One Fan's Opinion: Issue #36

Fri, May 5th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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Censorship, or lack thereof.

Comics have, over the years, been censored -- either by others or on their own.

In the "Golden Age" of comics, some publishers started putting stamps in or on their comics proclaiming wholesome values.

But comics have tended to push the line in many ways right out of the gate. There were Sunday funnies that ran in the newspaper depicting topless native girls. You'd never be able to get away with that today, but the standards at the time were different.

In comics early days, it was not at all uncommon to have minorities depicted in bizarre and often racially offensive ways. Black character typically had inner tube lips, jet-black skin with little window shines on them, odd-shaped heads and they talked in an exaggerated minstrel manner. Asians had buckteeth as long as their ears, bright orange (or yellow) skin and topknots. During wartime, the Japanese were often drawn to look almost like gorillas (as were the Germans) -cue the cover of Air Fighters Comics #21 here -- and it was not uncommon to have offensive terms like "Japs" thrown around with no regard to anybody's feelings.

And then there were the ladies.

At some point somebody realized that sex sells and scantily clad females with ample bosoms became the order of the day. Jungle girls abounded. Potential victims cowered, hiding on the front covers of comics, headlights beaming. Phantom Lady's whole claim to fame was looking like a porn star with her impossibly perky Triple-D breasts as the star attractions to her book.

Then horror comics and crime comics came along, glorifying criminals and victimizing the weak -- among other things. Gore was a selling point as well, it seemed, and kids bought these things by the carload. Comics were blamed for everything from juvenile delinquency to hair loss.

And then came the comics code that cleaned up all that.

And publishers started censoring themselves and submitting their work to a group of censors who would tell them what was and what was not permissible.

And things swung too far, in some ways, in the other direction. With fear of offending or reprisal, everything was cleared up and whitewashed. If there were blacks or Asians they looked almost European. Sure, Asians were often colored Orange or yellow (the limited color pallets were to blame -- they simply could not come up with an approximate skin color given their limited available options -- this was really apparent when Shang Chi teamed up with the Thing and they both had the same skin color!), but their features looked like white male models with the exception of their slightly altered eyes. Women had cookie cutter figures. Only Aunt May, Big Ethel and Archie Andrews' mom strayed from the Barbie Doll norm.

Sigh.

But things have relaxed somewhat. And the Phantom Lady is back in all her glory.

Or so you'd think.

Because whenever things start to push the envelope once more, the censors rear their ugly heads. This time as vocal critics on the Internet. But they're not going after the horror books this time -- no, not yet.

It's the ladies.

The Phantom Lady's only distinguishing characteristics are her ample cans. That's pretty much all she has going for her. Ditto Power Girl. To tone them down is to strip them of their identities. And frankly, that's what they're supposed to look like! It's not a situation where an artist took Catwoman and distorted her to fit his fetishes -- these characters started out busty as all hell -- drawing them that way is drawing them right.

If you don't want the Barbi twins to look like the Barbi twins, don't use the Barbi twins.

Self-censorship is still censorship. Drawing a comic about the Barbi twins and having them have chests like Little Lulu because of a few balkers on the Internet strikes me as pretty cowardly.

Is that where we're all headed? Artists censoring themselves because of a few vocal whiners? Comics have always featured characters with impossible or near-impossible figures. Men in comics all have washboard stomachs and square jaws. I don't have a have washboard stomach and square jaw -- should I feel justified in calling for more heroes with spare tires, double chins and thinning hair? Should all women in comics be plain or homely because some real women find attractive comic book characters threatening or offensive?

I've gotten letters -- not a lot, mind you, but some -- calling for characters to be toned down or even killed off. I try (as best I can) to show a whole range of characters from thin to thick and all over the place.

A lot of black characters in comics are black in skin tone only. Their features are European and while there are black people that do look like that, not all black people do. Again, I'll have a range. Nobody's as exaggerated or offensive as Ebony or Steamboat with their inner tube lips and window shines on their ink black, skin but not everybody looks like a white man colored brown either.

The Disney movie "Mulan" featured a number of characters that could be considered offensive if they had been removed from the context of that movie and shoehorned into the pages of "Blackhawk." In the context of the movie, however, they fit in just fine because they provide contrast with some of the more heroic looking Asians. It's an enjoyable film and I'd highly recommend it.

Should it have been censored? Should all the characters have to look like John Wayne playing (shudder) Genghis Khan?

(I recently saw the movie "The General Dies At Dawn," and it was interesting to note that white actors played the only offensive Asian stereotypes in it. The genuine Asians in the picture all talked with perfect English. But I digress…).

If every comic book woman looked like the Phantom Lady I think there would be a serious cause to complain, but we all know that that is not the case -- just as we all know that somewhere out there, there are women that exist that do look like that (they just don't live anywhere near me).

I don't think everybody should censor their work and redesign characters to suit a vocal minority. If those people don't want to support books, which feature characters that they find objectionable, they should buy something else. You vote with your wallet in this business, after all.

When Wednesday rolls around again and fresh new comics are on the stands, I encourage you to get out there and vote!

And I'm not saying we should all make a serious effort to offend people. I would never suggest such a thing, but I find the notion that black character aren't allowed to look black and Asian characters aren't allowed to look Asian equally offensive.

Let Power Girl look like Power Girl and Little Lulu look like Little Lulu (and if you haven't been buying Dark Horse's reprints of the classic Little Lulu comics, you're missing out on some excellent kids' comics, by the way -- if you know a kid that you'd like to encourage to read, you can't do much better than handing him or her one of those volumes).

A decade or more back, Larry Stroman and Todd Johnson came out with a book at Image called "Tribe." Now, I loved "Tribe." It was chronically late and my partners voted to give it the boot because of that but, I was quite fond of the book. I even let the guys borrow my character Savage Dragon when they started up their own publishing company.

One of the cool things about "Tribe" was that it had a diverse cast of characters, mostly black, that looked different from those found in most other comics. Stroman even dared to have a black girl with a big fat ass and in a comic book, that was unheard of. Sure, in reality you see it all the time, but in comics? Never! Black women in comics are built like white women in comics who are built like Asian women in comics. But in "Tribe," that one character dared to be different and I found it refreshing (so much so that I created my own character with a similar build -- maybe we can start a trend).

In the real world people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and some of them are beautiful and some aren't, but there's an incredible variety there. I'd like to see more diversity in comics and less cowardice. Everybody doesn't have to look like the same boy and girl with slightly different heads. Women can be fat and skinny and busty and not so busty and everything in between. Men can look any number of ways. It's okay for white characters to look white and black characters to look black and Asian characters to look Asian and Latino characters to look Latino and every possible variation.

I'm not suggesting we return to the days of Ebony and Chop-Chop, but I don't think it's unreasonable for people to work in some variety in there. Not every character in comics needs to look like Steve Rogers or Veronica Lodge.

But that's just one fan's opinion -- I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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