matter of morality, as in the Fox piece, I see this in terms of business.

I’ve witnessed two recent incidents where young mothers have rejected the idea of giving their children superhero-themed toys, because they deemed comic books inappropriate and violent. We’re talking not about gritty Arkham Asylum action figures, but chunky/smiley Batman and Green Lantern cars for pre-schoolers. Given how much the Big Two license their characters for a myriad of children’s products, this is a branding dilemma. And seeing these moms make erroneous blanket statements about comics like that makes me sad, because I love comics and those characters, and I want these children to get the same enjoyment out of them I had as a kid.

Alex Zalben: This is obviously a big issue across entertainment right now, and probably will be until we devolve into some sort of Caligula-based economy. Until then, though, and specifically about comics... Well, sure, the news report does have a point, though it was stated stupidly, and for the wrong reasons. But these things are always cyclical: look at the yearly report in the New York Times or similar paper/magazine of record where they suddenly realize the impossible: teenagers want to have sex with each other!

Point being, with comics, there’s always going to be people reacting poorly to content, and making broad statements without any basis for the information. The question that you brought up up top, Charles is an apt one though: IS the content in current comics too objectionable?

I’m gonna go out on a limb here, a limb made that grew from a “I’m Not Sure I Believe This But I’ll Say It Anyway” Tree, and say, no, the content in comics isn’t objectionable... You’re just reading the wrong ones.

Yes, the big, flashy, brokeback pose heavy superhero comics are always going to cross a line, because they’re dumb books that don’t have any deeper meaning, and are meant to appeal to a dwindling fanbase. And that’s true in any media: about 95% of anything, whether its comics, movies, TV, or, you know, pottery I guess, is going to just okay to downright bad. The question, I think, becomes what the other five percent is like? What can we take away from that?

Even if we’re ignoring the idea that there’s hundreds, if not thousands of indie comic books out there, both print and digital that deal with mature subjects in a mature way, or subjects for kids in a fun/all-ages way, there’s plenty of comics from the big publishers that aren’t about exploitation, are well written and drawn, and can be handed to almost anybody. Just thinking about the past week, you had Ultimate Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil, Batman, Fables, and Wonder Woman from the Big Two of Marvel and DC, all of which can be given to anyone, and with the exception of a rather gruesome scene in Batman, are pretty clean, all-ages books. From other publishers, you’ve got Memorial and Dead Man’s Run, and heck, the latter book is about a jailbreak from Hell, and it’s still hand-able to almost anyone.

Point being: there’s plenty of stuff out there, you just need to know where to look. To belabor this with further parallels, coming from a comedy background, I know people who go to one terrible improv show and say they “don’t like live comedy.” It’s the same thing with comics... It’s parents, educators, casual consumers, or whatever who pick something up accidentally, and then feel ashamed when it turns out THEY made a mistake handing it to their not-ready kids.

Yes, I’m blaming the consumer for this. Take that, consumer!

Charles: I should clarify that I’m not objecting to the content on a moral standpoint, I simply think the writers and artists behind the raft of “edgy” stories are just guilty of bad storytelling—although that’s never necessarily been to the detriment of sales. But it’s the proliferation of this so-called “edgy” content which I will define on my part as violence with limited to no consequence, i.e. cities full of people getting blown up to give a villain some heat or decapitations and dismemberment as regular matters of course in what should be action and not horror stories. There’s so much of it that many of the stories start to read the same and the villains become part of the same, bland terrorist/serial killer identikit and the heroes themselves become reduced to cogs in stories that are half-24 and half-Law and Order: SVU. When our introduction to both the new Batgirl and the new Blue Beetle involves families getting cut up, there’s a problem of little to no inspiration.

And it’s such a shallow well—how many times can we read a story where someone’s face gets cut off before it doesn’t mean anything? Every cut, every wound, every murder, every explosion that wipes out a small Midwestern town (the first weeks of the New 52 were a bad place to be a small, Midwestern town) starts to lose its impact when it’s the go-to approach to action and raising the stakes.

And again, I’m talking about genre appropriateness, here—Swamp Thing and Animal Man work by virtue of being well-constructed horror stories filled with slow-building dread and all manner of monstrosities, so the violence never feels over the line or excessive—the same goes for I, Vampire. When bad things happen to good people in these titles, I care about the characters because the writers have taken the time to give me some investment in them—made them smart, funny, whatever. The same goes for Uncanny X-Force, whose remit seems to almost be the nastiest, most vicious of the X-books. It works because Remender has taken the time to make the core cast compelling. And a recent issue even had one of those dead Midwesterner scenes and it worked because Remender made it about the utter, absolute corruption of a character and not about the body count.

Then you have Green Lantern Corps being shredded to bits in their own book—ostensibly a space-based cop show—and it feels out of place and worse, weightless given that it’s simply a bunch of identity-free characters wearing the same costume. It relies on the fact that I’m supposed to care about the Corp and doesn’t put in the time to develop a connection to the characters. Or maybe that was Men of War or something out of Hawkman. The problem is that they all start to read the same and makes it far easier for me to drop the books.

Alex, you say that the problem is we’re reading the wrong books—I’d counter that the publishers—DC especially—have made it more difficult to figure out which ones are the right books.

Valerie Gallaher I think parents are ultimately responsible for what comics their children read, but I also think, related to the point Charles made, it is also sometimes difficult to figure out what the “right” books are. As Alex mentioned, both Marvel and DC have excellent comics right now for children—and not just the ones specifically made “for kids” (such as the Johnny DC line). Then look past that and take into account offerings by Boom!, Archie, Scholastic, Archaia, and on and on. In one sense, there have never been as many exciting choices for the new young reader.

But I don’t know if the average parent has the necessary level of sophistication regarding what books are “okay” for kids and which ones to avoid, unless they hang out on comic book news websites on a regular basis. Some see a big fun image of the Teen Titans or Spider-Man on the cover if the comic book in question, and assume it’s similar to the ones in the cartoons and movies and thus “okay.” Perhaps they shouldn’t do that—perhaps they should read through these comics before giving it to their child (that’s what I would do)—but the reality is they often don’t. They are depending on the brand to deliver a certain type of content—not realizing that this one brand/superhero is being used in both kiddie and “mature readers” material.

Related to this is that I hate to see adult readers who otherwise might enjoy some of the books targeted in the Fox special avoid them because of a handful of over-the-top scenes. Both Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws are, in my opinion, fun and dynamically-rendered comics. Catwoman in particular has amazing art—but I’ll be honest, the Batman/Catwoman sex scene at the end of the first issue sort of turned me off. Same for the last image of Detective Comics #1—another excellent, high-quality comic. I felt like these stories were so good, they didn’t need to “go there” with those provocative scenes.

And then what you have are tons of articles bemoaning a relatively small selection of panels and writing these titles off—not raving about what a cool and interesting artist Kenneth Rocafort is, or that the new Catwoman presents some of the most exciting adventures of Selina Kyle since the Darwyn Cooke material. Do these titles, in some ironic way, actually benefit from all the increased press? Or are they losing out, marketing-wise, in a larger and more crucial sense?

And a question for the two of you: do you see the future of mainstream superhero comics as being more all-ages inclusive, seriously split between kiddie/”mature readers” comics, or some other combination? What are the trends, in your opinion?

Alex Zalben: First of all, based on what Charles said, I think I’m going to have to add an addendum to what I stated before: yes, there’s also a responsibility on the part of the publisher to highlight these titles, and the stores to display them in a way that makes sense to the casual consumer. That’s always been a problem, and will continue to be a problem. I don’t have a clear solution, or suggestion on how to tackle these, though I know one way NOT to tackle them—by making sure everything is for one age group.

As much as I’d personally enjoy it, I don’t think the entire comic book industry needs to be Thor The Mighty Avenger, because first of all, that’s impossible, and second of all, even with that much actually All-Ages goodness, it would get samey and boring. I say this as a reasonably intelligent guy who responds to quality and makes most of his living off of talking critically about comic books: sometimes I just want to read a book where stuff done got blowed up, real good.

Whenever I get into a discussion like this, I think back to the comics I read as a kid that I responded to. They were chock full of great stories and good characters, but I also vividly remember Wolverine getting crucified in the desert and left for dead by evil robots, or in the same comics, Madeline Pryor sleeping with Havok. Did I know exactly what was going on in the latter? Heck no. But it also didn’t ruin me for life or anything.

I think kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. I think if a story calls for more mature themes, go for ‘em, and make it work for the characters. But on the same note, if you’re just adding sex and violence to push buttons, you’ve failed.

That’s where I agree with you, Charles, and to respond to Valerie’s question, the industry is fragmenting into people who believe comics should be for everyone, and people who say, “No, they’ve matured.” The problem is, most of the people who say comics have matured are writing about spandexed superheroes fighting demon gods and whatever. I’m not saying you can’t have mature storytelling in a superhero setting... It just seems like a bit of an uphill battle most of the time.

Anyway, I don’t know where that leaves me at the end of the this. The first and only suggestion I have is that there perhaps could be... An industry-wide ratings system, like the one that’s been slowly creeping into some of the publishers anyway. But if you have that, you need some sort of an authority to oversee it, with some sort of code. For comics. A comics code authority, if you will.

Yeah, that could probably work out really, really well.

Charles: Valerie, to your point about how those specific moments in the books you cited turned you off to the entire experience—while I might disagree about the relative quality of those titles, I can completely understand where you’re coming from. They provide a jolt when you’re reading the books but an unintended one, more of a “why is this here and who is this for” kind of thing. Alex, you mention some of the stories you were interested in as a kid, and I would argue the reason you were drawn to those mature stories (no scare quotes needed here) was because Wolverine’s crucifixion and the Havok/Madelyne affair, or let’s say “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” or “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” or even some of the really solid bits of “Knightfall,” even, reflected the culmination of narrative threads—in each case the writers had built up to the shocking elements and they didn’t just materialize in the middle of a story or start one off.

Alex, I don’t think anyone is proposing that it’s a binary choice between all-ages comics or so-called “mature” works—there’s a vast gulf between the two extremes. And while up to this point, I’ve been talking specifically about ineffective, rote storytelling and how that, in particular, has disappointed me about the New 52 (and really, DC’s approach since around the time of Identity Crisis). If we’re talking about targeting readers, then to both yours and Valerie’s points, I think it’s simply a matter of a more honest ratings system on the books similar to the descriptive ESRB classifications for games in lieu of the say-nothing style ratings which are currently used (I dare anyone to tell me the difference between a “T” and “T+” rating). Alex, I’m not sure if you were taking a dig at bringing back something like the code, but yeah, the previous one was a reactionary tool for restricting content, but I think an industry-wide—and this is essential—transparent set of ratings would be a clear and easy way of informing readers (and some young readers’ parents) what they’re buying.

Reading over what we’ve written so far, I realize we’re having a couple of different conversations—about the kinds of books we want to see, about how they’re being positioned and marketed to readers, and maybe even broadly, what kinds of books should be published (I suspect we’d all agree nearly any and everything there’s an audience for). But I think all three of those threads come down to how comics are perceived by the large majority of the population that don’t read them, and then the discussion becomes very simplistic: either comics are just for kids or comics—ahem, “graphic novels”—are mature and artful. They still remain trapped in the place video games have been in for years, grasping at legitimacy and still looking to prove they have the same diversity of film or television.

Valerie: Yes, there are definitely more “adult” and shocking scenes in the comics I remember from when I was a kid -- moments of startling violence, and to a lesser extent, sex, that seemed to come out of nowhere in a comic that both kids and adults could enjoy. And some of these were very well-done. I’m bringing to mind the “Terror of Trigon” saga in the New Teen Titans from the mid-1980s, by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. There are some extremely gory sequences within this arc, including an evil version of Changeling eating Cyborg’s heart out of his chest. These sequences scared and shocked me -- though I also wouldn’t say, as Alex put it, that it ruined life for me as a kid.

Reading this Teen Titans arc in trade paperback form today, it still works for me. Entertained me as a kid, entertained me as an adult. Are classic books like this and stuff from the Chris Claremont run of the X-Men, which had its own very long list of sexual hangups and innuendo, influencing today’s comic writers? Is this what they are trying to bring back -- that at-times exhilarating frisson between the realm of childhood myths and legends and the gritty and ironic world of adulthood and “reality?” If so, why are some notes sounding sour, the unintended “why is this here and who is this for” jolt Charles referred to? And is it sounding sour for all readers, or just some? Are there younger readers (in their teens and Twenties, let’s say) to whom the scene of Catwoman and Batman making out or a select gory panel from Infinite Crisis has that same effect those aforementioned Teen Titans sequences had for me?

Or are many of these “primal scenes” from our comic book reading history painted, by default, with a brush of nostalgia that make them necessarily appear “better” than that which is being produced today?

But that is all about how I personally assess the quality and “extremity” of these current storylines. To the point Charles made regarding rating systems, I agree that a more “transparent” system may have to be put in place to inform parents exactly what their children might be reading, rather than the ratings that are in place now. Perhaps a comic can be rated “D” for dismemberment, or “I” for scenes of impalement, BXXX for suggested Batman snogging.

All joking aside, we don’t want to go back to the days of the Comic Book Code and all the subjectiveness contained therein -- but if comic book publishers want to indeed reach larger, newer, and younger audiences, I feel that some balance needs to be struck between giving readers that occasional “shock” panel and going over the line into WTF?! territory. And that, itself, is a highly subjective thing to determine, and thus no easy answers to be found there.

As for the future of comics, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict the younger/newer reader will become more and more and important and top-of-mind to the major publishers -- not just in terms of niche titles (Johnny DC, Marvel Adventures) aimed at their specific demographic, but the major flagship titles. Certainly, the new Justice League comic, so far, seems tailored for just that reader, as is the upcoming Avengers Vs. X-Men event. And so, in five years, we might be having another roundtable discussion on how publishers are making too many comics for the younger set, and not supporting non-superhero genre, “adult” comics and graphic novels. It all seems to be ultimately cyclical.

Alex Zalben: I don’t think I have a whole lot to add here, other than I agree with a lot of the points both of you made here. Particularly, some sort of industry-wide ratings system seems like an excellent idea, though also fraught with problems, as we’ve seen with movies in particular. And Valerie, I think your point about the way the industry is heading with the top tier titles is very apt as well. I think regardless, though, we can agree that if everything IS more All-Ages friendly in a couple of years? Fox News is STILL going to get it wrong. We’ll see you then.

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