PopMatters Comic Book Feature

by John Burnson


Code Blue

The Marvel Comics hero Nick Fury debuted in 1963 in the pages of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos depicting Fury’s WWII battles against the Nazis. The un-aging Fury has also lived through the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the Wars on Poverty, Crime, Drugs, and Cancer, the Thrilla in Manila, the Battle of the Network Stars, the Fight for Your Right to Party, and MTV’s “Deathmatch.”

And only NOW does he need to swear.

That’s the take-home message from Marvel’s recent decision to ditch the Comics Code Authority (CCA), the supervisory body of the comic book industry. In place of CCA approval, Marvel is creating its own in-house multi-layered rating system similar to that used for movies. And one of the three forthcoming titles on tap for Marvel’s harshest new rating is . . . Fury, starring none other than our old pal, Nick Fury. Comic book readers should just hope that Fury doesn’t cross the threshold into “partial nudity.”

Some history: The Comics Code Authority was the blood-drenched spawn of crusading psychiatrist Frederick Wertham, who, in 1954, published Seduction of the Innocent—reportedly his work made the amazing claim that comic books dim the minds of children. (This writer has not read the book in question, because it lacks pictures.) The 1950s being what they were, a Senate subcommittee was convened, comic books were distributed, and balding congressmen were alarmed. Questions arose. Like, did Dr. Mystery attend an accredited University? Why wasn’t Captain Entropy consumed by his own ray of decay? Was this Crimson Pinata the same one who fought in the 1930s? If so, how had he survived his encounter with Hatchethead?

Clearly, something had to be done. “Something” was the Comics Code Authority, an organization created by the comic book industry to police itself, sans flashy costumes. The stated aim of the Code was to keep our nation’s young people from degenerating into skateboard-riding sex fiends, and one has only to visit a shopping mall today to offer a prayer of thanks for their heroic vigilance. While the CCA was primarily concerned with portrayals of crime, horror, and sex, its edicts bed-hopped:

  • “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
  • “All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society.”
  • “Although slang and colloquialisms are acceptable, excessive use should be discouraged and wherever possible good grammar shall be employed.”
  • “Under no circumstances shall the Hulk ever, ever, be shown in damp swimming trunks.”

. . . well, perhaps not the last one, but you get the point. The Code is an iron fist in a sandpaper glove. One is surprised that they didn’t require the “S” on Superman’s chest to be scarlet.

Jump forward to the present. Marvel, trying to inject some life into their books, swaps out a few of their creative teams. In their boldest stroke, they install a pair of edgy indie creators at the helm of one of their X-Men spin-offs, X-Force. A script is received, art follows, and the completed issue is sent off to the CCA. A short time later, in a bunker somewhere in Virginia, a button is pressed, and every Marvel staffer experiences a searing pain in their loins. (For most staffers, this pain is unnatural.) A phone call is placed. The CCA demands changes to the book. Marvel refuses, kicks the CCA to the curb, and publishes X-Force with the tag: “Look Ma, No Code!”

Honorable? Possibly. But Marvel’s public row with the CCA, complete with bleatings about “the creative process” and “the great responsibility to our readers,” actually provided cover for Marvel concerning a more important—and more troublesome—movement. Marvel is succumbing to the “Sopranos syndrome”: a mindset that has taken hold among executives of the Big Three TV networks, that the only way to compete with cable is to match them vulgarity for vulgarity. Thus, an utterance of the s-word on Chicago Hope and shots of Dennis Franz’s ripe buttocks in NYPD Blue are trumpeted as the cathode ray tube’s finest hour. Meanwhile, over in Marvel Comics, the Invisible Woman vows to “[knock] Dr. Doom on his ass,” Peter Parker lets go a “Dammit!” or two (or three), and an X-Men villainess sticks her hand into a victim’s neck and out his eye sockets. Ironically, all these comics were submitted for a cavity check from the CCA, and the regulators didn’t even lift an eye from their girlie magazines—which just goes to show that the CCA was hardly the cosmic evil that Marvel depicted. (One suspects that X-Force was tripped up only by the nude hot tub scene. Really.)

At the heart of Marvel’s swan dive into the sewage lies a faulty premise—that people aren’t buying Marvel’s comics because they lack realism. News flash: The statistical correlation between realism and merit in an artistic work is nil. The demise of the G-rated offering for adults is one of the great losses of entertainment. Today’s movie studios would have been incapable of producing Casablanca without a topless scene from Ingrid Bergman and an entreaty from Humphrey Bogart to Sam to “Just play the f***ing song already!” And now Marvel has fallen in line.

This is not to say that great works of art cannot disturb, shock, or even offend. The complaint here is that some artists have embraced the converse notion—that only works of art that shock, disturb, or offend can be great. This is the bottle from which Marvel now swills. For example, here’s a description of Marvel’s new “PG+” rating: “Similar to Marvel-PG, but with a kick. In these titles you can generally find the violence and language turned up a notch.” Granted, there are Marvel books that beg to have their violence and language turned up a notch, but against the writers, not the characters.

Marvel does need a shot in the arm, but they’ve gotten hold of a dirty needle. The problem with Marvel’s books is not that they aren’t coarse enough—the appearance of Galactus’s cosmically moony posterior over the skies of New York City would mark the end of the world, indeed. No, the problem with Marvel’s books is that they aren’t good enough. Marvel made its reputation by telling stories of great drama and invention. Today, you could scrape all the drama and invention in Marvel’s books into a teaspoon and still see your reflection. Sure, there were brainless Marvel books under the CCA, but then they didn’t try to hide the incriminating CAT scans behind a stack of Chuck Norris films. Weak story-telling can’t be fixed by restoring the “F” to the writers’ keyboards or putting “areola orange” back on the colorists’ palettes.

Instead of caving to their baser impulses (a CCA no-no, by the way), Marvel should accept the challenge of providing comics—voluntarily—that live up to their historically high standards of decency. Marvel should grasp what network TV execs have come to appreciate: That network TV is a different niche than cable TV, not a lesser one, and that network TV has its own edge. Wind-up toys such as Survivor, Frasier, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would starve for attention amid the Playstations of cable.

Marvel should know better. Pick up any great Marvel comic from yesteryear, and somewhere on the cover you’ll spot the black-and-white brand of the CCA. In fact, one such book was already named: Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos. That book was breathlessly thrilling, riotously astonishing, and madly entertaining—and every issue was kissed by the probing pink tongue of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA isn’t the most adventurous date for the dance. But at least we know where it’s been.

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