Master Of The Obvious: Issue #48

Wed, June 28th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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On the Master Of The Obvious Message Board this past week, a subject came up that surfaces periodically, usually courtesy of comics shop owners.

A ratings system.

[A Scene from Preacher]
A scene from an early issue of Preacher, a comic which displays a mature audiences warning.
There's a continuing myth that ratings systems do a damn bit of good, and a persistent myth among some comics shop owners that a ratings system would miraculously solve all their problems and "bring kids back to comics" by somehow allowing shops to be safe havens for them.

This first became an issue in the mid-80s, when the burgeoning direct sales market was actively creating an audience for darker, more sophisticated content and themes than was previously common. A cabal of distributors and dealers (I don't need to name names; you know who you were) started pushing the concept of an industry-wide ratings system, and several publishers, perhaps seeing a market opportunity similar to when Archie Comics and DC Comics in the '50s quietly used the Comics Code to crush upstart EC Comics, started pushing for one as well. That this happened at exactly the time when comics talent was breaking away from old form and content and trying to explore new areas - and getting a lot of notice for it, something that particularly seemed to stick in a lot of craws - didn't strike many as coincidental. It was clearly an example of the "adultification-infantilization" thing I mentioned a couple weeks back; there was a sense of terror, as there is now in many ports, that comics might actually change.

Two good things came of this. The creative community rallied well enough (which isn't to say well, but when a dodo flies you don't complain that it didn't fly far or well) to stare down the mercantile end of the business, and, for a brief moment, there was the giddy sensation that we had enough power in the industry to matter. And we did because the very books being targeted by the ratings movement were those that were selling the best and getting the most attention, and the talent creating them was talent every company wanted on their roster. (Keep in mind that this was at a time when not only specific art but whole art styles, specifically Kevin O'Neill's, were being declared unfit, and some companies pushing a ratings system were simultaneously trying to market their comics as "not for children anymore." More on that in a moment.)

The other good thing was that I already wrote all about this back then, so I can just cannibalize myself now. The abbreviated version of my points:

Science fiction went through a similar "maturation" process in the late 60s, with similar hysteria over "sophisticated" (some would say dirty) material. Yet sf survived, and now you can walk into any bookstore in the country, not merely specialty stores, to see "naughty" and "clean" sf sitting side by side on shelves, and no one bats an eye.

The cleverer comics shops - and this isn't fantasy, I shopped at some of them when living in Los Angeles - not only paid attention to what they ordered, but designed their stores to ensure that comics not appropriate to children were not where children could get to them. One store had its checkout counter elevated to allow easy scan of the entire store, to easily see who was where. Comics shops are welcome to decide where to place certain material or whether not to carry it at all, but to demand a ratings system be instituted just because they can't be bothered to do their jobs properly is just laziness.

"Comics shops are welcome to decide where to place certain material or whether not to carry it at all, but to demand a ratings system be instituted just because they can't be bothered to do their jobs properly is just laziness."

Some have argued a ratings system would have no more effect on comics content than the movie ratings system had on movie. True, but we're so used to the movie ratings system now that we never consider the palpable negative effects it has had. Movies were harmed by the ratings system. When it was introduced in the late 60s, many fine movies began exploring more adult and "darker" themes (sound familiar?) in ways rarely approached since. The first X-rated film was MIDNIGHT COWBOY, hardly in the same category as THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES. But, for some reason, the MPAA registered all their ratings labels but X, leaving it for fringe filmmakers - read: the porn industry - to appropriate. Which quickly meant exhibitors, unless they ran porn houses, wouldn't take any X-rated films, meaning serious adult films (that was also the point when "adult" got appropriated by the porn industry, with "porn" and "adult" now synonymous) got shut out, forced to shave scenes to squeak into an "R" rating, which also weakened the "R" category. (The recent attempt to introduce an NC-17 rating for serious films that previously would have been X-rated was crushed when the religious right insisted it was simply a different name for X, and exhibitors, not wishing to take on the religious lobby, stepped back from NC-17 movies as well.) The ratings were directly responsible for the preponderance of teen pap that has afflicted cinema for the last 30 years, as ratings gave both bookers and viewers an easy ghetto to base decisions on rather than such insubstantials as content. It wasn't long before makers of PG films started adding smut to ensure a PG-13 rating, knowing that teenagers think PG too babyish and avoid it. Likewise R-rated movies have often been shaved to aim for that all-important PG-13 demographic. The ratings systems pretty much obliterated the G film altogether.

(Most people think the MPAA is staffed by professionals schooled in the determinant factors of the rating system, but, similar to the Comics Code and the day laborers it hires to find offense in comics, it's largely a minimum wage operation staffed by bored San Fernando Valley housewives, a group not commonly known for their open-mindedness or cinematic sophistication. Shocking Agnes from down the street with the sight of a gay kiss can land your film in straight-to-video hell.)

Ratings didn't defend against tripe in the film industry. Ratings pretty much ensured it. Even without a ratings system, companies have spent the last decade systematically bastardizing their comics in attempts to cash in on whatever happens to be the hot craze of the moment. (The fumbling when there isn't a hot craze, as in the current moment, is noticeable.) Given the way formerly "wholesome" characters were wholesale reconstructed to appeal to audiences of both the "grim'n'gritty" era and the subsequent Image era without regard for traditional audiences (which is to say: characters traditionally aimed at children were suddenly tarted up with a "dangerous" veneer to lure in people who actually spent money on comics), it's irresponsible to think publishers now especially hungry for consumer dollars won't manipulate all their comics into R-rated books if R-rated books are the top ten sellers. (Which is close to what we have today, and the astute retailer doesn't need a ratings system to tell him that.)

Creative issues aside, there are three technical problems with a ratings system.

Who will determine what content fits what rating? Community standards vary around the country. In the deep south in 1969, distributors wouldn't distribute a comic showing a Black Green Lantern. Should everyone in the country have been "protected" against it? (The southern distributors certainly thought so.) Do parties with some creative or financial interest in properties (and possibly creative or financial interest in repressing others), like publishers, pencilers, distributors, retailers - how about an end user or two? - make judgments, or should it be left to outsiders, like the Comics Code that banned Kevin O'Neill simply for drawing in a way they didn't like, who often have no knowledge or experience of comics and no real context for their decisions? Would there be an appeals process? And who would pay for it? (Assessing 2000 comics per month is a full time job for at least a dozen people, and, even without bureaucracy costs, that gets expensive. Unless we're back to uninformed minimum wage laborers, and even that wouldn't be cheap.) Publishers? Distributors, perhaps? How about all retailers chip in a piece of their profits every month? (Don't even think about asking talent to do it; that'd be like demanding political prisoners pay the costs of their own imprisonment.)

"Who will determine what content fits what rating? Community standards vary around the country."

How will we let prospective buyers know what it means? The Comics Code, when it was introduced, bought lots of ads in popular magazines to explain to parents the significance of the Code symbol. The MPAA did the same with their ratings system. It was suggested in 1986 that we simply adopt the familiar MPAA ratings, problem solved. Except the MPAA owns the trademark on those ratings and jealously protects them. Which means we'd have to create a whole new set of symbols. And put money and effort into educating a general populace as to their meaning. Again, who's going to pay for it? Are publishers supposed to front the costs of magazine and other ads to promote the ratings? Or are retailers willing to stand at their front doors and hand an explanation sheet to everyone who walks in? (Just that little complication would be enough to drive a lot of potential customers out. People want a pleasant experience when they go into stores, and every little bit of unpleasantness is one more potential lost sale.) What's the point of having a ratings system is the people who are supposed to be guided by it don't know what the hell it means?

Finally, who'd enforce it? A ratings system will only work if it's enforced on all publishers and all retailers; if that store down the street from you is successfully (meaning: profitably) selling comics from unrated publishers - and there are so many publishers now, many with profits so marginal that they couldn't justify the extra expense of a ratings systems regardless of their views about it, that the vast majority of publishers would stay out of it unless they had no other choice - your options are to lose customers to that store, sic the cops on it, or start carrying unrated comics yourself, which puts us back where we started. As was discovered in the 50s, when the DC-affiliated distributor ID (meaning, paradoxically, Independent Distributors) pressured its newsstands to only carry Code approved comics, the only entity that could actually enforce a ratings system would be Diamond, which holds basically a monopoly on comics distribution much as ID held in the 50s and 60s. (The reason Marvel published "double" books like STRANGE TALES and TALES OF SUSPENSE in the 60s was that ID enforced a limit on how much superhero product Marvel could put into competition with DC. As soon as Marvel switched their distribution to the Cadence Corp. in 1968, characters in double books quickly got their own titles and Marvel introduced a whole new crop of comics.) The only way to enforce a ratings system is if Diamond said they would not distribute comics that didn't subscribe to the ratings. Which would automatically sink many companies. Which major companies might not have a problem with.

But there's a legal term for this: prior restraint. It's illegal, and actionable. Diamond has also been subject to monopoly probes; such a coercion of the entire comics industry would almost surely trigger another.

Which brings us back to voluntary compliance. It's not going to work because too many won't or can't comply. Dealers could try to enforce a ratings system, but that would only last as long as they could bear the financial brunt of it, and there are many retailers who have no interest in a ratings system. Full voluntary compliance there isn't likely either.

"Dealers could try to enforce a ratings system, but that would only last as long as they could bear the financial brunt of it…"

The fact is that those companies that want ratings systems already have them, albeit in drag. DC divides its product into imprints: is there any retailer in America who thinks Vertigo titles and Cartoon Network titles are aimed at the same audience? I do think it would be helpful if companies listed content notices in their PREVIEWS blurbs, but if a retailer can't be bothered to keep track of what's what over the three month interval between ordering and stocking, I can't feel very sympathetic. It doesn't take much of an attention span to realize that LADY DEATH isn't aimed at the same audience as BETTY AND VERONICA.

How retailers deal with these things is their decision. When every retailer can decide for himself, foisting the decision on us is sheer laziness. Sorry.

There are retailers who are concerned with being bagged by cops or overzealous D.A.s seeking easy targets for selling "inappropriate" material to underage children. I'm sorry, but it's up the retailers to know what they're selling. Do you plan to go before a judge and say "Gee, I only let that 8 year old boy buy that pornographic comic because it was rated R"? Some people will find WONDER WOMAN criminally offensive, and ratings are no defense against them. They can, in fact, become red flags for those who are out to make trouble. A rating, particularly one that suggests anything other than squeaky clean 50s Disney wholesomeness, is a red flag. Those people don't care about ratings. (While there have been a few successful comics shop prosecutions - and persecutions - in the past 20 years, the vast majority have ended with egg all over the faces of preachers and politicians. Maybe it's not a good thing, but we're considered too easy a target. Statistically, political blocs seem to take a dim view of going after anything as marginal as comic books.)

Ratings are no defense against anything but laziness. And they're not much of a buffer against that.

So, the final word on ratings for comics: ain't gonna happen, and it's a good thing too. Live with it.

I don't know whether the holiday weekend affects it or not, but for AOL members there should be another Counter-X conference in the AOL Marvel chatroom this coming Monday, July 3, at 8 PM Eastern 5 PM Pacific. If it's on, I'll be there, and Brian (GENERATION X) Wood should be too, and maybe this time we'll manage to get Ian (X-FORCE) Edginton and Jason (Counter-X editor) online as well. I can't guarantee anything but keep your fingers crossed.

Those loonies over at PopImage are running a fairly lengthy interview with me, including a revelation I've never voiced in public before. Check it out.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What one comic book - you can choose one single issue and one run - that you bought in the last six months have you enjoyed the most? Why?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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