Master Of The Obvious: Issue #95

Wed, May 23rd, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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[Comics Code Authority]We've become an industry built on anticlimax, which is a big part of our problem, and this is abetted by a gosh-wow mindset now institutionalized in what passes for a comics press. It focuses attention strictly on veneer, which has become pretty much all the business tries to sell anymore. Not that there isn't a substantial portion of our (remaining) audience whose only real interest in comics is veneer, and that's okay – pay your money and you can take anything you want from comics – but if you're claiming to be a professional of any sort in this business, that's just not good enough. It's a reason so many people grew disgruntled with comics; they wanted solid oak and we keep offering them varieties of pressboard and formica. We've got a press that puts who's the guest star in next month's GREEN LANTERN on an equal footing with who really has the right to use Miracleman, and virtually nobody goes digging into issues of the business of comics until they're thrust in their faces. (Of course, this isn't restricted to the comics press. In the wake of the StanLee.Net collapse, former "consultant" Peter Paul has been trying to rehabilitate his reputation by blaming the company's financial collapse and reputed chicanery on those who took over after his departure, but no one to my knowledge has yet asked Paul what the financial shape of the company was before his departure, even though it seems a totally obvious question.) Which is why muckraker venues like THE COMICS JOURNAL and SPLASH feel like lifelines most of the time. SPLASH may be the most important news outlet in the field, regularly tracking financial and business information most other news outlets ignore. (Unfortunately, in the Internet age, the lag time on magazines like The Journal cripples the timeliness of their information; fortunately, they have depth to fall back on.)

This week's big anticlimax was Marvel bailing out on the Comics Code Authority.

Why anticlimax? It's been thirty years in the making.

In April of 1971 I was tooling around Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado on a high school anthropology class field trip. Memories, memories. A bunch of us dropped acid right before stopping for a smorgasbord lunch in some Amarillo Texas restaurant on Easter Sunday. (Some geriatric cowboy and his wife in their Sunday best getting out of one of those pick-up trucks with the plastic insert on the back and racks of rifles in the windows, eyeing us, and disgustedly saying, in the voice of Pat Haney on GREEN ACRES, "Hey, Murtha, where'd all thuh HIPPIES cum frum?" I swear they looked just like Ma and Pa Kent.) My first enchilada ever, in the Plaza Restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico (it's still there), and though I hadn't eaten in a day at that point one ultraspicy bite killed my appetite for another day. Our hotel room robbed while we were in it in Albuquerque. Standing at Four Corners and gazing on the sheer scenic wonder of the place, and climbing up to cliff dwellings. A bleeding rare filet mignon from beef right off the trail at the Frontier Restaurant in Cortez, Colorado. (Food was a big thing for me that trip; it was the first length of time I'd been away from home, and away from the cooking of my English mother, who didn't believe in spices or meat cooked any less than extra well done. In some aspects, that trip was the first time in my life I'd ever really tasted food.)

And on a several hour stay at some little bus station in Colorado waiting for a replacement bus after failing brakes almost took us over the side of an icy Rocky Mountain curve. At the bus station I picked up the latest issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, released in my absence.

That was the issue where Stan got jiggy with the youth drug problem, revealing Harry Osborne had developed a dependency on pills. Problem was: the Comics Code had a strict injunction against the portrayal of drugs in comics. (Never mind that the first Deadman story, out considerably earlier, revolved around heroin dealing - and prominently featured a crooked cop, another major Code no-no at the time... but that was DC's obscure STRANGE ADVENTURES, and this was Marvel's centerpiece.) Solution: in a move that shook the Comics Code Authority to its core, Marvel dropped the Code seal of approval from its covers for that issue and the remainder of the storyline.

And nothing happened.

Fire and brimstone didn't rain down from on high. The government, perhaps distracted by growing racial unrest and escalating domestic opposition to a distant unpopular war, didn't immediately convene a special session of Congress to wipe the scourge of comics from the face of the earth. And what was worst for the CCA, the issue was widely distributed on newsstands. Dropping the seal didn't hurt sales at all.

The seal was the cornerstone of the Code's power. When it first appeared, it was a guarantee to newsdealers the comics they stocked were fit for human consumption. When it first appeared, it was monstrous on covers. It was as tall as logos. By the early 60s, it was roughly the size of a standard 3 postage stamp. Now try finding it without a magnifying glass. It's there, but so insignificant it doesn't register. When, by the mid-80s, the vast majority of comics sales had shifted from newsstands to comics shops, there was no value left in the Code seal at all. Did anyone care? Does anyone outside comics (and by that I mean comics and hardcore fans, not even casual readers) even realize the Code or the seal exist? I'd be willing to bet that most modern newsdealers don't even know either exist. I dare you to find a parent not intimately associated with comics who knows. They know the brand names: Superman, Marvel, The Simpsons. They don't know anything about the internecine politics of the comics industry. They don't care.

And they probably didn't care in 1971. As proven, no one was going to not stock AMAZING SPIDER-MAN because it didn't have a Code seal. They won't not stock UNCANNY X-MEN now. Marvel could have pulled out of the Code in 1971. They could have pulled out in 1985. It wouldn't have affected their business at all. It wouldn't have affected the comics industry, except to weaken and perhaps destroy the CCA. As it was, just the thought of losing Marvel, combined with pressure from DC (which also felt the need to "get relevant," which meant a lot of 50s strictures had to go by the wayside), sent the CCA into a revisionist panic. And pretty soon it was okay to show zombies and werewolves, and heroin-filled syringes on your covers (just as long as no one was actually sticking one in his arm). Crooked authority figures abounded. An issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA even implied Richard Nixon was leader of the evil Secret Empire that planned to overthrow the nation and that got a CCA sticker. GK Chesterton said "Any idea incapable of being expressed in language is an inept idea, and any language incapable of expressing that idea is an inept language." Any Punisher story capable of getting a Code seal is an inept Punisher story, and any Code Authority capable of putting the Code seal on a Punisher story is an inept Code Authority.

So saying Marvel's quit the CCA now is... okay, on one hand it's big news but on the other it's a little like announcing you've woken up in the middle of the night and decided to take your socks off. The real question isn't why you're taking your socks off, it's why you waited until the middle of the night. And why everyone else in the bed is still wearing socks.

So of course I've received numerous requests for my opinion on the Marvel/CCA split, many filled with suggestions of grim repercussions for comics as a whole. What grim repercussions? Surely we're not waving the black flag of a government/religion sponsored purge again?

There is no down side to this development.

No one is going to rain holy hell down on our heads if the CCA vanishes.

I've heard people tremblingly fear that Marvel will instill its own in-house code far worse than anything the CCA could have imagined. I suppose it's possible, but it's illogical. I've heard it suggested this is a strictly moneysaving move by Marvel, but in the face of millions in debt, $5000 per year plus $35/comic (assuming Marvel publishes 50 comics per month, that's roughly $90,000 per year) is more than I usually make but hardly enough to turn the company's economics around. But even if Marvel did install their own draconian guidelines, so what? It's their company. Within the bounds of the law they can do what they want with their company. If Marvel were going draconian, they could easily have done that and stayed within the limits of the Code and we wouldn't be discussing this at all. With the influx of writers, in particular, weaned on Vertigo and independents taking the reins on Marvel's major projects, such a move would be intensely counterproductive. Not that Marvel's beyond stupidity, but that would be a bit too inane even for the comics business.

The only downside is if Marvel installs its own code and Diamond decides they have to counter with their own new code, and every other company in the business decides the only way they can counter Marvel is to go with Diamond. Now that has happened before, and no good came of it. But this case is completely different – Marvel's purchase of a distributor was a direct threat to Diamond while Marvel's departure from the CCA really means nothing to them - and as long as DC retains connections to the CCA (the company was instrumental in its formation in the '50s as well as in its use to drive rivals like EC out of the running) it won't happen.

And what most demonstrates the appalling true state of the industry is that Marvel dropping the CCA is not only applauded as a bold move, it is a bold move. In terms of our business, it is> a bold move, and that's truly sad. Not that Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas don't deserve a big round of applause for the action (they do – thanks, Joe and Bill – and now if we can only get DC to encore) but that we're even having this discussion in 2001 is truly sad.

Meanwhile, most missed the real industry story of last week: the revelation (thanks, SPLASH) that Marvel's money problems are worsening and their trademarks and copyrights are all in hock to CitiBank. That's something that could have severe repercussions for Marvel and the comics industry.

The Comics Code is history, and has been for decades. Get used to it. It's not often Marvel unilaterally does the right thing, but when they're right, they're right. Way to go, Bill and Joe.

While I'm busy slurring comics reporters, I should mention that most of the basic information on Marvel's CCA departure came from Newsarama which has survived the fall of Fandom.Com and a shift to a useful new format at Comicon.Com to remain a valuable resource for breaking news. I've found it helps to think of them as an hourly radio news report, and at that they're pretty good.

I've also been meaning to recommend, for the sake of anyone visiting the Las Vegas area, a shop called The Batcave. It's a labor of love for a couple of longtime comics fans, and it shows, with a pleasant storefront and a huge selection. They used to be located around the University District but recently moved down to my neighborhood, so if you're in town, take the I-215 to the Eastern Ave. exit and head south (that's away from the Strip) until you see a Target shopping center on your right (it's got other stores, like an Office Depot and a Krispy Kreme). Pull in, and the Batcave is there, nestled in along the left side of Target. Tell 'em I sent you. (I'm also told Alternate Reality, at 4800 S. Maryland Pkwy, is a happening place, but I haven't had a chance to get there yet.)

Closet cleaning time again, with three differences. I'm going through E-Bay, I've got PayPal now, and none of the books are mine. (Well, I own them but I didn't write them.) In other words, I've decided to reflect the shift from pamphlets to trade paperbacks on my own bookshelf.

I should mention all of these are in excellent condition. Not pure mint, but in most cases you'd never know the difference. And mmmm-mmm, that's good readin'. (Wrestling fans should also look for: PRO WRESTLING TORCH YEARBOOKS 1990 and 1993, PRO WRESTLING TORCH ANNUALS 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and the WRESTLING OBSERVER 1990 YEARBOOK. All super-rare.) The auction starts now.

Firming up my new company, Paper Movies. Look for the Paper Movies website to be up soon with more information. (Don't bother going there; nothing's on it yet.) In the meantime, I've also taken a tip from Warren and opened a discussion forum on Delphi called GRAPHIC VIOLENCE - use your imagination and clock in with your views on popular culture, politics, etc. Meanwhile...

A number of people have expressed interest in an e-mail comics writing school. So the next question is: how much would you be willing to pay for such a thing? What would you expect in it? This is probably something you should e-mail directly to me instead of posting on the boards.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what one comic that you've ever read in your life still gives you the most kick when you go back and read it now? (This can be either a single issue or a run of issues of a specific comic.) What lessons do you think today's comics could take from the comic?

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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